If you are to believe the amount of praise being thrown at the legendary feet of Martin Scorcese and the equally storied cast and crew of those who made KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, this weekend’s attempt to take back the theatrical movie industry from upstart concert films, the 2024 Academy Awards results are a fait d’accompli. Whenever that happens.
And indeed, the reviews from both pros and laypeople have been exemplary. Exactly as the folks at Apple TV+ planned it, I’m sure, when they agreed to pick up some of the tab that it takes nowadays to get the likes of someone like Scorcese, Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio to recreate 1920s Oklahoma in such painstaking glory and detail and meticulously tell the compelling and still relevant story of how the greed of a so-called “Kingmaker” (DeNiro) and the allure of Big Oil betrayed so many of the once-rightful claimants to the wealth found on Osage Nation property. Nope, no Jed Clampetts to be found here.
While the Osage Nation itself is wealthy as a result of this true story from a century ago, first told in David Grann’s 2017 book, the immediate aftermath of their wealth produced a crime story worthy of the talents of those who have depicted more modern examples, typically in their beloved New York, that these three have told so many times before in their combined century-plus of theatrical experience. As ROLLING STONE’s Sean Woods offered last week:
Grann paid a visit to Oklahoma and the Osage Nation in 2012. He found himself in the local museum looking at a big panoramic photo of the Osage tribe and some white settlers. But a panel was missing from the photo; he asked the museum director Kathryn Red Corn why. “I’ll never forget what she said,” Grann recalls today. “She pointed to the missing section and said the devil was standing right there.”
Grann says Red Corn then went down to the basement and showed him the missing piece, which had William K. Hale peering out from the corner. Hale was one of the architects of a brutal chapter in history known as the Osage Reign of Terror. (Robert De Niro plays Hale in the new Martin Scorsese movie, and gives a subtle, classic, and deeply creepy performance.) The crimes took place in the 1920s when the tribe, newly flush with wealth from the discovery of oil on its territory, faced a brutal series of murders, many of which were never solved.
Between DiCaprio’s reported $30 million price tag, the $15 million reportedly earmarked for turning modern-day Pawhuska, Oklahoma into a historically accurate working set, and the likes of ensemble talent like John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser and Lily Gladstone on board because, as we know, no one that considers themselves a true actor would turn down the chance to work for Marty, not to mention COVID-related delays, this is a $200 million film that hit theatres this weekend, in advance of an eventual Apple TV+ release.
It’s important to note that the negotations for the rights to this went down in 2019, around the time that Scorsese’s THE IRISHMAN was earning accolades for Netflix, on the heels of its winning Best Foreign Language Film Of The Year for ROMA, not insignificant for a global media platform. So as Apple was in the midst of rolling out ATV+ and trying to establish its quality brand, what better way to do so than to poke a finger in Crying Teddy’s eye and grab Scorcese’s next sure-finner winner, right? Besides, everyone else was spending money like water, and Apple’s got more of it than most city’s reservoirs. They had every justification to chase their own Best Picture Oscar.
But since then, especially in recent months, the entire streaming industry has come under greater scrutiny. Apple, like Amazon, is a bit less vulnerable to these issues, considering their content business is a de facto side hustle. And they’ve been fairly restrained, sometimes to a fault, at the quantity they have available to their subscribers, as well as more controlled in both the price (currently $6.99 a month) and amount of increases they charge them.
And, ironically, just last year Apple indeed did become the first streaming platform to actually win a Best Picture Oscar, with CODA, a $25 million acquisition, taking the honors. CODA didn’t have the depth of talent that a Scorcese brings to the table, but it does call to question whether spending eight times as much will eventually make sense.
And, sure enough, THE ANKLER’s Sean McNulty this morning unpacks the math attached to this past weekend’s results in the kind of meticulous detail that even a Scorcese could appreciate. Key points included:
Killers of the Flower Moon: $23 Million ($44 Million global)
- Pretty good number considering only the director could actively promote it (although APPLE did put the on the Marketing buys this week).
- 53% said they attended the pic due to Scorsese.
- 48% for the plot.
- 36% said Leo was a factor for them.
- In the dead center of tracking.
- A- Cinemascore
- 44% were under 30 years-old . So much for Gen Z and the attention spans.
Is this a profitable business investment for APPLE ? No.
- A $200 million budget is a $200 million investment, and no matter how you cut it – this movie is not making anywhere near $400 million at the box office.
- AND: It also will likely not make any licensing widow $$ like studio pics do (#DuneOnNETFLIX), given APPLE hasn’t licensed any of its originals to date to other services/networks.
- Curious to see if this even hits PVOD.
BUT: Going theatrical is a far better business proposition for APPLE vs. just making the pic avail on APPLE TV+ exclusively.
- Let’s say this hits $180 Million global (a sizable if… but let’s believe in cinema!). That’s roughly $100 Million of revenue after movie theater splits.
- Assuming what… maybe a 20% distribution fee to PARAMOUNT (or perhaps a little less ), leaves about $80 Million for APPLE.
- $80 Million / $7 APPLE TV+ subscription = 11.4 Million people would have had to sign up for APPLE TV+ globally to watch this movie to replicate this revenue #unlikely.
Besides, you don’t do business with Scorcese unless it goes into theatres first. As he has said so many times, he believes that big movies deserve the big screen experience.
Except that there are fewer that actually do share that sentiment that are in a position or mindset to do that these days. And as McNulty concludes, assuming that the current trajectories don’t crater, this may not be seen in the most positive light even if a whole lot of hardware comes its way:
Dropping roughly -$120 Million for “brand halo” is quite a write-off, so evaluate that as ya like.
- And yes, I know… APPLE has $120 Million just lying around in the lobby up in Cupertino, but to give APPLE a pass on this as “it’s worth it for the brand” is just weak.
- This just in – WBD added, “Uh yes! That’s exactly how we are evaluating our Blue Beetle losses! You guys just don’t understand business.”
- And UNI – “Can we get in on this with The Exorcist too?”
That’s not exactly the kind of company any media company wants to be keeping these days.
So, sure, DeNiro will gladly accept the kind of praise being bestowed on him for what may be his latest Best Actor nomination, such as what RogerEbert.com’s Brian Tallerico penned:
De Niro gives one of the best performances of his career as a man who prefers to be called “King,” rivetingly capturing the kind of sociopath who can sell murder with a smile. He doesn’t stab you in the back. He looks you in the eyes as he does it.
And Apple will gladly take being associated with the kind of insights that Woods quoted Grann offering that brings the relevance of this movie squarely into today’s world:
It’s partially an origin story for an industry that helped shape the nation, but it doesn’t seem like the companies tried to put a stop to the violence…
Yes. In the case of the Osage, it’s important to mention many of the oil barons who were getting extraordinarily wealthy from these leases to drill in Osage territory. Many of the names familiar to us first made their fortune in these lands: the Getty and Sinclair families, and the Phillips brothers from Conoco. While I never found any evidence directly implicating any of them in murders, what was very striking to me is that during the Osage Reign of Terror, I could not find any record of them ever commenting. These murders couldn’t be ignored. There was a bombing in the middle of town. The oil barons were still attending these auctions to bid on leases. So at a very minimum, they were complicit in their silence while they were getting extraordinarily wealthy.
But, as McNulty reminds, a $120 million “writedown” for a defacto insurance policy on a coveted award that you’ve already won, and a brand continually being propped up by IPhone 15 Pros and pending $3495 headsets, isn’t exactly looked upon as best practices. And if SAG-AFTRA does indeed succeed in their demands for a piece of everyone’s action regardless of how many subscribers actually watched, the likelihood for the appetite of something like for Apple’s competitors will diminish still further than what many fear will be a significant reduction of scripted TV series that the WGA agreement is already being sourced as causing, with many projects and deals being aborted in the wake of that settlement.
And, sadly, Scorcese and DeNiro aren’t spring chickens any more, and neither has shown an appetite to work beneath their pay grade.
So if you do get around to seeing KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, and all indications are you should at some point, bear in mind that at least it’s not $200 million being spent on yet another superhero movie and/or franchise installment. Enjoy it, whether you’re in a theatre or watching on your IPad. There may not be many more of these kinds of epics forthcoming.
Until next time…