Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Bottomless Budget Without Bottomless Scenes

Ben Smith, of the New York Times, reporting on how Tim Cook personally intervened to stop production of a show about a lightly-disguised Gawker:

But Hollywood is now firmly in the grip of giant companies with singular leaders — Mr. Cook and Apple; Amazon and its chief executive, Jeff Bezos; the Netflix C.E.O. Reed Hastings; and AT&T’s top executive, John Stankey — with big consumer brands and other pressing priorities, like their lucrative other businesses and their access to international markets.

So far, Apple TV+ is the only streaming studio to bluntly explain its corporate red lines to creators — though Disney, with its giant theme park business in China, shares Apple’s allergy to antagonizing China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services, who has been at the company since 1989, has told partners that “the two things we will never do are hard-core nudity and China,” one creative figure who has worked with Apple told me. (BuzzFeed News first reported last year that Mr. Cue had instructed creators to “avoid portraying China in a poor light.”)

This is an article that is purportedly about Apple’s streaming media ambitions, but is really about control in the broader world of mass media. And that is where, I think, Smith’s narrative becomes more complicated. Let’s start with that first part from the section I quoted:

But Hollywood is now firmly in the grip of giant companies with singular leaders […]

Is it true that these companies have “singular leaders”? Does Hastings frequently intervene in decisions about what shows and movies Netflix is producing? Quite the contrary, according to a recent article in the Economist that explores the company’s hands-off management style. What does this sentence mean — other than that these companies have well-known CEOs?

Furthermore, how can it be true that media companies have singular figureheads only “now”? Disney — a company named after the two brothers that founded it and defined its philosophy and style — was steered through its ’90s renaissance by the famously controlling Michael Eisner. The Fox media company is an extension of Rupert Murdoch. I can’t name any Universal Pictures executives off the top of my head, but Hollywood’s biggest studios are no stranger to the idea of a recognizable and involved figurehead.

Also, far from only Apple and Disney being worried about censorship by Chinese officials, it seems that most Hollywood studios are caving to demands. All studios have their own sensibilities about what they will and will not release, too; for example, that is why Disney created Touchstone Pictures.

But Smith posits that Cook’s intervention combined with the product placement of Apple’s products is unique:

And Apple’s willingness to sacrifice creative freedom for corporate risk management is still an outlier. None of my reporting suggests that Mr. Bezos is reaching into Amazon’s studio (or The Washington Post) to kill negative depictions of either e-commerce or the police, or that Mr. Stankey is ostentatiously slipping AT&T routers into “Lovecraft Country.” The question, of course, is how long, even at those companies, the old law will be suspended — that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Even with the handful of things I enjoyed in its first year, I still think it is very strange for Apple to be making movies and television shows. I think I get the strategy, and media has long been funded by businesses with bigger pockets — beverage companies, telecommunications firms, and advertisers of all sorts. But it also means that Apple carefully walks a line between creative expression and business risks, and it will continue to face controversy from both angles as it builds its media library.

Still, Apple has built a studio with virtually unlimited budgets and an eye for detail. It may be exercising significant control over projects, but that seems to be broadly standard practice these days among the bigger studios, new and old. Apple’s efforts means that there is one more media company that could pass on a project; it also means there is one more media company that could say yes.