When the Jake Gyllenhaal–led Road House remake has its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in March, director Doug Liman won’t be part of the festivities. As Liman outlined last month in a column for Deadline, he’s boycotting his own premiere over Amazon’s decision to release Road House straight to streaming. “Contrary to their public statements, Amazon has no interest in supporting cinemas,” Liman wrote. “Amazon asked me and the film community to trust them and their public statements about supporting cinemas, and then they turned around and are using Road House to sell plumbing fixtures.”
Liman is certainly entitled to be pissed off—the whole column is well worth a read—especially when Road House was initially set up at MGM Studios before the company was acquired by Amazon in 2022. That same year, Amazon announced plans to spend $1 billion annually on films that would be released in theaters. To a degree, Amazon held up its end of the bargain in 2023: movies like Air and Saltburn were available in cinemas before premiering on Prime Video. The problem is that Amazon releases far more films—Red, White & Royal Blue; Totally Killer; Candy Cane Lane; and so on—that never receive a theatrical release and risk getting lost in the shuffle. (Even Saltburn had only a limited run in cinemas before going to streaming.)
Frankly, if any movie is worth seeing on the big screen, it’s the UFC-themed remake of an ’80s cult hit from the director responsible for The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow. (I’ll project Road House on the side of my apartment building if I have to.) But Liman’s public dustup with Amazon is also emblematic of the big-picture anxieties around the future of cinemas in the streaming age. To that end, Netflix is so adamant on prioritizing streaming that the company’s head of film, Scott Stuber, is leaving after seven years at the helm—a decision influenced in part by co-CEO Ted Sarandos’s refusal to give any of Netflix’s films a full theatrical release. But in the past year, one streamer has pulled a 180 and embraced the theatrical experience. For now, at least, Apple has emerged as an unlikely haven for auteur-driven blockbusters.
Since launching in November 2019, Apple TV+ has prioritized quality over quantity when it comes to its original programming. The company’s success rate is far from perfect, but in essence, Apple is trying to build its reputation the same way HBO did. That sentiment extends to the Apple Original Films banner, which made history in 2022 when the coming-of-age drama CODA became the first movie distributed by a streamer to win Best Picture. But if it feels like CODA almost immediately vanished from the cultural conversation, it might have something to do with the film’s nonexistent theatrical push. In fact, CODA had such a limited run in cinemas that Apple didn’t disclose its box office numbers; Deadline estimates that the movie grossed as little as $500,000 prior to its big Oscar win.
Apple’s film strategy was meant to entice people to sign up for the streamer, but the downside is that even a Best Picture winner will barely make a ripple in the zeitgeist without a meaningful presence in cinemas, especially when all data points to Apple TV+ having far fewer subscribers than its competitors. (Did you know Tom Hanks wrote and starred in Greyhound, Apple’s well-received Dad Blockbuster about a Navy commander tasked with defending Allied ships from German U-boats? Exactly.) Now, Apple is leaning in the opposite direction: Like Amazon, the company has pledged to spend $1 billion annually on movies that will be released in theaters. And if you want to show people you mean business on the big screen, there’s no better statement of intent than footing the bill for Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, based on David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same name, Scorsese covers a harrowing period in American history known as the Reign of Terror, during which members of the Osage Nation were systematically killed by perpetrators seeking to inherit their wealth. It’s the kind of movie you rarely see from a major studio these days, least of all when it comes with an eye-popping budget of $200 million. (Killers of the Flower Moon was originally set up at Paramount, but soaring production costs led Apple to finance the project.) While Killers of the Flower Moon ended up grossing just north of $155 million, Apple has a different metric for success that isn’t reliant on box office receipts. (And for what it’s worth, earning more than $155 million is no small feat for a film covering such grim subject matter over a 206-minute running time.) Killers of the Flower Moon has since been nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, while demonstrating how Apple can fill the void for filmmakers who may struggle to get certain kinds of movies made in the current studio landscape.
In that spirit, Apple’s next major theatrical release was Napoleon, Ridley Scott’s historical epic about the infamous French emperor, as played by Joaquin Phoenix. While the critical reception to Napoleon was more mixed, the film ended up crossing the $200 million threshold at the box office, an impressive achievement in and of itself. (The movie also scored three Oscar nominations.) With the release of Napoleon, Apple added to its burgeoning reputation as an auteur-friendly streamer that treats theatrical distribution as an essential part of its strategy. Which leads us to Apple’s third blockbuster heading to cinemas: Argylle.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, the Kingsman franchise), Argylle centers on Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), the author of a popular spy series who gets roped into the world of actual espionage when her books continue to mirror real-life events. It’s a star-studded film—Howard is joined by the likes of Henry Cavill, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Catherine O’Hara, Bryan Cranston, John Cena, Ariana DeBose, and Dua Lipa—and has been the subject of rampant internet speculation over the true identity of the author behind the Argylle novel that was published last month as a companion piece. (In short: Some people have latched onto the galaxy-brained idea that Taylor Swift wrote Argylle under a pen name; she almost certainly didn’t.)
While it’s fun to go down the rabbit hole of Argylle theories—the real Agent Argylle was the friends we made along the way—the experience of watching the film is, uh, less so. Overlong, tonally jarring, and loaded with some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen in a modern action movie, Argylle is an absolute slog to sit through—a painful reminder that Vaughn hasn’t put out a half-decent film in a decade. (Is this really the same filmmaker who made Stardust?) But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the fact that an original tentpole like Argylle exists to begin with, or how audiences will experience it. If Argylle is Apple’s version of The Gray Man—an underwhelming blockbuster with a shockingly high price tag—at least it’ll make an impression in theaters before heading to streaming. (Just don’t say I didn’t warn you that it’s a dumpster fire.)
Of course, that’s the movie business for you: No studio or streamer is immune to duds. But it’s encouraging that Apple is committed to the theatrical experience for its buzziest films, which, in the years to come, will include Joseph Kosinski’s untitled Formula 1 film starring Brad Pitt, and Wolfs, a psychological thriller headlined by Pitt and George Clooney. (In a hilarious twist, Apple will also be the home for The Instigators, the next feature from … Doug Liman. It’s yet to be announced whether The Instigators will score a full theatrical release, but if Apple doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of a scathing column, the company should give it one.)
At the same time, it’s important to remember that Apple isn’t doing all of this out of the goodness of its heart: The company is in the business of promoting a streaming service, and ensuring blockbusters get a proper run in cinemas is a great way to attract top talent. There’s no guarantee that Apple will stick to this strategy in the long run, or that the company won’t butt heads with creatives the way Amazon has. But in the meantime, Apple has transformed into a viable alternative to Hollywood’s major studios—and is taking a bite out of its competition.