Apple spending $1bn on TV production - how much on Final Cut Pro X post?

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple will spend $1 billon on making its own TV content over the next year:

Combined with the company’s marketing clout and global reach, the step immediately makes Apple a considerable competitor in a crowded market, where both new and traditional media players are vying for original shows. Apple’s budget is about half of what Time Warner Inc.’s HBO spent on content last year, and on par with estimates of what Amazon.com Inc. spent in 2013, one year after it announced its move into original programming.

Apple could acquire and produce as many as 10 television shows, according to the people familiar with the plan, helping fulfill Apple Senior Vice President Eddy Cue’s vision of offering high-quality video, similar to shows such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” on its streaming-music service or possibly a new, video-focused service.

Given that post production costs on feature films and high-end TV usually amount to 1-3% of total budgets, that means around $10-30 million will be spent on picture editing, sound editing, compositing and mastering.

How much of that $10-30 million will be spent on Final Cut Pro X-based workflows?

How prescriptive will Apple be?

Judging from recent success in TV production, the trick that HBO, Netflix and Amazon have mastered is to be less hands-on with the creative people involved. Their policy is to invest in people will proven track records and not to manage them too closely.

That means Apple are unlikely to be insisting that each TV show is as precisely designed and produced as an iPhone. They will not insist on Apple products and services being at the core of story ideas, or even being placed clearly on screen. This kind of thing would be instantly counter-productive.

Although what goes into the writing and on screen is unlikely to be influenced by Apple, that restriction might not apply to the aspects of production that viewers won't be able to judge. That means Apple could require that preproduction, production and post-production use a specific amount of Apple products, services and software.

Even Apple isn’t forced to use Apple

Today Apple doesn't force all suppliers and staff to only use Apple products and services. Marketing vacancies at apple.jobs.com include requirements that people know how to use Adobe products for which there are Apple equivalents. Some Apple TV commercials are not edited using Final Cut Pro X, some motion graphics are not created in Motion 5, audio post production is not limited to Logic Pro X.

Apple sensibly want to be able to work with the best people and suppliers - and not be limited to those that only use Apple products. On the other hand, Apple’s hardware, software and services teams proceed on the basis that what they make would be the best tools to make high-end TV and feature films. 

Train the talented in the tools you want them to use

There are two things Apple can do here: firstly, they need to improve their products to make them more suited for high-end production. Secondly, they could invest in the education aspects of the post ecosystem. Production companies who are required to use Final Cut Pro X to edit the next House of Cards or Stranger Things are likely to say: ‘There aren't enough editors, assistant editors, apprentices, post production supervisors and VFX producers who know Final Cut Pro X and its ecosystem.’

Oversupply is a requirement

The catch is that although there are some people in Los Angeles and New York who could be employed in these roles, they don’t have enough experience in high-end TV. The sad thing about TV and film production is that you need a whole ecosystem of people and suppliers who know a specific post system: so you can have the security of knowing you can fire individuals and drop companies when you want. Production company management techniques expect that kind of control over costs. That's working in the VFX industry is so tough - those paying the bills know that there is enough oversupply to keep them in a very good negotiation position.

Specific demands of commissioners such as Amazon are changing post workflows. They specify that shows that they fund must be made using a 4K workflow. In practice almost no-one will benefit from more pixels being streamed to their TVs at home, but Amazon consider 4K an important marketing distinction. But production companies will change their workflow in order to be in line for some Amazon money.

Apple are unlikely to require a Final Cut Pro X workflow. They could encourage its use by allowing production companies to get double the usual money for post budgets if they use Final Cut. Dangling that carrot won’t make adoption possible any time soon. $1bn of TV production makes around 10 big (‘Fargo’/‘The Walking Dead’-sized) shows per year. If the post production of five or six of these shows are done in Los Angeles, because of a lack of a Final Cut Pro X people and supplier ecosystem, I guess only two of those could be made simultaneously using a Final Cut-based workflow.

A few million on a big plan

As Apple is about to spend millions of dollars in Los Angeles with creative people, perhaps it is time for Apple to prime the Final Cut Pro X L.A. post production ecosystem: Train the trainers, plan the courses, do the marketing to post people, train experienced post people and generate case studies. Create the oversupply that makes producers feel like they have enough control.

There is time. TV show development takes months. While new Apple commissioning people make their plans and start working with talented people and production companies, there is time other Apple people can set about preparing a much bigger ecosystem to support production and post production using Apple hardware, software and services.

‘Negative cost’ Final Cut Pro X training

What could Apple do with $1m in Los Angeles? Pay experienced post production people to attend Final Cut Pro X training. For editors, assistant editors, VFX supervisors, VFX staffers, producers, writers, directors, reporters. Pay them their normal daily rates to be trained in what people their roles need to know about Apple’s Pro Apps.

Who needs to be convinced?

The argument isn't about ‘tracks vs. the magnetic timeline’ - it’s about money. All the talk of convincing post people to use Final Cut Pro X is a nice, kind way of doing things. The people who need convincing are those with the money. Post didn't move to Avid 20 years ago because it was better than film. The money people were convinced by the economics of computer-based editing, and ordered the post people to make the change.

Sorting the supply of people and third-party services is the start of this. The next stage is gathering the evidence of how much money will be saved. Once that happens, improvements in the magnetic timeline or the Final Cut Pro X version of bin locking will be irrelevant. Once it can be shown that a switch to Final Cut Pro X makes post twice as cheap and twice as flexible as any other method, that's when the switch will happen.

Time to for Apple start planning and make a big change in high-end post production.