With plenty of cash on hand and big ambitions in its growing services business, Apple perhaps could do just that -- but whether it will is a totally different question.
Apple shares are up 2.4% since Sept. 10, when the tech giant revealed its latest slate of iPhones along with more details TV+, Apple's much-anticipated streaming service. Apple announced that the service will cost just $4.99 per month, much less than expected, when it launches on Nov. 1. It's also offering one year free to customers who purchase any iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple TV.
To some investors, Apple buying up a Hollywood studio seems like a logical move. With $102 billion in the bank as of last quarter, Apple has the money. And when you stack up Apple TV+ against other streaming players, its content slate looks thin by comparison. There are more than 5,700 titles on Netflix (NFLX - Get Report) , according to the tracker Flixable, compared to a few dozen on Apple TV+ within the first year of launch. Disney (DIS - Get Report) has its own much-vaunted IP catalog -- which includes Marvel, Pixar, National Geographic, the Disney film library and others -- with hundreds of titles available on its Nov. 12 launch.
Wedbush analyst Dan Ives has suggested that Apple should buy up a major studio to round out its streaming ambitions, writing in a recent note that content is the "missing piece of the puzzle" for Apple.
"Our top M&A studio candidates that make the most sense/strategic fit for Apple would be in order: A24 Studio, Lionsgate, Sony Pictures, MGM Studios with long shots being CBS/Viacom and Netflix," he wrote on Sept. 15, also reaffirming a $245 price target for the stock. A purchase of Sony Pictures (SNE - Get Report) or Lionsgate (LGF.A - Get Report) , for instance, would give Apple a decent chunk of the overall studio market: According to the media intelligence firm Filmtake, Sony Pictures controls 10% of studio market share by total gross, and Lionsgate has 8%. (Disney is the largest player, at 35%.)
However, Apple's cash hoard and relative lack of wholly-owned content doesn't necessarily add up to a studio purchase, according to Dan Rayburn, principal analyst with Frost & Sullivan.
The reason? Apple's streaming plans -- and how they fit into its overall business -- are very different than those of Disney, Netflix, or other media giants such as AT&T's (T - Get Report) WarnerMedia. For one, its pricing and rollout plan are distinctive compared to other players: At $4.99 per month, Apple's streaming service is substantially less costly than other streaming players, and none offer a one-year trial.
"Do we see Apple somehow lacking in the content department? I would argue no -- they're not trying to be Hulu," Rayburn said. "I think we have to see how much content they add over what period of time...If they have a great show or series, people tend to binge watch that stuff and stay on."
Rayburn noted that at just $4.99 per month, many users will continue with the service even if there's just one or two shows that they like. And by fall 2020 -- when some free trials will be due to expire -- we'll know more about what content is best or most popular and what areas, if any, could use further investment on Apple's part. Additionally, Apple could also opt to bundle TV+ with some of its other services, such as Apple Music, between now and then -- potentially making the service even cheaper and stickier with Apple's installed base.
"This is a whole different strategy," Rayburn added. "I think people are underestimating Apple."
Beyond just Apple, the streaming industry on a whole is likely to change dramatically over the next year or so -- in addition to Disney and Apple, AT&T's WarnerMedia is due to launch HBO Max, its streaming product, in the spring of 2020. And many expect that further consolidation in the media business is inevitable.
"There's no question that the smaller studios, Paramount or Sony Pictures are ripe for acquisition or mergers," added Jeffrey Cole, CEO at the Center for the Digital Future at USC's Annenberg School. "The game of musical chairs has begun. Six studios are down to five. Expect to see that number shrink even more."
Even compared to the largest media companies out there, such as AT&T and Disney, Apple stands out in several ways. Unlike traditional media businesses, winning the streaming wars isn't a make-or-break move for the trillion-dollar iPhone giant. It's also many times larger and more profitable and can afford a certain degree of experimentation.
That's one reason why Cole argues that someday, Apple may look to acquire a bigger target than Sony Pictures or Lionsgate, and seek to acquire Disney itself.
"Disney or Netflix or Comcast or AT&T may not be big enough in this new era of competing with trillion or close to trillion dollar companies," Cole said. "Apple is serious about its moving to entertainment but I think at some point they just say, it's easier to buy Disney."
Apple are Disney are holdings in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS charitable trust.