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Peter Bart: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Taking Aim At Hollywood

Deadline logo Deadline 12/9/2016 Peter Bart
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Jeff Bezos was holding court last weekend and there could have been a sign on his sprawling Beverly Hills mansion that announced “new mogul in town.” The formidable chief of Amazonhosted a large, star-laden party promoting his company’s slate of awards contenders and the billionaire was working the room with fervor.

Bezos had appeared at previous Hollywood events, of course, but standing side by side with his friend and co-host Matt Damon his intent this weekend was clear: He wants a bigger presence in town for both himself and his company.

Damon was producer of Manchester By The Sea, which Amazon is boosting for an Oscar, along with other films like Love & Friendship and Café Society. “Bezos is the next incarnation of Lew Wasserman,” observed a veteran filmmaker as he munched on a lobster roll. But Bezos world, of course, encompasses a vastly larger universe than that of the old MCA chief and seems to be further expanding by the day. Bezos’ empire is delivering everything to everyone and at the moment is fighting a fierce fight with Walmart and UPS to mobilize new touch screens and robots to meet a flood of Christmas orders (Bezos sees holiday sales up by as much as 27% over last year). On the cloud-computing front, Amazon’s subscription-based, on-demand services increased 55% in the third quarter to $3.2 billion as companies turned to Amazon rather than maintaining their own data centers. And Bezos jolted the key bastion of pay television last week by disclosing plans to infiltrate live sports. Talks are ongoing with the NBA and soccer leagues for Amazon Prime to develop a ”skinny package” of live online sports channels.

All this is apart from the show business action where Amazon, Netflix and Hulu are engaged in vigorous bidding wars for talent and properties. And that talent pool was in evidence at Bezos’ weekend party, which was heavy on actors and filmmakers and skimpy on agents or media. On the movie front, of course, Amazon, unlike Netflix, gives projects a full theatrical release before they migrate online and also an opportunity for back-end profits. Casey Affleck, the star of Manchester By The Sea, was glued to Bezos side at his party, as was Damon, who had wanted to direct the film before stepping aside for Ken Lonergan, who also wrote the script. The movie centers on Affleck’s Lee Chandler who after the death of his older brother Joe is shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) which returns him to the community where he was born and raised.

In invading the movie business, Bezos decided to bet on two veterans of the indie business, Ted Hope and Bob Berney, along with their boss Jason Ropell, rather than aiming at the franchise and superhero sector. None of its projects have scored major success at the box office, at least by the standards of the Hollywood studios. A few, such as the arty The Neon Demon, have bombed, but grosses don’t seem to bother Bezos. Amazon also is betting heavily on documentaries, such as Gleason and Gimme Danger. (Netflix by contrast is pushing 13th from Ava DuVernay for Oscar recognition in the feature documentary arena.) Amazon’s TV investments, like those of Netflix, also have been formidable, demolishing accepted standards of pay.

While Bezos is shaking hands and forging wider contacts in the show business community, his executives are under orders to restrict media contacts and decline interviews, at least until the frenzy of the awards season subsides. “I’m not allowed to breathe a word,” said one senior Amazon executive when asked to comment on the Manchester campaign. The film is being screened widely for Academy and guild members, with Affleck and Lonergan working the campaign circuit daily. Amazon knows it’s an uphill fight. Its main rivals, La La Land, is a sprightly feel-good musical. Denzel Washington, who is promoting his film Fences, is a more riveting media personality than Affleck.

But none of this daunts Bezos, a slight, bald man with an outgoing personality who likes shaking hands with movie stars. He is used to pursuing his own scenario and, literally, he has managed to deliver the goods.

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