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Peter Bart: Amazon Raises Bet On Movie Business, But Rivals Still Baffled About Long-Term Strategy

Deadline logo Deadline 3/10/2017 Peter Bart
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As the majors prepare to bet billions on their summer blockbusters, Amazon, a relatively new player, is setting forth a very different sort of slate. Instead of fostering superheroes, Amazon’s three summer films will focus on an eccentric British explorer in 1924, an impoverished Pakistani standup in Chicago, and two American soldiers pinned down in Iraq.

Though Amazon is a giant company with resources to outmatch the majors, Amazon’s movie slate remains a bastion of specialty films aimed at adult filmgoers. Competitors respect the company as a serious player, but are skeptical about its long-term strategy. One reason: While Amazon disdains competing for tentpoles and franchises, it outbid Hollywood studios at Sundance with its macho $12 million acquisition of The Big Sick, a replay of its $10 million bid for Manchester By The Sea a year earlier.

Rivals see The Big Sick deal as Amazon’s potential entry into the mainstream marketplace. Manchester, of course, won a few Oscars (for Lead Actor and Original Screenplay) and has grossed over $47 million, matching Precious as the biggest Sundance winner. Amazon’s foreign-language entry, The Salesman (from Iran), also won an Oscar.

Spurred by these successes, Amazon will release another 15 films this year, matching last year’s slate, and its executives insist they want to make deals with “filmmakers who love cinema” rather than those who chase tentpoles. Two of its top decision-makers, Ted Hope and Bob Berney, are veterans of the indie business with close ties to indie filmmakers. They in turn report to Roy Price, a 12-year Amazon veteran who formerly ran its video on demand service.

While Price’s father, Frank Price, once ran Universal, his policies at Amazon defy the Hollywood mode. The staff is young, lean and intense. Decisions are made quickly, with deals (albeit rigid deals) swiftly forthcoming, unlike the majors where the process is cumbersome. Job candidates are put through a grueling chain of interviews. Agents and producers who do business with Amazon note that security is intense – “almost spooky,” says one producer. Amazon executives are sternly instructed to steer clear of media interviews. Even Hope and Berney, chatty by nature, avoid the press. Amazon’s publicists are dismissive of inquiries; they are harder to reach than most studio chiefs.

By contrast, their uber-boss, Jeff Bezos, an outgoing billionaire, friendly by nature, seems newly smitten with Hollywood’s social life, mingling with Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and top-tier filmmakers on this year’s Oscar party circuit. His sprawling Beverly Hills mansion increasingly is the scene for parties with above-the- line invite lists.

With all the corporate constraints, Amazon’s unique structure offers filmmakers access to its formidable digital marketing capabilities. Releases are emblazoned across Amazon-owned IMDb and promoted to Kindle readers. Amazon’s marketers focus on a sophisticated audience – folks likely to pay $99 a year for Amazon Prime, which has more than 50 million members in the U.S. (a figure the company will not confirm). While Amazon first played with streaming new movies on Prime, the company discovered that filmmakers demand more traditional release windows – its movies don’t usually reach Prime until five months after their theater launches.

Though Amazon executives are fiercely optimistic about their game plans, they are nonetheless wary of studio-sized commitments. Nor would Amazon go near the sort of $125 million commitment Netflix recently made for The Irishman, a Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro project. Most Amazon projects hover under $40 million and executives are re-tooling their strategy to avoid dependency on festival acquisitions. The company wants to produce half its slate, as it did with Paterson, as well as forging co-productions as was the case with Manchester (co funded by Gigi Pritzker and co-released with Roadside Attractions). Amazon’s overall batting average on acquisitions is better than that of the industry. Still, The Neon Demon was a disaster; Woody Allen’s Café Society didn’t resonate even with his fans.

Amazon’s summer slate reflects the company’s focus. The Lost City Of Z, a co-venture with Bleecker Street, directed by James Gray, is an archeological thriller about a British explorer (Charlie Hunnam) who is obsessed with rediscovering a long-lost civilization in South America. The Wall, directed by Doug Liman, (distributed by Roadside) is about two American soldiers (John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) trapped by an Iraqi sniper. The Big Sick is a romantic comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani American stand-up who had a featured role on HBO’s Silicon Valley. The film, directed by Michael Showalter, attracted fierce bidding at Sundance from companies who were convinced that it was a mainstream hit concealed as an indie.

That was a combination that proved intoxicating to Amazon – a company that loves “indie” but is eager to try swimming in the mainstream.

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