Amazon Studios Plots Its Course

By Lang, Brent | Variety, March 8, 2016 | Go to article overview

Amazon Studios Plots Its Course


Lang, Brent, Variety


As snow fell steadily, blanketing the mountainside town of Park City, the team from Amazon Studios huddled in a parking lot to discuss the movie that had just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Moments before, the drama "Manchester by the Sea," a finely calibrated portrait of grief and loss, had received a standing ovation, triggering predictions on social media that the picture would be a major Oscar contender. As the credits rolled, potential buyers rushed to the exits. Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, who was stuck in the middle of a long row of moviegoers, had to vault over seats to get out of the packed theater.

"We were out afterward in the cold, shivering," recalls Ted Hope, head of motion picture production at the company. "We were all agreeing on the same thing - that we saw something that doesn't come around much."

It was a crucial moment for Amazon. After largely sitting out the major festivals and markets, or falling short in its bid to land acclaimed films like "Brooklyn," the movie arm of the Seattle-based streaming giant needed to make a splash. Just before 2 a.m., the Amazon executives scrunched into a sports utility vehicle to make their way up a Park City mountain, where the "Manchester" creative team and a phalanx of agents were hearing pitches from the likes of Sony, Universal, Fox and Lionsgate.

"The car is swerving," says Hope. "I'm going out on a mountain ledge to risk my life to buy this film. You can't even see. They don't make windshield wipers fast enough to go back and forth for the snow."

Hours of haggling and $10 million later, Amazon had nabbed its prize. It would leave Sundance with four acquired films, including the quirky comedy "Wiener-Dog"; the acclaimed documentaries "Gleason," a look at an NFL star battling ALS; and "Author: The JT Leroy Story," an examination of a literary fabulist.

"It's like the T-1000," says Graham Taylor, head of global finance and distribution at WME, the agency that sold Amazon most of its Sundance purchases, referring to the next-gen Terminator. "They're getting faster, smarter, more operationally nimble."

Amazon's buying blitz broadcast the company's ambitions to carve out a niche as a destination for prestige films at a time when major studios are focused on big-budget spectacles. In the process, Amazon is upending the independent film space. Along with Netflix, which paid top price last year for "Beasts of No Nation," and recently bid $20 million but failed to land slave drama "The Birth of a Nation," Amazon is shelling out the kind of money that would be ruinous for a Sony Pictures Classics or A24. The gap between these giants and smaller, pluckier players will only widen as other tech titans such as Apple and Hulu dive into the original content business.

"Amazon has a track record of going into various industries and blowing away the competition," says Will Richmond, an analyst at VideoNuze.

While the primary source of corporate parent Amazon's business is e-commerce and shipping, there's a reason the company has intensified its push into digital video, analysts say. Just as Amazon foresaw that the rise of the Internet would fracture the retail business, new technology is now splintering the entertainment landscape. The ground is shifting under the broadcast and cable industries as audiences move online, and there's an opportunity for aggressive players to capture this migrating consumer base.

"The state of play in the video industry is very unsettled, and among large companies like Amazon, Google, Apple and Netflix, there's very much a land-rush mentality," Richmond says.

But the Amazon model differs from that of Netflix. Whereas Netflix debuts its films on its streaming service, only grudgingly agreeing to screen them in theaters when it needs to qualify for awards, Amazon adheres to a more traditional distribution strategy. It partners with indie distributors, such as Roadside or Bleecker Street, to release movies in theaters, and then makes them available through its Prime subscription service in what is traditionally known as the pay-television window - the time when a film would run on an HBO or Showtime. …

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