Amazon Studios $46M Sundance Spending Spree Brings Paradigm Shift into Sharp Focus

By Kay, Jeremy | Screen International, February 2, 2019 | Go to article overview

Amazon Studios $46M Sundance Spending Spree Brings Paradigm Shift into Sharp Focus


Kay, Jeremy, Screen International


’It wants to distinguish itself from Netflix and say it’s going to pay as much as any big indie with the capability to release wide.’

FEBRUARY 2 UPDATE: The remarkable $46m Sundance shopping spree by Amazon Studios more than ever before brings into focus the fundamental shift in distribution that has shaken up Hollywood and the world’s film and TV industry.

On Saturday (2) it emerged the streamer had made its latest acquisition, reportedly paying $5m for worldwide rights to Honey Boy, Shia LaBeouf’s autobiographical drama about a boy and his troubled, abusive father, written by LaBeouf and directed by Alma Har’el.

Netflix has made headlines in Park City before, however it was reduced to a sideshow in January and at time of writing settled for a couple of excellent documentary pick-ups (Knock Down The Housefeaturing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a reported $3m deal for American Factory) as the overwhelming might of Amazon Studios stole the limelight. Also of note, Apple made its first ever Sundance buy, Hulu was active in two acquisitions, as was HBO in a rare flurry from a premium cable service, and Neon acquired four films.

“The story of the festival is Amazon Studios,” says entertainment attorney Marc Simon of Fox Rothschild. “Jennifer Salke [head of Amazon Studios] came in with a plan and she executed it with her team and made an incredible statement – one we haven’t seen [like this] from a distributor in Sundance.

“Last year in particular the SVOD platforms weren’t buying in any significant way. Netflix had made other purchases going into the festival, and Amazon Studios was going through change. Now they’re after big, commercial films to make a statement about what Amazon Studio distribution should be about… it wants to distinguish itself from Netflix and say it’s going to pay as much as any big indie and has the capability to release wide.”

Streamers in thick of arms race

The streamers swarmed over Park City en masse. Deep-pocketed and hungry, they are in the thick of an arms race for content. There will be more jostling for position at festivals, and more digital players in the mix, and while statement buys from platforms (until now, Netflix) are nothing new, what feels new is the manner in which several platforms, or companies with links to platforms, so completely dominated a festival. It is the up-ending of the traditional model, whereby theatrical distributors once ruled the roost, that has made observers sit up and take note.

There were Sundance acquisitions by more traditional buyers, in particular the $15m worldwide acquisition by Warner Bros / New Line for the world on Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By The Light. It was the highest dollar amount for a single deal at the festival, but even that transaction can now be framed within a broader mandate to feed the pipeline of a digital paymaster.

It has been known for some time that Netflix is placing greater emphasis on building its original content business, deploying billions each year to bulk up a platform that according to Ampere Analysis could lose around 20% of its licensed studio content when Disney, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros launch their own SVOD platforms like Disney+ later this year or in 2020.

Amazon Studios and other platforms that operate a hybrid licensing-content creation model realise the same fate will befall them, and they have to change the content equation. Like Apple and Hulu, Amazon Studios is going full-steam ahead with its own production initiatives. However they have a lot of catching up to do with Netflix on all fronts, and under the leadership of Salke, the former NBC Entertainment president who arrived last year, Amazon Studios is in the hunt for broad commercial fare and more indie-oriented material. …

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