In the short time since Roy Price and Ted Hope turned up at talent agencies, looking to grow past television series and get into the movie business as a way to entice Amazon Prime customers that paid money for free shipping of products, Amazon Studios has quickly emerged as a major player in that in-between space that was once the exclusive domain of distributors like Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and The Weinstein Co. It took a while to explain how Amazon would be different from streaming services like Netflix, but the company has been as aggressive a buyer as anyone in Hollywood, with an experienced team that includes Hope, Bob Berney and Scott Foundas. They came to Cannes with five films playing here. The initiative is led by Price, the son of Frank Price, the venerable executive who once ran studios including Universal and Columbia Pictures. Here, Price explains the method behind the aggressive buying spree.
DEADLINE: The initiative to acquire content to stream on Amazon Prime has been dialed up quickly to the point where you dominated the acquisitions space at the Sundance Film Festival and come into Cannes controlling five films showing on the Croisette. Unlike Netflix, whose goal is to buy world rights for its global subscription audience, the Amazon plan is to facilitate a theatrical release before placing it on its streaming service. What makes the Amazon model worth spending big money on these films?
PRICE: We’ll be at Cannes with five films, and two parties. The thing is, there are a lot of movies out there that get made. So we’re not really solving a problem if we just make 12 random movies. But we think that if we can bring movies to the market that are really worth remembering—that are remarkable and trying to do something new, and that have a special vision—then that’s something that will add value to the movie marketplace. It will be great for independent filmmakers and our customers because it will add something meaningful and memorable to the selection of movies that they have.
As we look at the movie opportunity, that’s the area where we decided to focus. And when you’re focusing on that area, to a large extent you’re obviously looking for new ideas, vision and passion. At the end of the day it is largely about filmmakers and creating a great economic platform for filmmakers and a great home for them. So we realized that, and that helped us shape the whole program. It guides our decisions to this day; treating filmmakers almost like a separate group of customers is great for filmmakers and for traditional customers, if we can put together an interesting and distinctive lineup of movies that are special and that people value.
DEADLINE: When Amazon acquired Manchester By The Sea for $10 million, it sent a signal you were willing to step up and make a real financial commitment to a prestige film. The Kenneth Lonergan-directed picture has an awards-bait cast with Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler, and it could easily have gone to the usual suspects that have dominated past festivals. Why does this film serve the Amazon model?
PRICE: It is the kind of movie that will be there when, at the end of the year, you think of the movies you saw and will remember and value. That’s what I predict. When Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are together in that movie, it is very moving and honest. Kenny Lonergan is great and everybody is at the top of their game. I think it’s going to be one of those movies people care about and you’ll tell others to see, and then question your friendship if they don’t also like it. That was exactly the kind of movie we had in mind and as soon as we saw it, it was a pretty easy decision for us. It was exactly what we wanted to do.
DEADLINE: Had Netflix bought it, theatrical release would not have been the priority. Your model is different. Can you explain how? Does Amazon insinuate itself into the run of the film right after that, offering your customers something they wouldn’t otherwise have access to?
PRICE: Amazon will get the movie and then we find a distributor, and together with Bob Berney’s team, we put together the marketing and distribution plan. For Manchester or Café Society, they’re pretty traditional theatrical distribution plans, except instead of maybe HBO or Showtime for what they call the Pay One window, that will be Amazon.
But otherwise it should be the same; a robust release that supports as much theatrical as the movie will carry. Having the film be a theatrical success is good for the filmmakers, and it’s desired by them. I think it’s good for the customers because they get an opportunity to see it in theaters today, and the film is treated like a real film. It feels like a real movie. At the end of the day, it kind of works for everybody that we support a theatrical release. So really, as you observe these films going in the market and going between windows, it won’t be unfamiliar to you. It’s just that instead of the normal Pay One carrier, it will be on Amazon.
DEADLINE: You are investing serious money in these films. That Pay One slot justifies these spends for you? Amazon just announced it will offer a pay subscription service, so you’ve got to feed that.
PRICE: Yes, exactly. Prime Video is available on a freestanding basis and is also included in your Prime subscription if you have that. It will carry the movies exclusively in subscription, which is the kind of deal you might have with HBO. The idea is that if we can have a selection of films in that program that achieve the goal of being memorable and visionary, and lasting and exciting, then I think customers will feel there’s a dimension of the service that they perceive and really appreciate. That’s where we are going. We’ll stay in our lane; almost all the movies we’re doing are staying in one particular zone. We don’t have French food, and Italian and a little sushi; we just do our particular thing.
DEADLINE: Does your model support something like Bright, the Will Smith film that Netflix committed to $90 million for negative costs and estimating and buying out the backend?
PRICE: We’ll look at everything and try to be creative. We would not have to buy out the backend; we have a pretty normal looking waterfall, the advantage of which gives the filmmaker the chance for more of an upside in success.
DEADLINE: You were welcomed to CinemaCon by exhibitors, unlike Netflix. As you progress, are you OK keeping the 90-day window the chains require to release films, or would Amazon look to shrink those windows eventually?
PRICE: The answer is, yes, we’re OK with that. We want to work with exhibition and have it be a win-win for everybody. We think that’s a fair trade-off that works with our model. The principle of the whole thing is let’s do what’s great for our customers, and if we get the film widely distributed so that a lot of customers have the opportunity to see it in the movie theater then that’s great. There may be changes from time to time where we’re not really doing that, on a smaller picture that may come out on 30 screens. In that case, probably the best thing from a customer point of view and even for the filmmaker, in terms of the economic model, might be to have a shorter window. But that would be the exception and not the rule.
DEADLINE: Might your future plans involve buying into the theater space?
PRICE: We’re focused on making great movies and bringing those to theaters at this point.
DEADLINE: Your program so far has emphasized buying completed films. How important will be building projects from the ground up?
PRICE: Well, we’re definitely developing IP and scripts. So we’re definitely developing from zero as we also acquire finished films, and everything in between. Our only priority is to get the best, most interesting, most creative films. We can be open-minded about everything else.
DEADLINE: How big an annual commitment to product do you foresee?
PRICE: We’ll see, because I do want to do all the fantastic movies we’re excited about, and none of the other movies. We’ll let that drive the volume, but I expect that to be north of 10, for sure.
DEADLINE: What does it mean for this upstart initiative that you’ve got five showing at Cannes?
PRICE: It’s a very exciting validation of the terrific start we’ve gotten off to. Yes, technically we’re new to movies as a company, but the team is very experienced and that winds up being the most important thing. Ted Hope, Bob Berney, Scott Foundas; that’s a lot of experience and success and people who knew what they were doing from day one. They were able to hit the ground running. Most of the fast start is a credit to the team.