It’s been a good year for Amazon Studios. The company has proved its worth as a major player in the independent film market thanks to the critical and box office success of Manchester by the Sea, which it picked up in Sundance last year for $10 million before steering it to Oscar success in the Best Actor and Screenplay categories. Amazon also nabbed a third statuette with Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, which went home with the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, in the director’s second time on the Academy’s stage.
In January, Amazon made another big Sundance acquisition, paying $12 million for The Big Sick, the Judd Apatow-produced comedy hit of the festival. The company is also firmly stepping into the original film space, having fully-financed a hotly anticipated Cannes competition title—Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck—as well as Beautiful Boy, a $40 million Steve Carell drama with Plan B producing. But behind the scenes (blink-and-you-would-have-missed-it), it has also been quietly calculating its global outreach, which was kick-started with the rollout of its new motoring show The Grand Tour across more than 200 countries in December on Amazon Prime.
One of the main drivers behind this huge global push for content and licensing is Jason Ropell, Amazon Studios’ Worldwide Head of Motion Pictures. The Toronto native—whose job is to oversee production, distribution and marketing for all of Amazon’s original and acquired films, as well as licensing content across the platform—has fast become one of the most well-respected and well-liked execs in the independent film arena. He was at Netflix at its formative stage, and now, after five years at Amazon, he’s leading the charge to broaden the studio’s imprint globally. Managing a team of about 50, including Ted Hope and Bob Berney, Ropell is measured and modest when reflecting on the company’s success, and ambitious and intrepid for what lies ahead.
Not so long ago, the business was skeptical of Amazon’s intentions, but now you’re coming off of the back of a huge year. What’s changed in the last 12 months?
Things have changed in a few ways. We grew from a program that was predicated on mainly acquisitions—not because it was always going to be our focus, but because you need to start somewhere. But as we got traction we started to pull projects into the pipeline that we could fully finance, and that’s now becoming more and more a focus point. We’re looking for the majority of our films to be fully financed, and that’s because we want to have more control and agency of the films that come through. The plan is to really focus more on development going forward. We want to develop, produce and finance the majority of our slate, and that means getting through that period we fought through where there was a lot of focus on acquisition. I don’t think we’ll abandon that space, we’re just evolving.
What’s the decision-making process like when it comes to acquiring films and content amongst you, Bob, Ted and Roy Price?
As the head of the studio, Roy has the final say, but between him, myself and Bob and Ted, that’s how those decisions get made. I think you can kind of canvas broad support and start to make a consensus, but as a decision-making and greenlight committee, we’re a pretty solid group of people who are tightly aligned.
Amazon’s international rollout happened quite quietly last year. How much have you been a driver behind that?
The scope of my role is global. I oversee all film content on all of our platforms worldwide, so I’m definitely a part of the content strategy as we rollout into new territories. Our leadership group consists of people who contribute from different areas of expertise. In terms of how we think about films globally and on a regional basis, it’s me and my team and Chris [Bird] who are really driving that.
What will you do to broaden your footprint in various countries?
I view our studio as a global studio. We’re kind of territory agnostic as we’ve been developing and acquiring films. Up to this point, we’ve been selling international rights through a third party and licensing and retaining rights for our platform. In lieu of those rights, we provided a rate card to a local distributor as it incentivises them based on box office, and to also put P&A behind films, which actually contributes to the value of the film. It also empowers local distributors to be more aggressive in their bidding, and oftentimes those local distributors are probably better suited to release our films. This connects into why we’re moving more to fully financing, because we started all of these [deals] so it allows us to feed the global service and using this today, this strategy allows us to release the films where we’re set up and in.
Whether we’ll be releasing our own films, selling or putting up P&A and then using a third-party distributor to release them in local territories, that’s TBD. But in terms of servicing our global platform through the activities we’re doing on the original film side for our studio, that continues to be part of the strategy.
In France, the window between theatrical and SVOD release is 36 months. How do you operate in that territory with that holdback?
For those kinds of idiosyncrasies in other territories, we’ll have an all-rights buyer. In France, it’s a little more complicated—that all-rights buyer will have a deal in place and it won’t be us, but we’re no worse off than our competitors in France. But elsewhere, using that strategy where you’re selling to a local distributor works quite well because they value that market, they’re incentivized to promote it and then we have the rights that we need for our platform to get them to our customers in our countries. Any local restrictions are dealt with by the local partner.
The big comparison between you and Netflix is that you release theatrically. Will that always be your strategy—or will you ever start to put content straight onto your platform?
This business is evolving so quickly that anybody who would say never would be truly foolish. But we’ve seen such positive returns on what we’re doing, and such positive customer response for bringing films to theatres first, that we have no data that would suggest it’s the wrong strategy or that we should change our strategy. We went in with the idea that in order to attract the filmmakers that make the kinds of films that resonate on the platform, you need to preserve the theatrical release. It serves as a validation that the film is truly cinematic. And that’s held true.
What about premium VOD?
There are multiple touchpoints for us in this topic because we’re a platform as well, so we’ll have discussions with major studios in the way that they’re talking about evolving their approach and we’ll discuss it internally as well. But there’s nothing motivating us to be on the leading edge of pushing that. We’ll evolve as the industry evolves.
Amazon’s business has an enormous amount of data at their disposal. How much of their marketing data are you privy to?
We abide by all of the proper playbook rules. We are not Big Brother in any way, but we do have a lot of data. We’re a data-centric company. So, we use all the data that we can that’s relevant to help inform our decisions. We have lots of data about what kinds of movies people like on the service—so, certainly, anything that helps us make better decisions for what customers like, we use.
What are your hopes going forward?
I look at a film like Manchester by the Sea and it is an auteur’s film. It’s a great film, but it takes the audience on a harrowing journey. There’s no catharsis. Yet it made $50 million. It’s not an arthouse title and it’s not a major Hollywood movie—it’s in the middle. It’s an auteur film that found an audience, and in order to actually reach that box office, it has to start playing in those secondary markets, and that means people in those secondary markets are coming out to see a movie like that. And the fact that they did is super encouraging and gives me hope that we can do it again. I want us to carve out those kinds of films that reach that kind of audience. If we can change that kind of cinema-going culture where people are coming to the cinema to see new voices, that would be awesome.