While Amazon Studios under new leader Jennifer Salke has come out swinging on the TV front, growth on the feature film front will continue to stress quality over volume. Expansion will come as will overall deals with talent, but there is no ambition to compete with the booming film slate of Netflix.
In an interview with Deadline, Salke acknowledged that the movie business “is all new for me, and I won’t pretend I’m an expert,” she said. Looking for its Game of Thrones, Amazon made a seismic commitment with the JRR Tolkien estate for a Lord of the Rings series, even before it had any conversations with Peter Jackson, who breathed life into Middle Earth with three billion dollar grossing Best Picture winning LOTR films and a trio of billion dollar grossing The Hobbit films (Salke is now feeling out how Jackson might want to be involved, including the possibility of shooting in New Zealand which has the expansive locations as well as his production and visual effects studios built by LOTR proceeds).
The movie strategy, led by Worldwide Head Of Motion Pictures Jason Ropell and Motion Picture Production head Ted Hope, will continue to stay in the lane it has established, one that has led to prestige hits like Manchester By The Sea and The Big Sick. Those two were festival acquisitions of completed films. While Salke hasn’t ruled out the occasional opportunistic festival pickup deal, Amazon’s clear evolving toward homegrown productions and script stage buys.
“I don’t know that [the movie ambitions] will match The Lord of the Rings [deal], but I think what you’ll see is the film strategy will evolve,” Salke said. “We’re in the middle of talking about that right now, and it will, in the same way the television side, you know, the aperture will widen on the size of the audience that we’re going to draw in.”
Amazon Studios is most often compared to fellow streaming service Netflix, the latter of which is putting pictures into production as a rate that exceeds most major studios, to premiere directly on its streaming service. Amazon is content to stay in the tastemaker lane it has established, which starts its revenue waterfall with a full theatrical release cycle with P&A. The company has transitioned from engaging indie distributors for theatrical releases – Roadside Attractions released Manchester By The Sea and Lionsgate released The Big Sick – to self releasing theatrically under seasoned distribution vet Bob Berney, before its films take their exclusive SVOD window on Amazon Prime.
While Amazon exited its plans to distribute the legally problematic Terry Gilliam-directed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote before the film prevailed in litigation and closed the Cannes Film Festival, and while it has not dated the problematic Woody Allen-directed Rainy Day In New York that was expected this year, Amazon has a strong slate of awards-caliber films for the fall. Aside from Cold War, the black and white film that won Best Director at Cannes for Pawel Pawlikowski, Amazon will unveil at the fall festivals the Luca Guadagnino-directed English language remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria; there is the Plan B-produced Beautiful Boy, the Felix Van Groenigen-directed adaptation of the story of David Sheff, a journalist and his gifted son Nic when the latter falls into a life and death struggle with meth addiction, with Steve Carell and Call Me By Your Name Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet starring. Then there is Life Itself, a generational drama written and directed by This is Us creator Dan Fogelman that stars Oscar Isaac, Antonio Banderas, Olivia Cooke, Olivia Wilde and Samuel L. Jackson. Amazon made a preemptive $10 million U.S. rights deal with financier FilmNation a month before that film would have premiered at the last Sundance, where it was expected to be the biggest deal of the festival. Though that deal predated her, Salke has a strong relationship with Fogelman, since This Is Us was one of her biggest victories at NBC.
As for the comparisons to Netflix, Salke made clear Amazon Studios will scale up at its own pace and stay in its lane.
“Not to say that Ted [Sarandos]’s not going to be owning a prestige space, but we are going to continue with what we’ve created and that is movies that we love, including Manchester and The Big Sick and others that have succeeded for us. We want to be able to widen that out. There may be some evolution there, but we have no plan to pull it apart or anything like that.
“I think it’s going to be a combination [of homegrown films and acquisitions,]” she said. “We’ve already met with multiple big studios on acquisitions and partnerships with them, in addition to overall deals that are going to be announced that encompass a film component. If Universal didn’t have a deal for Jordan Peele’s movies, that would be one. Creators, writers, directors, you’ll hear about some of those deals coming up shortly, for originals, and some that will go straight to platform. We’re talking about all of that. So, I think it’ll encompass all of it. But we’re not going to be in the huge volume game. I think you can look for similar volume, just divided up in a different way, and I think there wo’ll be some bigger budget movies that will be part of that strategy.”
The goal will continue to generate between 10 and 19 films per calendar year with films meant to challenge viewers.
“Beautiful Boy and Life Itself represent to me what I’m talking about,” she said. “They invite more people in. Beautiful Boy is difficult subject matter, of course. But with that cast and the execution and the relate-ability of family and unconditional love, I think the movie will reach out and bring a lot of people in. Life Itself is similar, and it has the Dan Fogelman touch that I certainly love, and I think audiences are starving for. Audiences want to feel something, to invest in character. And then we have Suspiria in there also. I think you’re going to continue to see more of a variety, and as Jason and his team expands, so will the pipeline.
“The fact that we’re embracing the theatrical release, I hope to be able to present that to the talent community as an enticement to create their home here and that they’ll be able to strategize the things that they want to do,” Salke said.