In an unprecedented Sundance Film Festival deal haul for a single distributor, Amazon Studios gave the clearest indication of its movie future by paying a record near $50 million for five films. The acquisition avalanche began with the fest’s first big pact for Late Night (record $13M for U.S. rights). Within a matter of days, Amazon bought Brittany Runs A Marathon ($14M for world rights), The Report ($14M for world rights), Honey Boy ($5 million) and One Child Nation. It might have gotten a sixth, the Festival Favorite Award-winning documentary Knock Down the House, which went for a record $10 million to Netflix. But the fit was wrong because the film’s heroine, freshman congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, was simultaneously bashing Amazon for its since-abandoned tax incentive-laden plan to build NYC headquarters near her congressional district.
“That may have been part of it, because we were engaged in that negotiation and then [the film] went elsewhere,” said Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke. “We’ll always do what we think is best for Amazon Studios and our Prime customers, but yeah, I’m not shocked how it turned out, let’s put it that way.”
Despite that, and watching another one they bid on go to A24 for $6 million — the Lulu Wang-directed comedy The Farewell — the Amazon Studios team of Salke, Ted Hope, Julie Rapaport, Matt Newman and Bob Berney spent a series of sleepless nights in the thin air of Park City putting uncharacteristically large sums on the table to fill the slate gap between past leader Jason Ropell and Salke.
Sundance has historically been a charm for Amazon: the company bought The Big Sick and turned it into a breakout hit, and Manchester By the Sea became a prestige favorite with six Oscar nominations, with Casey Affleck winning Best Actor and Kenneth Lonergan getting Best Original Screenplay. It also had a notable misfire: Amazon preempted the planned 2018 Sundance opening-night film Life Itself, and pulled it out of the festival for a Toronto bow where it never recovered from a critical pounding.
Everybody at Sundance can feel that when the major studios begin ingesting finished documentary and narrative films for their streaming services in a year or two, there is going to be a boom market for sellers and filmmakers at festivals like Sundance. Amazon provided a glimpse of what that might look like, paying sums too rich for most traditional distributors.
Run by unabashed movie lover Jeff Bezos, Amazon Studios has unlimited capital to invest in content. But while Netflix has invested heavily and is greenlighting TV series and movies by the week, the industry has waited for a clear picture from streaming-based tech giants like Amazon and Apple, the latter of which has been the subject of many rumors and should finally provide some clarity when it unveils its OTT service slate around March 25.
Here, for the first time on the record regarding her movie plans, Salke provides answers on the Sundance binge, and the immediate and distant future for movies that will be released theatrically by Berney, or to be placed directly on the Amazon Prime service. And how paying generous minimum guarantees is sound business when selling theater tickets is only as important as keeping customers subscribed to Amazon Prime, which also brings free shipping for paper towels, electronics, dog food and other products from the retailing giant.
DEADLINE: Some old business to get out of the way. Woody Allen has sued Amazon after it canceled the overall deal made by former Amazon Studios chief Roy Price. There is one film finished, A Rainy Day In New York, which stars Timothee Chalamet, Elle Fanning and Jude Law. Are we going to see that film come out this year?
SALKE: We have no plans at all to release any Woody Allen movies. Here are my two quotes on that: no plans to release any Woody Allen movies, and I can’t comment on anything that’s in ongoing litigation.
DEADLINE: You and your team sure kept me and other journalists up all night in Park City….
SALKE: I’m sorry I did that. I did it to myself, too, which I wasn’t that happy about. It was exciting but exhausting.
DEADLINE: Far better than some dull Sundance festivals we’ve endured in recent years when traditional distributors spent cautiously on minimum guarantees for fear of overpaying for the next Patti Cake$. Did you go in determined to make a statement?
SALKE: No! I swear on everything I hold sacred, there was no strategy or plan like that going in, to do something bold. We went in knowing that if we saw things that we loved, and thought they would be great for Prime, that we should jump into them. It came on the tail of us announcing a direct-to-service strategy that we think is exciting, and also with the message that Ted [Hope] is going to continue to be in the prestige space and Julie Rapaport is working on the more commercial mainstream space, something that widens the aperture a little bit on the kinds of movies we’re making. So, if there was anything strategic, it was that all systems were go on being able to acquire movies that would fit into that strategy.
DEADLINE: On your overall film strategy, how prolific do you intend to be? For television, you’ve swung for the fences with large commitments on The Lord of the Rings and other star-driven series properties. Similar ambitions here?
SALKE: We’re still talking about 12 to 15 movies a year. In addition to the direct-to-service strategy.
DEADLINE: So the count might double those figures you mentioned?
SALKE: The Jason Blum deal will be about eight movies a year. There’s also another category, which we’re calling sexy date night, and Nicole Kidman started this idea with me. One week into the job, I met her, and she was like, where are the movies like Basic Instinct and Cruel Intentions and No Way Out, those movies that you want to watch at home?
Now, she and a few other producers are working with us on a slate of movies that will go direct-to-service in that genre, and we are in early days on the YA genre, where I’m talking about partnering with a few prolific producers in that area on a couple movies each. I think you can look toward that and then within the theatrical release strategy, we were able to get as many options as we could, as far as how we want to release these movies.
DEADLINE: Do you see your Sundance films getting traditional theatrical releases?
SALKE: Yes. That story remains to be told on where all these movies will fall, but we’ll also continue to greenlight other movies, and we have The Aeronauts and other movies coming out this year. Because of the transition, 2019 was a little bit of a dry year. So, if you had to say there was any strategy, in hindsight, it would be that I’m so happy that we saw so many great movies that we could have for ’19, so we wouldn’t have the lull that could’ve been, had we not bought anything.
DEADLINE: Does that mean this frenzy of deals was an aberration, or will you be just as aggressive at future festivals?
SALKE: We will be as aggressive at the festivals as we want to be, given the content that we see. There’s no feeling of, we’ll never do this again. It just so happened that we saw all those movies and we loved them. I’ve been to Sundance other years, I won’t name names, where I saw 10 movies that I would never have bought. This was about the movies that we saw, the variety. There were some movies that felt a little more commercially viable in the bunch than I expected, and so I think that’s really what made all the difference with Brittany Runs a Marathon and Late Night. But we also bid on The Farewell, and we set a line, and we didn’t get that movie. And we met on the AOC documentary, too, and didn’t get that. So, it wasn’t like we went in thinking, we’re going to out-pay everyone and get whatever we want.
DEADLINE: Let’s look at these acquisitions. Late Night was the first big deal of the festival. The most ever paid there for a U.S.-only deal. Paint a picture of that night and how your relationship with screenwriter and star Mindy Kaling helped, one that went back to your days at NBC and The Office?
SALKE: It was helpful, and I do have a relationship and a history with her from NBC, but no one showed me the movie ahead of time. I didn’t go in already knowing I was going to buy that movie. It’s not unlike how me and the team would operate in television. If something incredible walks in the door and we’re listening to it on the sofa and we feel like we have to have it, we’ll compete to get that, no matter. We’ll set a limit, but we’ll step up and compete, something we’ve done aggressively over the past year. No difference here. I went in feeling really optimistic. I’m a huge fan of Mindy and Emma Thompson. The idea felt like it would be a movie that would be really appealing to our customer base. And having had a front row seat as she came up through the ranks of NBC and The Office, I also knew Mindy’s inspiration and I really appreciated her point of view as this outsider coming into an established world and how she would be a catalyst for change. I’ve had a place up in Deer Valley in Park City for eight years, and I’m not a stranger to Sundance and have seen many movies here, just as a fan. I saw with my team and we watched the movie and thoroughly enjoyed it. We were delighted. We were laughing. We were completely entertained. At the end, we all looked at each other and said, this would be a great movie for us. That began my first time stepping into these crazy overnight negotiations to try to secure the movie for Amazon Prime. I was so excited when we prevailed.
DEADLINE: To be precise, when you say Amazon Prime, explain how you monetize an acquisition like this. I heard many traditional prestige film distributors say, if we paid $13 million for that film, we’d have to support it with double that in P&A to have a shot at a breakout. It feels like your metric and goals are different.
SALKE: Our goals are different. We looked at that movie thinking it would be a successful theatrical release for us, so that wasn’t going to be a barrier, where some things you look at might be a bit more of a concern. We felt, this is a big movie, one that I would definitely want to go and see. And then, when I talk about Amazon Prime, for me it’s the life of the movie beyond that and the fact that our customers would be able to watch it for years and years to come. We all know how competitive this is, whether it be theatrical or streaming releases. We’re all competing for people’s time. I think this movie could live on and on and build an audience for something that is high quality, we think it will do really well on the service.
DEADLINE: Then you bought The Report, the Scott Burns-directed political thriller. How did that fit the Amazon template?
SALKE: We respected those creators and had sat with Steven Soderbergh. I hadn’t met Scott yet, but we sat to watch the movie and we found it really compelling. We didn’t want to be going down just one avenue. We wanted to make sure we had a variety of things we loved. This one offered us a lot of variety on how we wanted to release it, and so we were really excited to step into it. We loved the cast, the execution. When we got home to L.A. four days later, we had dinner with Steven and Scott [Burns] and his producing partners. We felt they would be great assets and partners for Amazon Studios and that the movie would do really well for us, as well.
DEADLINE: And then you strike again with $14 million on Brittany Runs a Marathon.
SALKE: I don’t know if you saw any of these movies, but by the time I got to that place, I wasn’t feeling any limitation on how many things we could jump into. I didn’t have much of an expectation going in, on that film. I was excited to see it, but it’s not like I had preexisting relationships with any of those people, nor had I heard much about it. We went as fans, and it was such a delightful, emotional, funny movie. I think the star is a complete breakout, Jillian Bell.
We just loved the authenticity of the voice. I was so amazed that a man had written it and directed it. I met him and we had a great meeting of the minds on it. I thought our audience definitely would just love it, and part of this is looking to the Prime audience and feeling like the female Prime subscriber and the female movie-going audiences are desperate for really authentic, emotional, relatable, really well-executed content.
And then, we were told we didn’t get it.
SALKE: On the Brittany thing, I was just so passionate about the movie. All of us were. We literally sat in front of them, at one of these rental houses in Park City, and pitched our hearts out about why we thought Amazon was the home for it. I learned things about my team I never knew, like that Matt Newman had lost 50 pounds running years ago. There was a connection to the material even from people you might not have expected. By the end of the night, I had to fly home very late, and they called to say we lost the movie to a competitor. We were really sad. I just said to the filmmaker and the team and Tobey Maguire and his partners, I really wish you guys the best of luck, but I’m heartbroken. But I didn’t hang up the phone on them or anything. I just said I’m really sorry it didn’t work out. I stuck to what we were willing to go for the movie. A few hours later, someone texted to ask if I was still up.
I was laying on the floor with my dog, just because I’d been away for days, and I was kind of really bummed out about the movie. They asked, can I jump on the phone, and their representative from WME, Mark Ankner, said, “I can’t tell you how torturous this is, but look at this picture of the writer/director.” He sent a picture of a guy, laying on the phone on his stomach, passed-out looking, and I said, “Oh my god, me too.” I sent a picture back of me laying on the floor with the dog. Apparently they all…just at that moment, decided we had to have the movie for Amazon. It was great. And when they called, there were actual tears on both sides, and a lot of happiness because I really do think the movie’s incredible. And then it won the Audience Award, and I was so happy that Sundance acknowledged the movies that we picked, for the same values we saw in them. The ongoing reception to every one of those movies has been great.
DEADLINE: You asked did I see any of these films. You never do, when you are chasing these deals. The one I saw was Honey Boy, the Alma Har’el-directed coming-of-age tale written by Shia LaBeouf, with Shia playing the father in a dysfunctional but not unsentimental look at his childhood. You paid $5 million for that one. Anyone with an alcoholic parent can relate. We’ve all watched LaBeouf go from child superstar to a young man who has had a great deal of trouble acclimating to adulthood and that movie tells us why. He will have a chance to be rediscovered, I think. Why did you buy it?
SALKE: We are on the same page here. I went in and…I don’t have a lot of tolerance for bad behavior from people in general. I hadn’t kept in touch with what Shia’s life is, beyond the basic information the media has presented. He was someone who just stepped away. I wasn’t familiar with the filmmaker either who, like you did, I just loved.
DEADLINE: She bonded with Shia over the shared fact they both grew up with alcoholic parents, and she made this as a love letter to others who’ve gone through the same thing.
SALKE: She’s so impressive and passionate and incredible. I had her up to my condo, spent time with her as we were bidding on the movie. She was in my office days after getting back, to just talk about not only the movie but how like she and I can align on outreach for diversity and female directors, which is something I’ve been passionate. And most of our movies coming out of Sundance were directed by women, which was totally coincidental but super exciting to me. I realized I wasn’t looking at just Shia, the actor, the bad boy story with a troubled past. I was watching a really intimate personal reflection on his troubled upbringing and how he has evolved through that, and I felt it was so relatable to, like you said, so many people who come from that kind of or various types of dysfunction. The fact he overcame all of that and is going through recovery and was able to dig inside and write this piece that I did not feel was self-indulgent…I felt it was just honest and beautifully told and entertaining and compelling. I was frankly really blown away and so was my team.
DEADLINE: You finished up by buying the documentary One Child Nation, about the limits placed on Chinese citizens on children they can have, because of overpopulation.
SALKE: The director, Nanfu [Wang] spent a couple hours with us as we were bidding, talking about the film and her upbringing. I knew something about all this, I have friends who’ve adopted from China. I knew the policies and what the repercussions of those policies were, but to see such a personal telling of it, it was so compelling.
DEADLINE: On your overall film game plan. How quickly will the initiative with Nicole Kidman bear fruit?
SALKE: Quickly. We’re already looking at movies that were existing scripts. There were so many great movies that have scripts, but didn’t get made because the movie business didn’t support them. There’s no limit on material, and there’s also no limit on interesting, new, diverse voices that are putting out incredible material and have great ideas. One thing we announced this as part of the Blumhouse roster, is that those movies will be handed over to underrepresented directors and writers. I love that we’re opening up the world to new voices.
DEADLINE: Will you be buying pitches and specs, or favor packages and finished films? And what about overall deals?
SALKE: If you’re versed in the television stuff, we’ve made big first-look deals to start relationships with many of these creators, to show them what a home like Amazon might feel like. And we’re already being exposed to movie material from some of those producers in television. We have a movie deal with Viola Davis, who’s finishing up a deal at ABC Studios, but we’ll look to possibly collaborate more with her down the line, depending on where she ends up. This is all really about building relationships, whether they start on the movie side or the television side, or like with many really prolific, A-level artists who are coming in, who are really interested in both and saying, what does a home look like here for both TV and movies?
Like, Nicole Kidman. We have movies she’s attached to that we’re developing, we have a big, huge TV show set in Hong Kong that’s being written and scheduled to start soon, and then we have other TV things, plus the DTS (direct to streaming) strategy, so that’s a great example of how multiple doors are opened in that kind of partnership. When I got the script in and had a thought about a direction I wanted it to lean into, I pick up the phone and call Nicole. She says, I’m just about to walk out the door to the Aquaman premiere, but tell me. We spent 10 minutes on the phone and a week later, she’s in my office, with our teams, talking about the changes.
I’m most comfortable doing that. I’m a worker. I’m hands-on, I love it, and I have tons of energy for it. And I love to partner with people who feel the same, no matter what medium they’re in. We’re already buying pitches, source material, and optioning for producers. Back to the collaboration part. I think the future of a real studio home is my very experienced TV executives working hand-in-hand with Julie and Matt and Ted and their teams on book properties and other material without the sense of, that’s for TV, or no, that’s for film and we don’t want TV looking at it. It’s got to be a collaborative process, which is the culture I love and believe is most effective. Talent feels that, when you’re cohesive and excited about content, and when it’s not about politics and a maze of confusing structures.