Last Sundance’s Top Buyer Amazon Is All In At Park City: Jennifer Salke Q&A

Jennifer Salke
Jennifer Salke at TCA earlier this month Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

EXCLUSIVE: Amazon took the acquisitions market at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival by storm, making eight-figure deals for Late Night, Brittany Runs a Marathon and The Report, with another $5 million for Honey Boy. All of them were fine films, but the collective box office gross of around $26 million on films acquired for around $46 million left many questioning whether this year will be bring more caution to the proceedings. It was the first Sundance for Amazon Studios Head Jennifer Salke, and to hear her tell it, there is no regret on last year’s acquisitions. If Salke and her acquisitions team of Ted Hope, Julie Rapaport and Matt Newman find the right movie this year, expect Amazon to be as competitive in the bidding as anyone.

Here, she explains why she feels last year’s deals aren’t cause for regret, especially as Amazon’s model evolved after the festival and leaned heavily into the building of the streaming service Amazon Prime. As Amazon and Netflix are joined by a crop of upstarts, box office grosses are only one measure of success. Established traditional theatrical distributors might shake their head on all of this, but the Amazon pivot encompasses more than just the Sundance films. Late-year entry The Aeronauts with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones is now regarded as the most watched film on the streaming site.

DEADLINE: Amazon drove the market last Sundance. How does those big deals play back and how might it impact Amazon’s appetite in this Sundance market?

JENNIFER SALKE: I’m very happy. I think we all are really pleased with how last year’s Sundance strategy paid off for us. I know it was hard to see the forest through the trees for a lot of people, given how confounding our movie business is, on top of just the business changing in general. The goal going into last year was to make sure that we were able to think about our customers. We were shifting our business away from being a prestige art house movie studio into something like a split focus. Continuing to be the home for those prestigious creator’s voices and stories, but reaching out and trying to bridge across to global Amazon Prime subscribers and making sure we were delivering the movie content to them that they wanted. They love big commercial movies. They love stars. They love all the things that moviegoers love. They’re a big, global diverse bunch.

Annette Bening and Adam Driver in 'The Report'
“The Report” Amazon Studios

So we knew that we had kind of done a disservice to them as far as the original movies that Amazon was making for them to have exclusively. So without causing total whiplash to our strategy, we took the middle road. We said, let’s evolve this over the course of this year. Let’s have The Report be a stunt theatrical and get it to Prime subscribers as soon as possible, which was totally aligned with Steve Soderbergh, Scott Burns and Jennifer Fox’s goals for the movie to get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible. So that was an easier one.

Late Night, in the competitive landscape, was the full theatrical obligation, which we were happy to do to have the movie for Prime subscribers eventually. So we did that. On Brittany Runs a Marathon, we changed mid-course after we saw that the results of the theatrical on Late Night were not what we hoped, but not shocking or surprising in any way. I was still on the prize of how we knew that movie would do for Prime subscribers. It was just exactly the kind of movie that we thought would do extremely well. So that was that strategy. Then we had One Child Nation and Honey Boy as two sort of very different prestigious pieces. Those movies have garnered tons of creative accolades and support from critics.

We think those movies will continue to live a long life on Prime. We love finding and cultivating an incredible talent like Alma Har’el and helping amplify that story about childhood trauma and addiction, really similar in the sense of Nanfu Wang’s story of also childhood trauma and dealing with the one-child policy in China. So both of those things really resonated. Very different pieces, but shared thematics that feel very human and palpable.

So I don’t think we regretted any of those decisions, thankfully. That was the best part about it. To see what we hoped would happen with Prime subscribers actually happen…we’re still waiting for the two prestige movies to get there on the service, but the over-delivery, the estimations of how those movies would perform to make these strategies sound? They all over-performed double if not triple what that expectation was. So that was exciting.

DEADLINE: We’ve watched streaming models evolve as happened with Netflix and its bumper crop of awards-season films that got weeks of theatrical release before landing on the streaming service. That is their priority and probably why they don’t report those box office numbers, because they aren’t that meaningful in determining whether or not a movie succeeded. How do you feel about that, and the way Sundance has changed from simply counting up acquisition costs, adding P&A and then comparing that to box office gross to determine whether or not a movie succeeded?

SALKE: Trust me, I just experienced that with all the reporting on our movies…

DEADLINE: How did last year’s experience inform how you will handle things in this market?

SALKE: I think you could also look at how we’re managing our budget on that side. You won’t see us spending the kind of money that our competitors might spend on a giant, global marketing campaign on something that’s viewed as purely prestigious. That’s probably not going to happen for us. We’re going to have a more conservative view of budgets on prestige movies that we’ll still support generously in theatrical, as you just witnessed with these two movies. But we’re not going to do something if it is impossible to understand how it could benefit us. So I think there’s a simpler story on that side.

But as far as the other movies and competing for a big star-driven drama, romantic comedy, something we feel that could really resonate across Prime subscribers, you could see us spend even more than we do at Sundance to compete for those kind of films. They definitely paid off multi-times what we hoped they would. So there is a case for investing even more in that strategy and nothing would make me happier…

Late Night
Mindy Kaling in “Late Night” Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios

Oh, then as far as the reporting. Let’s look at Late Night, which is the purest version of something that was released with a full theatrical, with a generous marketing campaign. As you just said, we paid the acquisition price, created a custom marketing campaign, and minus the box office, everybody gave the movie a resounding terrible grade. In fact, the movie is extremely successful for us. Now, I don’t have the same critical view of the movie; in fact, I think the movie is great. For us, that marketing campaign that was obviously really directed at the theatrical release paid off by creating a huge appetite for the movie the moment it was available on Prime.

Mindy Kaling called me that day and said, “I have never seen so much action around social and my fan base and just people in the world, around this movie than when it came out on Prime.” Way more than it did when it was released theatrically or bought at Sundance or any of those stories. For us, we knew the movie was really resonating. We could see it. I get numbers every eight hours on these releases and on anything that we do on the service, so I know exactly what’s happening globally with our content at all times. There’s no shroud of mystery for me or my executive team. We could see it happening. Would we ask ourselves this time, if we found ourselves obligated to embrace the theatrical release for a big movie like that we feel will be really successful for us on Prime. We would probably adjust the marketing strategy to bifurcate it more between the release and the Prime premiere to more event-ize the Prime premiere more, rather than having all of those resources directed just to the theatrical release. That was a place where we learned, and we would probably make a different choice. Would we not buy the movie this year if we were obligated to release it theatrically for that kind of movie that we knew would be a crowd pleaser when it got to Prime? No. We would still go after the movie. We would still embrace that theatrical release and we would look at the smartest marketing strategy to amplify the movie both theatrically and to event-ize it globally on Prime.

Despite what anyone might say, I do not think all those marketing dollars amounted to money flushed down the toilet. Because there was a huge appetite of people saying it’s an Amazon movie, it’s on Prime, and they waited. If Prime didn’t exist would they have turned out at the theater more and in greater numbers? None of us will know the answer to that. I do think it was a great movie for people who wanted to watch it at home and relax and enjoy something comedic, something that had some weight and meaning to it with those two incredible actresses and the cast. So we felt good about it.

DEADLINE: Sticking with Late Night, knowing all these things, if you bought it this year, would you be willing to pay as much as you did when you set the festival record for a U.S. rights deal? And would your release have been closer to what Amazon did with Brittany Runs a Marathon, The Aeronauts or The Report, where streaming was the priority and not the theatrical release?

SALKE: Yes. And if I was moving into this exact situation now I would love to have the opportunity to be able to talk to those filmmakers and stakeholders on the release strategy and what Amazon has learned. And I would probably share more information with them, just to convince them. I wasn’t able to do this last year because I didn’t have the examples in hand. But to be able to tell them the story of Late Night or Brittany, for that matter, where we really split the marketing between the platform release, the stunt theatrical, in trying to create a cultural moment for the movie [for Prime]. … So it was a really more well-rounded marketing campaign that kind of serviced several different masters versus one. I would share with them the over-achievement of those movies, the amount of people seeing them and see where they come out. At the end of the day, and this happens, I had very emotional conversations with the Brittany group and on Aeronauts. People really feel strongly about wanting a theatrical release. It’s important to them for a lot of different reasons, but I think I would be able to have a much more informed conversation with them about how that strategy will really look in practice with Amazon. And hopefully convince them that the sooner we get the movie to our global customers, the bigger a cultural event it will be, and the bigger an audience they’re going to have, more eyeballs on it. And hopefully what we’ve learned will satisfy them.

DEADLINE: And the price?

SALKE: Yes, I would pay the same. Like I said, those movies have overachieved, so I would have paid more. I think if you look forward for what’s coming from our movie group, you’re going to see bigger more commercial movies at bigger budgets, but we’re not going to go crazy. You’ll see more movies in the $15 million-$30 million range on Prime that we feel like will be slam dunks. We can rationalize those movies all day long, but for me it’s about finding the right movies. And that’s how I’m walking into Sundance. Hoping that those movies are there.

Jillian Bell in 'Brittany Runs a Marathon'
“Brittany Runs A Marathon” Amazon Studios

I’m feeling this year…I have read a little bit anecdotally and have heard a little bit from some insiders that there doesn’t seem to be the bigger sort of Brittany/Late Night type movie this year, but maybe that’s not true. Maybe there is a Brittany kind of discovery. Because Brittany also did incredibly well and I would buy it again tomorrow. I’m going to go with an open mind and hopefully we find those things. If not, you’ll see us definitely be aggressive on the prestige front and buy movies that we love, that we are proud of and that we think can go the distance in awards and also be beloved movies on Prime. You’ll see that no matter what, I think. Then my hope is that people don’t look at that and think, there they go. They couldn’t spend money and their strategy didn’t work. That’s just 100 percent not true. I’ve been buying pitches. We are fast-tracking several movies. Our movie business is very much invigorated and we’re investing in it and we’re excited about it. So that’s why we’re hopeful that we can kind of get some of these bigger picture messages out there because they’re true. It’s very simple for us.

DEADLINE: I’d heard that Amazon as a corporation was bullish on its film program and that your budget has been increased and you will be adding a couple more executives, all toward building for Amazon Prime. That true?

SALKE: Yes. That’s true. I love our team, and there’s no plans for any of those people to depart. But we are looking at building on that team, because we plan to be aggressively acquiring and greenlighting movies. We know our customers want them and our job is to deliver for them. So we’ve got to make sure we have a big enough team that can handle that kind of volume and be sure everyone feels supported. Amazon’s a scrappy place but we need to invest a little more in that infrastructure to be able to hit all our marks.

DEADLINE: What are your marks, in terms of slate, and how many acquisitions from festivals like this one would be ideal versus home-grown productions?

SALKE: Well, we don’t have any big movies in the pipeline and we have a small drought while we were kind of changing strategy. Nothing would make me happier if there were four Brittany/Late Night/Report type movies at the festival. I would try to buy them all, and more. We know that there’s a huge appetite. I think I relate to the Amazon customer and have an eye for things that can be bigger, and invite a lot of people into the tent. So I’m just hoping that we see some of that stuff, and I know the team is really on the lookout for that, too.

We’ll definitely move forward with some of these prestige movies. We’re in production on more than a handful of movies that are going direct to streaming anyway, so there’s a full slate. The good news about us, and we say this in TV series, too, is we have no obligation to feed the beast a certain amount of content over a certain amount of time. We just want to make sure the bar is high on what we’re delivering to customers globally. And that we are actively delivering customers what they want and they’ve shown us that they really want and love movies, original movies that they can get as soon as possible. So that’s what we’re doing, just the same as we do in series.

That doesn’t mean we ever go, you know what? We’ve got to go buy these programmers, we’ve got to get some stuff in the pipeline for the first quarter. We don’t operate like that at all. It’s really about the creative. It’s about the love for the thing and the filmmaker. Everything that was purchased last year was done with a ton of heart and a ton of personal connection to those creators, whether you talk to Mindy Kaling or Nisha Ganatra or any of those people, and they feel the same. It was like a very emotional thing, with Nanfu Wang and Alma Har’el, whom we’ve got close relationships with. These things are not just commerce for us. They are connection to these filmmakers, supporting something that we all love that we know we’ll market and get behind globally. We’re not just throwing up trees in the forest and watching them fall. We really want to make an impact and that strategy is working for us. By definition, that can only be done in a curated way.

DEADLINE: We mentioned the traditional box office business and how Late Night was evaluated based on box office gross. Even though Netflix is embracing a theatrical release first for its prestige films, they don’t report grosses. I think it’s probably because the optics will be unflattering. How do you feel about that now? If the theatrical grosses are not the most important part of what these movies serve for the investment that Amazon puts in them, do you feel you’ll continue to report grosses even if it can create a negative optic?

SALKE: It’s a really good question. I feel like us becoming less transparent is probably not going to work to our benefit, considering how much pressure we get to be transparent. I feel if we further batten down the hatches on things, we’re going to create more skepticism around our business. And we really are trying to reduce that skepticism. We’re big kids here and we’re not squeamish and we put up with stories about a bad box office performance, because we actually know now it has no bearing on how the movie does on Prime.

So I’m not going to go crazy over that reporting. We have tough skin and that’s not our business. It is frustrating and it’s not fair and it’s disrespectful to the filmmakers who’ve sold their movie to Amazon, with a strategy that’s not even acknowledged as being real by the press. So that part I find frustrating in a way that’s more protective of them than it is ourselves, but I don’t think closing down more is the answer. My hope is some day we will be able to share more. That is not where we are right now but my job is to make sure filmmakers understand what the upside is, and that they feel good about it. That’s a busy, busy job. I need to talk to Eddie [Redmayne] and Felicity [Jones] and Todd [Lieberman] and everyone about The Aeronauts. They know the movie has over-performed for us massively, and without giving them tons of information I probably would share with them some idea of statistical ranking because right now their movie is No. 1 of all the movies that we’ve ever had. That’s true, so they can take that to the bank so to speak and feel good about the performance. I get it. If I’m a filmmaker or actor I want to know how many people are watching it.

The Aeronauts
“The Aeronauts” Amazon Studios

DEADLINE: When you say The Aeronauts is your most watched film, approximately how many people have watched from beginning to end?

SALKE: I’m not going to be able to give that away to anybody. But what I will say is I am reading about…it’s not that they clicked on it and then clicked off it. It’s that they engaged in the movie for a certain amount of time, if not the whole movie, that feels significant. And the completion rates on all those movies we just mentioned were very high. For our standard and for anyone’s standard. I can’t give away that information but again if I tell you we’re feeling great about it I’m not just spinning. This is the truth. Otherwise we’d be condensing and collapsing our movie business. And that’s not what you’re going to see happen.

DEADLINE: I am a bit surprised at how bullish you are. This business, especially in the fragile indie ecosystem, we’ve seen bidders go aggressive, and release movies that don’t match their expectations. And the next year they are conservative. It’s a business that operates out of fear and for smaller distributors, bad decisions can be fatal. Fair to say you’ve come back with an increased appetite?

SALKE: Yes, it is. In fact, my bosses said to me like oh, my gosh, I wish we had learned these things earlier. So I think we’re all feeling really great about it.

DEADLINE: I see. What was the biggest lesson you learned from last year’s acquisition spree?

SALKE: The biggest takeaway is that I wish that we could have made the case on the Brittany movie to Paul [Downs Colaizzo] and the producers to pivot to a big, global service platform release for the movie. He felt so strongly that the movie needed to be released theatrically, a full theatrical release. He felt it and wanted it with every fiber of his being. Although it wasn’t ironclad, that was sort of the spirit of our original conversation when we acquired the movie. And we stood by that, although I had a feeling that it was going to have the result it did. But it then over-performed so much for us on Prime that we felt great about it at the end of the day. I wish I carried these examples with me at that time where I could really make a convincing argument to an artist and a creator, that this is in the best interest of the movie and is going to get in front of as many people as possible and that I will help them and guarantee that they’ll be able to feel that and appreciate that. That’ll be an ongoing thing, to see how well I am able to convince artists of that.

That said, we’ll still embrace theatrical and stand by our word if we have to have a movie. We will do what it takes to get it. Those things are all sort of one case at a time. That would be the biggest learning because then that movie wouldn’t have been in the same spotlight as Late Night, with the mathematical equation because we didn’t spend the same on the marketing. We bifurcated the marketing but still spent generously and that movie was spared some of the negative stories, which she was grateful for. But I don’t think we needed to take that step, and have the theatrical release. But that’s my opinion on that one. I wanted to stand by Paul and support them.

DEADLINE: All these things are part of the negotiating in film auctions. The early expectation of this Sundance is that some of what we expected to be big sales titles got pre-bought. Did you look at a lot of these films coming into Sundance and considered them for pre-buys?

SALKE: We looked at the early footage or my team did. I’m planning to see as much as possible there, but I think there were some things we were definitely exposed to before, but I can’t speak to them specifically.

DEADLINE: There are enough streamers building libraries on their OTT services that they could make it a vibrant market this year, whether it’s Apple, HBO Max, Hulu or Netflix. It feels like all of you might well determine the market, more than ever before.

SALKE: Yes, it’s true. I do think that that’s what will happen and I think I’m not sure but I feel like I can predict that it’s not going to be as big of a year based on the brief analysis I’ve done on the movies, and some of the conversations I’ve had. There will be deals, but I don’t know that you’re going to see those big shiny bidding wars on bigger star-driven movies. I don’t know. I’ve got to get in there and see some of them.

DEADLINE: Even as this business changes, the proving ground will remain that dark room.

SALKE: It’s true. You look at movies like when we see Brittany perform the way it has, and the way Aeronauts is performing, this big period piece. Obviously, it’s a big movie that we knew would draw a lot of people, but you just don’t know until you actually see it. There could be some surprises. I’m sure there’s going to be some really special movies in there. Hopefully we get a chance to win some of them.

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