The firm even hired Bob Berney — one of the savviest theatrical-distribution executives in the business, responsible for hits such as “Memento” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” — to run distribution and marketing. The moves delighted traditional agents, producers and theater owners, who saw an ally where Netflix was merely a disrupter.
But all that appears to be crumbling.
In a move that has vexed traditional Hollywood, Amazon Studios, under chief Jennifer Salke, appears to be moving toward the model it once defined itself against — away from a conventional approach involving theaters and television-marketing campaigns to small-screen releases found largely by recommendation.
“A year ago, I would say they were pretty serious about being a theatrical distributor. And now it feels like they’re pulling back from it,” said Bruce Nash, a theatrical-release expert from The Numbers, a box-office information site. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
That was keenly on display at the Toronto International Film Festival last week with Amazon’s big fall movie, Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts” — a story of balloon aviators set in 1860s Britain starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne that’s filled with dramatic computer-generated imagery.
Harper told premiere audiences that he was “really struck by the thirst for adventure and the extreme risk” the characters take. Then he equated them to his backer, saying he wanted “to thank Amazon for their support for this ambitious project.”
Ambition has certainly been true in one respect. Amazon produced “Aeronauts,” a rare CGI action-adventure tale not based on branded intellectual property, for more than $50 million not including tax rebates. It also acquired a trio of movies earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival — whistleblower thriller “The Report” and the female-led comedies “Brittany Runs a Marathon” and “Late Night” — for a record $41 million (along with another film for $5 million).
But “Aeronauts” will play exclusively in theaters for just two weeks in December before moving to Prime. It is a token release, limited not only by time, but by the fact that many theater chains won’t consider playing a movie that heads so quickly to streaming platforms.
The move suggests a much more small-screen-centric approach than Amazon has previously taken. That approach has confounded many industry observers, seeming to take hold with a movie most suited to a theatrical release.
“Amazon Studios’ two-week-only exclusive theatrical window slated for December is a curious release strategy for a film whose greatest selling point is the reasonable amount of greenscreen visual wonder it delivers through a pair of enchanting leads,” wrote critic Tomris Laffly for Variety.
The company went so far as to unwind deals with international theatrical distributors worth more than $20 million so it could put out the movie globally on Prime instead, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about it. (The film will have a traditional theatrical release in the United Kingdom.)
“The Report,” which stars Adam Driver as Senate staffer and CIA investigator Daniel Jones, will get similar treatment. Despite being acquired for a whopping $14 million at Sundance (many movies go for no more than $5 million) and a thriller conceit, the film will also play exclusively in theaters for just two weeks and then head to Prime on Nov. 29.
The company has not said if it would make a bigger theatrical play with Shia LaBeouf’s “Honey Boy” and Kristen Stewart’s “Seberg,” which both played Toronto. But each is a far more boutique production than “Aeronauts.”
An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. The company has maintained that it is making decisions on a case-by-case basis and is not locked in to one release strategy.
But many read the latest moves as a clear sign of a Netflixian pivot. “If they’re not putting out ‘Aeronauts’ in theaters, I don’t know what movie they’ll put in theaters,” said one film executive at a traditional studio, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing industry relationships.
One signal to industry executives of the shift: Berney. The executive left the company in June.
Amazon may be feeling theatrically gun-shy after the failures of “Late Night” and “Brittany.” Bought for a combined $27 million, both films flopped in theaters. The Mindy Kaling-led “Late Night” has grossed just $16 million despite a wide release on more than 2,000 screens and a splashy marketing campaign. “Brittany,” meanwhile, has taken in less than $4 million in four weeks of release.
The company does continue to spend. At Toronto, it was the rare studio to acquire a movie, the Riz Ahmed’-starring “Sound of Metal,” a drama about a musician who is losing his hearing. Amazon also threw a glitzy party in a trendy hotel restaurant. “The Report” was celebrated on one floor, while “The Aeronauts” was feted on another. VIP tables dotted the walls; at one, Jones ate sushi with friends.
Amazon remains without the need for movie-based subscription revenue. Unlike Netflix, it does not rely heavily on content to attract subscribers; original content is more of a bonus feature for Prime members.
That, say experts, might actually be a reason the company shouldn’t worry about releasing moves on Prime so quickly. On the other hand, it could mean that executives view all entertainment content as an add-on and don’t really consider theaters in the first place. (Whether any of this is good for consumers is up for debate. Netflix has argued for the benefits of simultaneous availability. But many others have said that without a heavy theatrical component, movies tend to be made with lower budgets and risk getting lost in the streaming swirl.)
Box office can indeed be much more profitable than streaming. Studios typically keep about half of U.S. box office dollars — unlike streaming, which rarely results in clear revenue contributions.
Still, there is no guarantee of success for a theatrical distributor. And there are plenty of costs.
“Distribution is difficult. You have to spend a lot on marketing. And building those relationships and cobbling together a team is very difficult,” Nash said. “A lot of companies say that they really want to do it and then one day decide to stop releasing movies.”
Or, if they have the option, just putting them on digital platforms.