The tech giant put “too much focus” on art-house fare, said Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios. It will now focus more on films for a broader audience, including “sexy date-night movies.”
CULVER CITY, Calif. — The film business has chewed up Amazon over the past year and a half.
The trouble started late in 2017, when the tech giant moved into self-distribution. No more would it rely on established Hollywood partners to push its films into theaters. But the box-office game is harder than it looks, and Amazon released six flops in a row. Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” cost $25 million to make and took in only $1.4 million in North America. “Beautiful Boy,” based on the best-selling book, cost $23 million and collected $7.6 million.
Now a company that is accustomed to entering markets and making the incumbents shudder is pushing the reset button.
“What we struggled with, I think, was putting too much focus on a narrow prestige lane,” said Jennifer Salke, who took over as head of Amazon Studios in March after successful stints at NBC and 20th Century Fox Television. “I don’t think we had diverse-enough points of view in the storytelling.”
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To that end, Salke said she had decided that the way forward for Amazon involves different “lanes.” Those include awards-worthy specialty films, including five she bought at the recent Sundance Film Festival, a couple for eye-popping prices; sexual thrillers like “Basic Instinct” (1992) or “Body Heat” (1981), a genre that most studios have abandoned; and films from Blumhouse, the horror studio behind hits like “The Purge.” Salke also wants to add a pipeline of young-adult films.
Allen is notably absent from her strategy. “We don’t have any plans to release any Woody Allen movies,” she said, declining to comment further on the filmmaker, who is suing Amazon for backing out of a four-movie deal because of a renewed focus on allegations of sexual abuse against him.
Amazon is now striving, at least to start, to roll out about 30 original movies a year. Budgets will range from a few million dollars up to $50 million or more. But not all of those movies will be released in theaters. For instance, the “sexy date-night movies,” to use Salke’s description, will go directly to Prime Video, Amazon’s streaming service. (Look for them on Saturday nights starting this summer.) The scary Blumhouse movies — eight have been ordered — will also skip theaters.
“Some will be thriller-y, some will have a foot in horror, some will be more serious drama,” said Jeremy Gold, who runs Blumhouse TV with Marci Wiseman. “We see this as a critical next step in building an ongoing relationship between Amazon and Blumhouse.”
Amazon emphasized that it would continue to give about 10 movies a year exclusive runs in theaters. Coming up: “The Aeronauts,” starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as hot-air balloon adventurers, and “Late Night,” a comedy starring Emma Thompson as a late-night talk-show host who hires her only female staff writer, played by Mindy Kaling.
Even so, Amazon could start to shorten the period of exclusivity given to theater owners for some films so it can bring them to Prime Video more quickly.
“It’s really about creating that right marketing campaign, right distribution plan for each movie, allowing us to break through the cultural noise and really resonating with customers,” said Matt Newman, one of three executives Salke has named as film co-chiefs. The others are Julie Rapaport, who will focus on wide-appeal movies, and Ted Hope, who has overseen Amazon’s art films since 2015.
That stance could frustrate multiplex chains, which insist on a 90-day period of exclusivity, worrying that moviegoers will be reluctant to buy tickets if they know they can catch the same film just a few weeks later in their living rooms. AMC and Regal, for instance, have refused to show Netflix’s “Roma” because Netflix offered only 21 days of exclusivity.
Amazon’s first foray into the movie business was Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” a 2015 comedic drama that received strong reviews but did not sell many tickets. Amazon teamed with an established film company, Roadside Attractions, to release it. Amazon and Roadside reteamed the next year and found an art-house hit in the bleak drama “Manchester by the Sea,” which took in $48 million in North America and received six Oscar nominations, winning two, including best actor for Casey Affleck. “The Big Sick,” a comedy released in 2017 in partnership with Lionsgate, collected about $43 million and received an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay.
Not bad for a newbie.
But Amazon’s track record soured as it pushed toward self-distribution. Its first effort was “Wonder Wheel,” which was undoubtedly hurt by renewed scrutiny of allegations that Allen molested his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, in 1992. Allen has steadfastly denied the claims and was not charged. Amazon also financed Allen’s next film, “A Rainy Day in New York,” but has refused to release it, prompting Allen to sue.
Amazon’s movie operation has recently shown signs of life. Sitting in her office at the historic Culver Studios, which serves as Amazon’s entertainment headquarters, Salke noted that the company’s most recent film release, “Cold War,” a foreign-language romance, received three Oscar nominations. “Cold War” has sold $3.6 million in tickets, a decent total for a foreign film. “We really think it’ll also do well when it reaches Prime Video,” Salke said.
When Salke arrived at Amazon, her first priority was performing triage on the company’s television business. “Transparent,” the studio’s marquee hit at the time, was in disarray because of the departure of its star, Jeffrey Tambor, who was fired after a sexual-harassment investigation. (He maintained his innocence.) Salke had inherited another hit, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” from her predecessor, Roy Price, who was ousted after a sexual-harassment scandal of his own. But she needed to quickly jump-start the rest of Amazon’s television business to catch up to a fast-moving Netflix, an insurgent Apple and a Disney-powered Hulu.
With Amazon’s television assembly line in much better shape — Salke has made deals with creators like Jordan Peele to bring shows to the service — she is now looking more intently at the studio’s film operation.
“It’s not about volume and endless scroll,” she said, in a clear reference to Netflix, which unfurls roughly 90 original movies annually, including documentaries. “The curated approach is the only way to go for us. Quality over quantity.”