It’s been a fun summer, taking a deep dive into each of the major studios, as well as the mid-majors and the biggest and more relevant indie distributors, but it’s probably fitting that we end with the company that is most certainly the biggest disrupter of them all. Amazon Studios is a small part of one of the largest corporations on the planet, and because of that, it has an almost limitless amount of money with which to build an operation that is rapidly expanding beyond just the production of content.
This past year’s Oscar ceremony was a big one for Jeff Bezos’ production company, as that was the moment when the company finally broke through. Kenneth Lonergan’s Best Adapted Screenplay trophy for Manchester by the Sea was the first for the company, but it most certainly won’t be the last. Not with the kind of plans that Amazon clearly has in store for the rest of the industry. For the last couple years, it has financed its own movies and then entered into distribution deals with various different indies. But now, Amazon has made it clear that it has every intention of building up its own distribution outfit, which could very quickly make it a player in a way that Netflix still has been unable to become.
Ultimately, that is the biggest difference between Netflix and Amazon. While Amazon is certainly making inroads on the television side, it’s still pretty far behind Netflix as far as the sheer amount of content it produces. Thanks to shows like Transparent, it has achieved some of the same critical plaudits but is still far back in its prime competitor’s rearview mirror. The film side is a different story. Amazon has a clear edge in film, primarily because it puts its movies into theaters. Starting at the end of 2015 with Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, Amazon no longer simply finances films and drops them onto its Prime streaming service sans marketing campaign. No, Amazon has been spending money on publicity and advertising. Amazon actually releases its movies onto the big screen, where conventional grosses can be counted and its projects can be considered for major awards without having to finagle special deals to adhere to Academy rules.
While Netflix is attracting its share of major talent because of the dollars it is throwing around, and garnering a fair amount of attention because of it, Amazon is certainly no slouch in that area. Woody Allen, James Gray, Jim Jarmusch, Whit Stilman, Chan-wook Park, Todd Haynes, Mike White, Doug Liman, Steven Soderbergh, Terry Gilliam, Mike Leigh, and plenty of others have all either made movies with Amazon or are going to, and it would be tough to beat a roster like that. Which is kind of the whole point.
There are a few items in play here. One is the fact that, like Netflix, Amazon has a ton of money to throw at talent. Unlike Netflix, though, the money it’s throwing around is creating better content. There really isn’t much of a comparison. As we discussed last week, there are very few Netflix films which really crossover to mainstream appeal. Certainly, nothing it produces garners the same kind of cache that its television series do, but Amazon has been seeing its cinematic endeavors crossover with consistency. Manchester By the Sea on its own was enough to do that, and that was just the first one to win an Oscar.
It really cannot be stressed highly enough just how important it is to the success of a movie to put it into actual movie theaters. This is something that Amazon understands, and that’s why it does just that with films like The Lost City of Z and The Only Living Boy in New York. They might not be huge monetary successes, but they do bring in something before they are placed for exclusive streaming on the Amazon Prime service. Same thing for Logan Lucky, a movie that was a bold distribution experiment that has not succeeded the way it was hoped, but hasn’t entirely failed, either. What it showed is that the right mainstream film can potentially succeed without the studio machine behind it. Logan Lucky might not have been that movie, but another one certainly will be, and it when it does crossover, the business will change.
Here’s the big difference, though: up to now, and for a little while longer, Amazon has had to depend on other companies to get its product in front of audiences. That time is about to come to an end, and the sooner it does, the more fearful everyone else should truly be. As the success comes, so will the budgets grow, and with them, grosses. From those, potential franchises arise, and once that happens, there’s really no telling how big the production entity can get. There is no reason not to believe that Amazon can’t develop its own Fast and the Furious or something like it. The moment that happens, and Amazon is the only company with its name on the movie, it becomes the seventh major studio, and maybe even jumps the line ahead of Sony and Paramount. It’s clear that this is the endgame, with Amazon turning itself into something akin to a cinematic behemoth.
Unlike the studios, which no longer make romantic comedies, mid-size dramas, or a lot of the other kinds of movies that put them on the map in the first place, Amazon makes all of those things, and if they don’t make them, they buy them. Take a look at The Big Sick, a movie it picked up at Sundance for $12 million and which has made about $40 million at the box office. However, since Lionsgate released the movie, that $40 million goes to its market share, not Amazon’s. This is something that I would imagine drives someone like Bezos crazy. I know it would drive me crazy, and with the money at the company’s disposal, that’s why it’s going to end. It’s a complete no-brainer.
Amazon becoming a major distributor would be something of a large stick in the eye to the major studios, because it can beat them at their own game. It has a freedom that no one else has, perhaps with the exception of Disney. It can be its own studio, because it can afford to be, and doesn’t have to rely on some other corporate overlord to help it succeed. The owner of the production company is that overlord, and all he’s interested in is world domination. What better way to do that in the entertainment world than to beat the studios at their own game? Especially when there is literally no one to whom he is beholden? With indie legend Ted Hope in charge of production, there is a built in quality control that is close to unrivaled in the entire industry. Essentially, you’re talking about an indie sensibility with studio money, and with such a corporate structure that the production entity can be a loss leader because of the literally billions of dollars flowing in from other avenues.
Think of the power behind a studio that can release whatever movies it wants without worrying nearly as much about the bottom line. Putting out movies because the creative team in charge believes in the product, rather than because it’s trying to sell a toy, or move Happy Meals, or whatever. Having the freedom to create good content just because it can. In theory, that’s exactly where Amazon is and the possibilities are mind boggling.
Therefore, while people complain about Netflix and what it’s doing to the film industry, it’s important to realize that those people are looking in the wrong place. Amazon is the one making the waves and disrupting, paying more money to filmmakers and putting their fare — esoteric and commercial alike — into theaters, and aiming to beat the studios at their own game. In fact, when it comes to how the studios should be looking at Amazon right now, I’m reminded of a dark, haunting line from one of the great horror movies of the 1980s, The Fly. Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle, in mid-transformation into the monster of the title, tries to ease the mind of a woman he’s just seduced. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. But then his ex-girlfriend, Geena Davis’ Veronica Quaife, enters and counters that with some sage wisdom. Her statement, uttered with a steely voice, is as relevant to the studios now, 31 years later, as it was to that poor, misguided girl in Brundle’s apartment.
“No,” she says. “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”