Website's first film doesn't appear to be the last

Amazon as film producer?

It may not have made complete sense two years ago when the e-tailing giant picked up film rights to Keith Donahue’s fantasy tome “The Stolen Child.”

But the Seattle-based company is now getting closer to establishing itself as an entertainment player. It’s spent the last three years buying or creating ways to self-produce, distribute and market the films it may end up making.

Amazon set up “Stolen Child” at 20th Century Fox last year, where it’s in development. The company won’t finance the production; Fox will foot the bill, with Amazon agreeing to mightily push the pic.

Since the website is a heavy mover of books, DVDs, CDs, etc., it seems like a perfect match. It’s a strategy Hasbro and Mattel are also pursuing, with the idea that films will help sell more toys. So in Amazon’s case, why not use films to sell more books, music and DVDs — or digital forms of any of the three?

Should the pic prove successful, Amazon could easily find itself in a position where it could finance its own projects, ink a distribution deal with a studio and collect the lucrative DVD and digital downloading dollars once pics have ended their theatrical runs.

Or it could simply remain in the marketing role, just as Starbucks has done, agreeing to use its stature to promote movies in return for a piece of the profits.

But Amazon is in a unique position.

Hollywood has long had a penchant for adapting popular books as movies. If anyone has access to potential bestsellers coming out of the publishing biz, it’s certainly Amazon.

But Amazon realized if it was going to get into production, it needed to develop a marketing and distribution pipeline through which it could funnel films.

In other words: It could sell a finished product; it just needed a way to produce it.

It took steps including:

  • Buying CustomFlix Labs in 2005, and turning it into CreateSpace, giving users (as well as Amazon, itself) the ability to self-publish and sell their own books, CDs, DVDs and video downloads.

  • Launching Unbox in 2006, enabling users to digitally rent or buy movies and TV shows through their computers, as well as TiVo devices, and giving Amazon the primary distribution method needed to push its titles.

  • Purchasing Without a Box, a subscription-based site, earlier this year, that more than 150,000 independent filmmakers use to submit their films to festivals — and now potentially to Unbox. Consider this the company’s sales agent.

Altogether, the sites give Amazon more homepages from which it can market releases — the very thing that will get auds interested in the first place.

Amazon’s sites (including film database IMDB) attracted more than 65 million unique visitors in December, according to comScore Media Metrix.

Early usage of Unbox hasn’t generated the kinds of numbers Amazon would have liked so far — technical hiccups haven’t helped hold onto users, and the inability to transfer downloads to devices like the iPod also isn’t luring new subscribers.

Yet few are willing to bet against Amazon just yet.

Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal, Warner Bros., Lionsgate and MGM, as well as networks CBS, Fox and cablers MTV, VH1, Spike, Comedy Central and A&E, among others, quickly signed up to be part of Unbox’s launch.

Now with the writers strike over, Amazon is dusting off “The Stolen Child” again.

Marc Platt, the “Legally Blonde” producer who took a stab at fantasy fare with “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” last year at Fox, is producing with Amazon.

Ron Nyswaner, who penned the scripts for “Philadelphia” and “The Painted Veil” had begun adapting the book before the writers hit the picket lines.

The project revolves around a man who was kidnapped by hobgoblins as a boy and replaced by a lookalike imposter. Book follows both versions of the characters as they struggle through their new lives and environments.

When Amazon announced its pickup of “Stolen Child,” a company spokesman said, “With our brand and our retail experience and customers around the world, we believe we can be an extremely valuable partner in the development, marketing and distribution of this film.”

With no actual head of development, multiple execs across several divisions at Amazon are overseeing the project.

Amazon has yet to option the film rights to other books, but has considered picking up other properties.

Interest in doing so could grow as Amazon continues to develop its distribution platforms.

Amazon declined to discuss its future film plans. In fact, its execs have remained relatively cryptic other than to say that its moves so far have raised “an opportunity in an interesting area that we’re going to be thinking about.”

Amazon has dabbled in entertainment — beyond solely selling it — before.

In 2006, it produced “Amazon FishBowl,” an online chatfest hosted by Bill Maher that booked authors, musicians and filmmakers as guests to promote products sold on the site.

It also bowed a series of short films through its “Amazon Theater” that Ridley and Tony Scott’s RSA produced.

So it’s not that surprising that Amazon would be interested in producing something longer, like a full-length feature.

Its website is a powerful mover of DVDs for Hollywood’s major studios, selling millions of new releases and library titles to consumers who don’t want to get in their cars and shop at big-box retailers.

Now that Amazon has the tools to pull off making and distributing movies, it’s only a matter of time before it actually pulls the trigger.

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