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Amazon’s Ted Hope, Bob Berney Talk Big Ambition, Theatrical Strategy at Variety’s Massive Conference

Ted Hope calls it “the second coming.” Amazon Studios’ flood of investment in the movie business is designed to revive a market for independent films by blending traditional theatrical exhibition with the enormous marketing and distribution muscle provided by the e-commerce giant’s vast retail platform.

Hope, who heads motion picture production for Amazon, and movies marketing and distribution chief Bob Berney discussed Amazon Studios’ film strategy Thursday at Variety‘s Massive marketing and advertising conference at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. The pair are off and running on an ambitious effort to mount theatrical releases for as many as 15 films in the coming year, Hope and Berney told Variety co-editor-in-chief Claudia Eller during the wide-ranging Q&A.

“Our customers want movies that are movies — they’re in theaters. That’s a huge differential,” Hope said, emphasizing that the theatrical run is not just window dressing but a key component of the overall strategy to build an audience that will recognize Amazon Prime as a supplier of high-end indie films. That’s in contrast to Netflix, which has sought to offer original movies with day-and-date theatrical and SVOD premieres, to the chagrin of exhibitors.

“The idea is to have theatrical on every movie. I think it’s really important in terms of the filmmaking word of mouth to have theatrical release,” Berney said. A day-and-date strategy “is not really in the plan,” he said.

The length of the theatrical window for Amazon films will vary depending on the title. The upcoming release “Creative Control” will have a 30-day run at the box office before shifting to Amazon’s rental and SVOD platforms, with a marketing effort rooted in viral videos and social-media messaging. But Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship” will likely have a more traditional stay in theaters, based on the strong response to screenings at the Sundance Film Festival.

“It could play all summer,” Berney said.

The pair also vowed to deliver expansive awards campaigns for select titles including Kenneth Lonergan’s buzzy family drama “Manchester by the Sea,” which Hope said they first tried to buy when it was still in the script stage. “It’s so beautiful,” Hope enthused. Berney added: “It’s not that those come around all the time, and when they do you need to grab it.”

From a business perspective, the actual box office haul of the films is less important to Amazon, bolstered by its massive balance sheet, but there is very specific business imperative behind the film strategy, Hope said, citing the philosophy of Amazon uber-boss Jeff Bezos.

Movies “have always been an excuse to sell popcorn and concessions,” Hope said. “At Amazon, to quote Jeff Bezos, we make movies to sell shoes. The movies are essentially advertising for the (e-commerce) platform.”

Hope described his surprise when he was first contacted by Amazon Studios chief Roy Price about joining the company to spearhead the creative side of the movie strategy. When Price described the type of movies and audiences Amazon wanted to attract, Hope was floored.

“I literally said I thought the era of being able to make ambitious films was over,” Hope said. “When Roy Price reached out, I truly thought I saw the second coming — the chance for an incredible resurgence.”

Hope and Berney spoke at length about the lessons learned from Amazon’s first foray into theaters, which came in December with Spike Lee’s drama “Chi-raq,” dealing with gun violence and racial tensions in Chicago.

The movie was turned around inside of 10 months — and the release was moved up a few months in order to be as relevant as possible to the national headlines about violence, police shoots and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It was a lesson to me that you can actually make a movie in today’s environment while the conversation is still going,” Hope said.

Berney said the decision-making on “Chi-raq” underscored how nimble the new venture can be when it comes to tailoring marketing and distribution strategies for each title. “It was really important to move that movie up and get it out quickly,” he said.

The experience on “Chi-raq” also paved the way for Amazon to make a big splash at Sundance with four high-profile acquisitions, along with two titles featured at the fest that were acquired beforehand. As many pitches that Berney and Hope made to filmmakers and talent agencies, being able to see how the film was handled spoke volumes to the industry.

“It is a theatrical release,” Berney said. “It’s fully supported marketing.”

On the flip side, Amazon’s expansive platforms and audience data gathering systems give them an incredible advantage in spreading the word — Amazon’s IMDb site is among the most highly trafficked spot on the Web for film buffs — and also in analyzing the audience that comes to movies when they hit the digital release window.

That promotional engine is more important than ever in a world of seemingly infinite entertainment choices. “The power of Amazon’s marketing and data to get those films out” is extraordinary, Berney said.

Amazon has to date focused on acquiring finished or nearly finished films, but it is expanding into projects that are wholly created under the Amazon banner.

“We have a lot of films we’re making this year in the totally fully financed realm,” Hope said. “And we’ll still be aggressively acquiring films.”

Eller questioned the pair on whether the upstart operation could realistically handle 14-15 movies a year. Hope and Berney said volume was important to building the audience that Amazon wants to derive from its movie investments.

“Customers respond to a consistent supply of quality goods,” Hope said. “Audiences can be built.”

Berney said the steady stream of releases will also be good for exhibitors.

“Having a big flow of good films … will help exhibitors and the theater business,” Berney said.

(Pictured: Claudia Eller, Ted Hope and Bob Berney)

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