Amazon Studios Wins CinemaCon Exhibitors, Pledging Big Theatrical Push

Bob Berney
Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Amazon may be known to the world as the digital market for every kind of consumer good and, increasingly, for streamed entertainment, but Amazon Studios made it crystal clear Thursday that it also intends to be known as the company that creates high-quality films, not just for the home, but for movie theaters.

In their first-ever appearance at CinemaCon, the annual theater owners confab, the principals of the upstart production and acquisition company repeated — over and again — how their movies are intended to be seen in theaters before they ever light up smaller screens. The director and star of one of the company’s upcoming films helped drive home the theme, to the evident pleasure of hundreds of theater owners.

“Sometimes people can be impressive to listen to in terms of the future, but there will always be cinema,” said Nicolas Winding Refn, previously director of “Drive” and Amazon’s upcoming “The Neon Demon. “All you people should really remember, you are not just showing great films — you are showing an experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives. That is the power of being together and the power of experiencing great films together.”

The conclave of the National Assn. of Theater Owners has been filled with such talk this week, particularly in the face of the Screening Room, the proposal by digital innovator Sean Parker to bring movies into people’s homes at the same time that they debut in theaters. But the message seemed to bring a particular resonance coming from a subsidiary of a tech giant like Amazon.

“They were open and went up there and made it really clear that they intend to bring their films to theaters,” said Kristin Bodell, who manages a Regal Cinema theater in the San Diego suburbs. “At first the applause was kind of weak, like people weren’t sure. Then it got more and more enthusiastic.”

Amazon’s presentation stood out in this week of superheroes and R-rated comedies (including one introduced earlier in the day for Fox by latter-day rapper Vanilla Ice) for its indie, art house feel. Not long after director James Cameron announced he planned four sequels to the biggest blockbuster in history, “Avatar,” Amazon Studios marketing chief Bob Berney stood on another stage and highlighted his company’s presentation with “Manchester by the Sea,” the Kenneth Lonergan-directed drama, which the company acquired this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

In a prolonged scene screened by Berney, a tearful Michelle Williams apologizes to Casey Affleck. It would be hard to name a more emotionally wrought scene shown during the film conference. And Berney was not shy about how Amazon hopes to evoke the best dramas of the past. “That takes you back to beautiful classic films like ‘Ordinary People’ or ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,'” he said after the “Manchester” trailer.

Berney’s pitch — that the company plans to make “a wide range of prestigious and imaginative films from the worlds top filmmakers” — was bolstered by the other upcoming fare he previewed — “Cafe Society” from Woody Allen; “Love & Friendship,” Whit Stillman’s take on Jane Austen; Todd Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog”; and two Jim Jarmusch films: “Paterson,” the story of a poetic bus driver played by Adam Driver, and “Gimme Danger,” a documentary about Iggy Pop’s band, the Stooges.

“All the films we are acquiring and making will be released theatrically with aggressive marketing campaigns intent on bringing customers to your theaters,” Berney said to loud applause from theater owners. Maybe that seemed incongruous enough, coming from a tech company, that Berney offered a quip: “We will be experimenting with drone delivery for popcorn too.”

Amazon studio boss Roy Price delivered a similar message about the importance of theatrical releases. Lest anyone miss the message, “The Neon Demon” star Elle Fanning said she could not wait to go see the film with her girlfriends. She said they would be going to a theater, adding: “They will probably want to go see it a couple of times.”