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Amazon’s New Film Strategy: Straight-to-Service Titles and Starry Sundance Buys

It was close to midnight when Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke got the text. The company had failed in its quest to acquire “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” a body image dramedy that captivated Salke when she saw it at Sundance. A sales agent on the project messaged her to say that a competitor offered a higher number, and unless Amazon stepped up significantly with its bid, the company would be out of the running. But Salke would not budge on the price, and collapsed into bed defeated.

Then she remembered her pitch meeting with “Brittany” writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo, who a day earlier said his father worked at an Amazon fulfillment center in Missouri. She looked him up on the company phone directory, screen-grabbed his profile and sent it back to the sales agent asking, “Doesn’t this count for a few million?”

Minutes later her phone rang. It was the film’s executive producer, the actor Tobey Maguire. Amazon was getting the film.

“It was Tobey and he was crying. He said, ‘I’m just really emotional. We looked at you the minute you walked in the door, and I knew looking at your face that you loved the movie.’ We all bonded over that process. That was really gratifying,” Salke told Variety, over a lengthy recent conversation about the past six months she’s spent quietly retooling her film division and her hopes for the future.

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Nestled in her West L.A. Culver Studios executive suite (outfitted in California-casual decor with gold accents and natural fibers) with her top film lieutenants beside her, Salke made one thing abundantly clear: Amazon is still very much in the movie business.

The former NBC Entertainment chief joined the tech giant a year ago, in a role she inherited from Roy Price, who had been ousted over alleged sexual harassment. There was speculation she wasn’t as interested in film, rumors that grew in intensity after Amazon fielded flops such as “Beautiful Boy” and “Suspiria.”

After 12 months on the job, Salke is ready to reveal her strategy for making movies. It includes a mixture of prestige pictures she says will continue to be shepherded by motion picture production head Ted Hope and distribution chief Bob Berney, as well as more commercial projects that will be overseen by Julie Rapaport, a co-head in the film division. The are no plans to replace former film head Jason Ropell, who stepped down last year. The studio is keen to acquire finished films, but says it will also keep producing its own movies. In addition, Amazon will start making films that will debut exclusively on its Prime subscription service and will forgo theatrical release.

“I first turned my attention to the TV group and that took a lot of reorganizing and time,” Salke said. “I spent six months embedded in there, trying to make sure we had the right teams. At the same time, we aggressively tried to bring in talent and get our message out about who we are as a home for talent. It’s a curated approach in both [film and TV], and we’re not going extremely broad,” she said,

Only weeks ago, Amazon’s 2019 film slate was anemic, with only a Viola Davis family comedy, the indie “Photograph,” and a romantic re-teaming of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones to offer. Salke and her team stunned with a roughly $40 million shopping spree at Sundance in January, taking “Late Night,” produced by and starring Mindy Kaling; awards bait dramas “The Report” and “Honey Boy” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” Heading into Park City, top indie sales agents were skeptical that Amazon would be a player. After their whiplash-inducing buying spree, they became the talk of the festival and emerged from Sundance armed with some of the most compelling indie films available.

“We didn’t go to Sundance saying we had to acquire a set number of films,” said Hope, sitting beside Salke, Rapaport and fellow film co-head Matt Newman, who oversees day-to-day business operations. “We would’ve walked away saying we won with only one movie. Each of these titles struck us in a different way, and we’re in a new era of filmmaking with people that want a great theatrical experience but to also make a noisy transition to our service.”

The question of a theatrical release versus driving subscribers to Amazon’s Prime video service is important for this simple reason: Amazon has always offered theater owners a 90-day window to show their original films before Prime members get to stream them at home. The strategy is in direct opposition to Netflix, which is insistent that the bulk of its movies will debut on its service and will only, for a film such as “Roma,” offer an exclusive theatrical window of a few weeks.

Salke said every movie she bought at Sundance will go to theaters, though “we are looking at a variety of windows.” While no official release dates are currently set, her comments signal that Amazon is prepared to shorten the theater window in the hope that offering movies to its customers early will increase Prime subscriptions.

Kaling’s “Late Night,” which co-stars Emma Thompson as an embattled talk show host, will have a similar release strategy to that of Amazon’s commercial and critical 2017 hit “The Big Sick,” and will likely debut in either June or July. “The Report,” starring Annette Bening and Adam Driver, and Shia LaBeouf’s “Honey Boy” will be released in the awards corridor this fall.

Salke is looking ahead to a streaming world order that is about to be challenged in a major way. Netflix dominated the space, with Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Hulu, nipping at its heels. But a number of new Goliaths are looking to disrupt things. In the coming months, Disney will launch its streaming service Disney+, while Warner Media and Comcast unveil their own streaming challengers. Amazon need to do something.

“Direct to service is really important for us. We want a really strong pathway toward that,” Salke said.

For others, that path is lined with talent. It’s a boom time for creators and stars who are fetching massive sums for overall digital deals. Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rimes  at Netflix and Greg Berlanti at Warner Media, for instance, all in the $300 million pacts.

“We’re not totally focused on our competitors,” Salke said. “I know what it’s like for these giant companies to evolve and create these products. I can imagine, and I think I’m correct, how long it will take to get these things up and running. I don’t sit and worry. If something comes in and and we love it and we have a huge heartbeat for it and we know Netflix wants it, we’re going after it.”

Prime’s original film slate will start rolling out in 2020, led by a first-look deal with Nicole Kidman’s Blossom Films — a bungalow for the movie star is being constructed across a well-appointed courtyard, opposite Salke’s own office.

“When I first had lunch with Nicole, she said, ‘Where are the sexy date night moves that are provocative? Like ‘No Way Out’ and ‘Basic Instinct’ and all these movies no one makes anymore?’” said Salke. Those are the type of features Kidman will develop for Prime, in addition to TV content like “Expats,” an international soap about women of foreign extraction living in a glossy Hong Kong.

There’s also a deal with low-budget horror producer Jason Blum, who has a mandate to make eight feature films for Prime. Salke said she will court younger viewers on the service with YA strategy that will grow out of the current TV projects they have on deck — including a college-set drama from “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, and a teen girl spin on the literary classic “Lord of the Flies.”

Salke stressed the company is not currently interested in making comic-book movies or special-effects driven tentpole films, but she’s open to those genres. Amazon’s days of flirting with acquiring a major production labels, such as A24, may be over, but Salke said she would not ignore any acquisition opportunity in the future.

“Flexibility is at our core. All we ever want is the right thing for the right movie,” she said.

A little help from the Amazon phone directory doesn’t hurt, either.

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