Why Amazon Is Moving Away from Theatrical Releases

     October 30, 2019

Once upon a time, Amazon Studios was considered the shining example of how to do original streaming feature films right. With movies like Manchester by the Sea and The Lost City of Z and The Big Sick, the streaming service teamed up with distributors to bring their films to theaters a long time before they landed on streaming, giving audiences a chance to experience these movies in theaters nationwide. In contrast, Netflix was refusing to wait the standard three months between theatrical release and streaming release, which led to all major theatrical distributors banning their films from their theaters—and thus robbing audiences of a theatrical experience.

Earlier this year, however, Amazon announced that it would be pivoting its releasing strategy to be more in line with Netflix’s, securing more films for an online-only release or only a limited theatrical engagement before landing on Amazon Prime. This was a blow to people who like seeing movies in theaters, and bolstered Netflix’s steadfast position on theatrical windows.

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Image via Amazon Prime

Speaking as part of a roundtable discussion with other studio executives assembled by THR, Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke explained the pivot away from theatrical exhibition, noting that it’s about putting the company’s focus on Amazon Prime subscribers:

“There was not a lot of customer focus, which is what the company’s North Star is all about: Prime subscribers. So how do we evolve our movie business to be more focused on Prime subscribers? When we release something, when a new series drops, we see what’s happening in various countries all over the world. We know our customers love movies. We’re just trying to shift — it’s not closing the door on theatrical release. We will continue to [make] and acquire movies that will embrace that strategy. But it really is trying to get these movies to our Prime subscribers as soon as possible.”

Salke continued by using the release of this year’s romantic comedy Late Night as an example of why prioritizing a streaming release is beneficial to Amazon, since the film was singled out as a box office bomb and thus failure for Amazon:

“Look at a movie like Late Night, for example, that I know the industry made an example of as a failure from Amazon. The truth is, we bought that movie [for $13 million at Sundance] because I believe the movie is commercial and that our global customer would love the movie. And in fact they do. So it went through the contractually obligated theatrical release that we were happy to support for Mindy [Kaling] and Nisha [Ganatra] and everybody. But then it gets this horrible report card. The truth is, the movie has been watched. We only have U.S. rights, but it’s been watched in the U.S. more than any other movie in the short time it’s been on. Manchester [by the Sea] and that movie are neck-and-neck. [Editor’s Note: Amazon does not release specific viewership numbers.]”

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Image via Amazon Studios

Salke concluded by saying that Amazon isn’t abandoning theatrical exhibition entirely, but will be looking at each film on a case-by-case basis to consider where the focus should be:

“These movies are watched by tens of millions of people. So you begin to rationalize making those purchases and paying for an expensive marketing campaign for a theatrical release for Late Night, which did accrue a lot of interest for people who were waiting to watch it on Prime. But would you rather push toward the Prime premiere? It’s a case-by-case situation for us right now.”

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with The Report, which is Amazon’s only major Oscar contender this year. The film—which chronicles the true-story investigation into the CIA’s torture program—premiered at Sundance in January to rave reviews, where it was acquired by Amazon. But it’s hitting Amazon Prime on November 29th, just two weeks after its limited theatrical engagement begins. That surely means most major theater chains won’t be carrying The Report, as they stick to a strict 90-day window for a film to be eligible to be played in their theaters. Which also means most people won’t be able to see the movie in a theater.

Will that make a huge impact on the film’s awards chances? And how is its success measured if Amazon doesn’t share viewership data? These same questions were asked of Netflix last year when it came to Roma, which won three Oscars but fell short of the top prize, and are rightly being asked of Netflix this year with major films like The Irishman and Marriage Story on tap.

It’s just a bummer that we now have to rope Amazon into this category of films that most people won’t be able to enjoy in a theatrical setting, let alone the whole “Is it a hit? Who knows!” question given the secret viewership data. Alas, until theater chains loosen up their rules on the window between theatrical and streaming, it appears this is the new normal.

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