It may seem strange that giant online retailer Amazon would make a presentation at CinemaCon, the annual convention of the Theater Owners Association (NATO), where the major Hollywood studios screen trailers and footage of their upcoming releases for exhibitors. However, as executives Roy Price and Bob Berney explained at yesterday’s luncheon, Amazon Studios is now involved in movie productions and acquisitions and committed to showing their products in movie theaters. In fact, no less than five of their films are included in the upcoming Cannes Film Festival line-up which was just announced, including Woody Allen’s Café Society, the opening night film which will screen on May 11.
Amazon had already seduced the legendary filmmaker with an offer that, as Woody Allen said to HFPA, “was too good to resist”: direct a 6-half hour TV series, shoot it anywhere about any subject, “I could create anything I wanted, and just deliver the finished product, for a very respectable salary.” On April 7 HFPA journalists were invited to visit the Manhattan set of the still untitled series, which is set in New York during the turbulent time of anti-war demonstrations in the late 1960s. So it came as no surprise that on February 18 Amazon acquired North American distribution rights to Woody Allen’s new movie, by offering such a high figure, close to $20 million, that traditional distributor Sony Classics could not match it. Café Society stars Jesse Eisenberg, who received the Male Star of the Year award at CinemaCon, and is described by Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro as “the story of one member of a Jewish family that lives in the Bronx, New York, and goes to Los Angeles to be a film agent in Hollywood in 1935-1940.”
Amazon has embraced a theater-friendly strategy unique among streaming services. Last year Amazon Studios’ first feature production, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, opened theatrically in December, before becoming available on Amazon Prime on February 4, 2016 (prior to its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on February 16) thus preserving the all-important “window” that theaters need in order to make a profit. This is in contrast to competitor Netflix which infuriated theater owners by releasing Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation simultaneously in theaters and online shortly after the premier at the Venice Film Festival. When Netflix offered $20 million to distribute Sundance hit Birth of A Nation, director Nate Parker elected to go with the lower offer of $17.5 million from Fox Searchlight.
The first 2016 film produced by Amazon, Elvis & Nixon, is also having a theatrical run. It’s a funny and clever story about the merging of entertainment and politics directed by Liza Johnson, inspired by the unlikely meeting of Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) at the White House in 1970. An Amazon acquisition at Sundance, Love and Friendship, directed by Whit Stillman from a Jane Austen novella, starring Kate Beckinsale, will be the opening night film of the 59th San Francisco Film festival on April 21. On November 18 Amazon, via Roadside Attractions, will release another Sundance acquisition, Manchester by the Sea directed by Kenneth Lonergan, one of the festival’s best films. An emotional scene between Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams was shown at CinemaCon.
In Cannes Jim Jarmush will present two Amazon produced films, Paterson with Adam Driver, and Gimme Danger, a documentary about Iggy Pop. Another Amazon film in the Cannes competition is The Neon Demon by Nicolas Winding Refn, who had won best director at Cannes in 2011 for Drive. The Danish filmmaker spoke at CinemaCon via Skype from Copenhagen, while film star Elle Fanning appeared live on stage. Refn said that filmmaking was like painting on a cinematic canvas, that cinemas will never disappear, because people like experiencing films together.
At CinemaCon the theme repeated several times by studio executives was: we are committed to preserving the big-screen movie theatre experience which cannot be replicated on the small screens of your iPhone or iPad, or on your home screens via streaming. Sony studio chief Tom Rothman, on stage with stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, after the trailer for Passengers, the science fiction thriller by Marten Tinldum (Imitation Game) threw down a gauntlet of sorts: “Let’s see Netflix do that!”
Amazon’s streaming series Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle won Golden Globes from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, for Best Comedy series and Best Actor for their stars Jeffrey Tambor and Gael Garcia Bernal. Netflix had previously blazed that trail with the Globes won for the groundbreaking House of Cards. Now both companies have shown that they are legitimate new players in film production.
But it is Amazon that appears to be seizing the theatrical initiative. And Amazon Studios is focused on supporting independent filmmakers and art films. That is good news for film lovers especially as traditional studios are more and more focused on financing big-budget “tentpoles” and comic book blockbusters like Batman v Superman (Warner Bros) or Captain America: Civil War (Disney).
Check out the trailers for Neon Demon, Elvis & Nixon andLove and Friendship.