Amazon moves from film industry’s margins to the mainstream

With high-priced movies, Amazon Prime Video has altered its reputation in Hollywood

Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

 

Sacha Baron Cohen may have been going a little mad. It was August 2020, the pandemic was raging and his secret production had shut down. He was determined to reprise his role as Borat in a feature film designed to satirise the Trump administration before the November election.

But how?

First he persuaded Universal Studios to allow him to shop his incomplete movie. Then he cobbled together an hour of footage. (The infamous scene with Rudy Giuliani had yet to be filmed.) Hulu was interested. So was Netflix. But Amazon Studios was the one most committed to getting the movie out in time, no matter the cost.

Amazon spent $80 million to acquire Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a decision that incurred extra expenses because of Covid-19 protocols, test screenings in New Zealand – one of the few places in the world at the time where the company could gather a group of people in a dark movie theatre – and a last-minute dash to incorporate all the gonzo footage before the film’s release on October 23rd.

Amazon has thrived in the past year, with profits increasing some 200 per cent since the pandemic began. That success has extended to its film business

“They broke every rule for us,” Cohen said in a phone interview. “There was a certain delivery schedule that they felt was necessary, and they halved that time. They realised the imperative of getting this out before the election. And they changed their procedures completely to help us do this. I’m really, really grateful.”

Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, is also grateful. When the Golden Globes aired last Sunday, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was competing for three awards: best comedy or musical, best actor and best supporting actress (Maria Bakalova). It won for best comedy or musical and best actor.

Those accolades, coupled with the cultural impact Borat has enjoyed across the globe, have significantly altered the perception of Amazon Studios’ film division in Hollywood and among Amazon’s more than 150 million Prime subscribers.

The studio, which does not disclose viewer numbers, will say only that tens of millions of subscribers watched Borat.

Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, is committed to spending upwards of $100 million on a production if necessary. Photograph: Rozette Rago/New York Times
Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, is committed to spending upwards of $100 million on a production if necessary. Photograph: Rozette Rago/New York Times

Broad appeal

Once a home for indie darlings such as Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick, Amazon Prime Video is transforming itself into a place for commercial films with broad appeal that can travel internationally. It’s all part of Salke’s plan to turn Prime into a service people subscribe to for more than free shipping for their paper towels.

“We had seen firsthand when Amazon gets behind a piece of content, just how big the muscle is that they are capable of flexing,” said David Ellison, chief executive of Skydance Media and the producer of Amazon’s Jack Ryan series. He recently sold the films Without Remorse and The Tomorrow War to Amazon. “With Borat, they showed they could do that with films, too,” he said.

Amazon has thrived in the past year, with profits increasing some 200 per cent since the pandemic began. That success has extended to its film business. Like other streaming services, it has been able to snatch up big-budget, star-driven films that studios have been forced to shelve in response to the closing of movie theatres.

Netflix, Apple, Disney+ and Hulu have all benefited from the studios’ woes, but Amazon has been one of the most aggressive in acquiring new movies.

The new news is that you will see us embrace some bigger projects going forward that are self-generated

In September, Salke acquired Without Remorse – starring Michael B Jordan and based on a Tom Clancy series – for $105 million. It will debut at the end of April. The following month, it paid $125 million for the rights to Coming 2 America, which will premiere on March 5th. Eddie Murphy was initially hesitant about taking the sequel to his much-beloved film to Amazon, but Salke and others say he was reassured by the performance of Borat.

In January, the company made its biggest bet yet, paying $200 million to acquire the Chris Pratt-led action film The Tomorrow War, which Paramount was set to release. It stands as Amazon’s largest financial commitment in acquiring a feature film. The company hopes to debut it on Prime Video this summer.

“We don’t have a huge bench of big blockbuster movies in the works,” Salke said with a laugh. “So for us it was opportunistic to be able to lean into that.”

Going big

With more players than ever joining the streaming fray (Paramount+, anyone?), the pace of delivering new content is an issue every service worries about. Netflix threw down the gauntlet in January when it announced its 2021 strategy of delivering one new movie per week, which followed WarnerMedia’s announcement that all of Warner Bros’ 2021 theatrical films will debut in theatres and on its HBO Max streaming service at the same time.

With so much volume being offered by those two companies, along with Disney’s recent announcement that at least 80 per cent of its 100 new projects will be earmarked for Disney+, the only way to compete is to go big.

“It’s going to be really interesting over the next three years,” said Roeg Sutherland, one of the heads of media finance for Creative Artists Agency. “With platforms programming one new movie a week, this is fuelling a competitive marketplace for high-end, independently financed films.”

At the Sundance Film Festival last month, Apple paid a record $25 million for rights to the independent film Coda.

Salke pushes back on the idea that her plans to broaden her offerings is a reaction to her competitors. Rather, she said, it’s the culmination of a strategy that began at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, when as a newcomer to the film world she spent $46 million to acquire four films, including Late Night with Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, and the feel-good movie Brittany Runs a Marathon.

Before joining Amazon, Salke spent her career in television, shepherding hits such as Modern Family and Glee at 20th Century Fox and This Is Us at NBCUniversal. After her Sundance shopping spree, she was mocked by some film insiders as an out-of-touch television executive overspending to acquire niche movies.

But what happens to that plan once the pandemic is over and studios are no longer willing to sell their movies to streaming platforms?

Amazon has some 34 films in various stages of production around the world and Salke said the company was committed to spending upwards of $100 million on a production if merited. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos is stepping down as the company’s chief executive later this year, but the studio isn’t expecting any big changes when Andy Jassy takes the reins. The Culver City, California, complex is still being built and, if anything, investment has increased.

Salke points to Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming film about Lucy and Desi Arnaz, starring Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, as a potential hit. There’s also George Clooney’s film The Tender Bar, starring Ben Affleck; and an LGBTQ romantic drama, My Policeman, featuring Harry Styles and Emma Corrin.

“The new news is that you will see us embrace some bigger projects going forward that are self-generated,” she said. – Copyright The New York Times Company 2021

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