Restless chameleon Scott Foundas has always been willing to take risks. He built a career as a film critic only to leave the LA Weekly/Voice Media to work as a programmer for three years at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, and then returned to film criticism
, first at The Village Voice in New York and then Variety.
After just two years on the job he leaves Variety chief critics Justin Chang and Peter Debruge right where they were before he arrived; at the top of their game. And he’s coming back to Los Angeles to work as an acquisitions and development executive for motion picture production chief Ted Hope and his boss, Roy Price, at Amazon Studios, which has been making strides in television ("Transparent") and is now aggressively moving into the movie arena.
Indie film proselytizer Hope, who tends to want to share widely his views on just about anything, has been playing his cards close to the vest on the slate of movies he is assembling for another NY-LA transplant, indie distribution veteran Bob Berney, to release at Amazon. That’s the Amazon way.
But Foundas’s hire as acquisition executive tells us several things: they’re heading toward upscale, smart movies and trawling for emerging talent. Foundas has deep relationships with filmmakers and film festival programmers all over the world. Clearly, Amazon wants to forge a recognizable brand identity like Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics. When we see the films they produce and acquire, we will know what that brand is. So far they’re going forward on a still-under-wraps Jim Jarmusch project, Spike Lee’s next film "Chi-Raq," Terry Gilliam’s long-gestating "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," and have partnered with Bleecker Street to acquire "Elvis & Nixon."
Foundas spoke to me on the phone from the studio apartment in New York he is exiting for a bigger one in Santa Monica. Hope first floated the idea of moving to Amazon close to six months ago and continued those talks at Cannes in May: "I couldn’t think of a compelling reason not to try it," said Foundas, who doesn’t think he would have been interested in a similar job at a traditional production or distribution company. "It was a combination of Amazon being a fascinating company and just getting into this side of the business, getting in with them on the ground floor as they make this bold leap. That was exciting, along with the fact that they’re in this space that companies like Netflix and HBO are operating in, with metrics beyond the weekend box office numbers; what they’ve done on the TV side and the movie projects they announced before I arrived; and major people in this business are interested in working them."
He also liked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s guiding philosophy: "They’re interested in taking chances on things, and they’re obsessed with giving customers the best experience possible."
Foundas, who studied film production at USC, has always championed a range of filmmakers, from emerging artists vying for the "Someone to Watch" award at the Indie Spirits, to studio directors James Cameron, George Miller, Ridley Scott, and Michael Haneke. "You let your taste guide you to certain preceptors, that tells you what your brand is, as opposed to looking for ‘X,’" said Foundas. "What do Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee have in common except that they are great filmmakers? I wouldn’t put it in a box or stick a label on it."
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While the first time Foundas fled journalism for another side of the film industry it was because "it felt like the walls were caving, it was a low period for the state of journalism as they were downsizing film critics," that is not the case today. "The LA Weekly and Voice are still there, the newspaper business is still around if greatly diminished," he said. "Since I went to Variety all we’ve done is grow the film review section. But this seems like too good an opportunity to not try. I am a risk taker, I couldn’t say no."
Foundas will take his first crack at the new acquisition landscape at Telluride over the Labor Day weekend.