What a difference a year makes: Amazon Studios’ lunch at CinemaCon 2017 was packed. Not like last year. “We were a new studio brand who had released one movie and bought five at Sundance,” said Jason Ropell, Amazon’s worldwide head of Motion Pictures. “We were planning to release 15 movies. It was ambitious and pretty damned scary.”
It turned out exhibitors did fine with Amazon’s movies, especially Oscar-winning $47-million-grosser “Manchester By the Sea,” which was released by Roadside Attractions and is winding up its 19th week in theaters. Other hits included Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen comedy “Love & Friendship” (19 weeks) and Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” (12 weeks), along with arthouse entries “The Handmaiden” (18 weeks), documentary “Gleason” and Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman,” which collected the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Ropell and head of movie marketing and distribution Bob Berney, who is well known by exhibitors, scored rousing applause whenever they restated the streaming service’s commitment to the theatrical experience. Their release slate is a mix of pickups along with an ambitious set of productions in various states of completion. How ironic that digital disruptor Amazon should turn out to be more wedded to the theater experience than some of the major studios.
Again, a storied Sundance pickup with Oscar potential was Amazon’s strongest offering: “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani, writer-star of producer Judd Apatow’s culture-clash romance “The Big Sick” (June 23), delivered a hilarious comedy routine with his wife and co-writer-producer Emily Gordon, who is played by Zoe Kazan in the film, before showing a work-in-progress sneak peek trailer.
“I didn’t know Amazon was making Terry Gilliam’s ‘Don Quixote,'” he began, asking if casting was under way. For “The Big Sick,” said Nanjiani, “we wrote together the true story of the first year of our relationship.”
“It was an intense form of couples’ therapy,” added Gordon, whose character falls in love with Nanjiani before she’s hospitalized and put in a coma.
“This is the best movie you will see about a standup Pakistani and a girl in a coma,” said Nanjiani. “It’s a comedy, it’s fun, and romantic. It’s about families.”
Needless to say, Gordon survived. “She’s a walking, talking spoiler alert,” said Nanjiani, who admitted they had to put in a few “fucks” to meet the Apatow quota. As to why he went with distributor Amazon, he added, “We get everything else from Amazon, so why not a distribution deal?”
$12 million for all rights might have had something to do with it.
Amazon has cemented distribution partners and release dates for some of their 15 upcoming films, but not all.
The new news was a promo reel for Todd Haynes’ unfinished “Wonderstruck” (fall) his first film since “Carol,” which stars Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, covers two time periods and two runaway deaf children. One narrative is set in Manhattan in 1927 and might be black-and-white and silent, while the other half is set in 1977 with color and sound, shot by “Carol” cinematographer Ed Lachman, with production design by Mark Friedberg, and costumes by Sandy Powell.
Berney also screened hilarious new footage from Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying,” a fall comedy about a road trip with three veterans attending the Arlington burial of an Iraq War soldier, starring Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, and Bryan Cranston.
Debuting closing night at the New York Film Festival was James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z,” (Bleecker Street, April 14), based on David Grann’s non-fiction bestseller. Produced by Plan B and shot on 35 mm in Colombia, CinemaCon Male Star of the Year Charlie Hunnam (“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”) told some hair-raising tales of shooting in the Amazon as 19th century explorer Percy Fawcett. He lost 30-40 pounds filming in sequence in the jungle, cut himself off from all communication with friends and family for four months, was knocked off his feet by lightning, and encountered snakes, spiders and a scorpion as well as a burrowing beetle in his ear while sleeping at his hotel. “It sounded like a pneumatic drill,” he said.
“Doug Liman is crazy,” said wrestler-actor John Cena (“Ferdinand”). He also declared that his “The Wall” (Roadside Attractions, May 12) director is a genius who “knows how to take chances and tell a story.” Shot on a low budget with digital cameras in just two weeks, Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play two Iraq soldiers trying to survive an assault by a sniper who is playing a deadly game with them.
Other Amazon Sundance pickups include “Landline” (July 21), Gillian Robespierre’s family comedy follow-up to “Obvious Child,” starring Jenny Slate, Finn Wittrock, John Turturro, and Edie Falco; Matt Ruskin’s audience award-winner “Crown Heights,” a legal thriller set in the New York criminal justice system starring Lakeith Stanfield; and “Cartel Land” documentarian Matthew Heineman’s terrific portrait of heroic Syrian rebel journalists, “City of Ghosts” (IFC Films, July 14), which could be an Oscar contender.
Several indie relationship dramas are on the docket, including Bonafide and Marc Webb’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” (Roadside Attraction’s July 14) starring Jeff Bridges as a man counseling a teenager (Collum Turner) troubled by his father (Pierce Brosnan), who is dating an attractive woman (Kate Beckinsale). Writer-director Mike White’s “Brad’s Status” stars Ben Stiller as a father who gets caught up in his son’s applications for college.
Woody Allen is back with Coney Island period comedy “Wonder Wheel” starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake, which is shot by “Cafe Society” cinematographer Vittorio Storraro, with costumes by Santo Loquasto. Will he return to Cannes?
“Queen of Versailles” photographer-filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has been laboring for 20 years on her documentary “Generation Wealth” about the “influence of affluence,” said Berney, who plans to premiere the movie this fall to accompany the publication of her Phaedon book on materialism, celebrity and social status.
Amazon is not only acquiring but also financing and producing films. In the pipeline for later 2017 and 2018 release are films by several major auteurs.
Currently filming is Plan B’s “A Beautiful Boy,” directed by Felix van Groeningen (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”) and adapted by “Lion” scribe Luke Davies from David Sheff’s New York Times bestseller, starring Steve Carell and Timothy Chalumet.
Gus Van Sant is shooting “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” starring Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill and Jack Black. Nash Edgerton is in production on an untitled project starring his brother Joel, David Oyelowo, Amanda Seyfried and Sharlto Copley. In May, Mike Leigh will start principal photography on his epic “Peterloo.”
Also in the works: Luca Guadagnino is remaking 70s cult film “Suspiria” with Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton and Chloe Grace Moretz. Terry Gilliam is finally going to shoot his long-in-the-works drama “Don Quixote” with Adam Driver, who also stars in the Leos Carax musical “Annette.” And Lynne Ramsay is directing “You Were Never Really Here” with Joaquin Phoenix, based on the novel by Jonathan Ames.
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