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Amazon Studios’ Bold New Leader Faces a Film Division With an Identity Crisis

The industry has seen seismic shifts since Amazon Studios launched its film division. Here's the challenges Jennifer Salke will face.

Amazon

Bob Berney and Jason Ropell at the premiere of Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society”

Gregory Pace/REX/Shutterstock

Amazon Studios’ hire of NBC Entertainment veteran Jennifer Salke as its new president should bode well for its TV production, which needs a seasoned hand to develop its own must-see TV. However, while she has no background in film development or production, Amazon’s film division will also need her leadership to focus its own strategy.

Amazon Studios’ chief operating officer Albert Cheng, who served as its interim head following Roy Price’s resignation last fall, will report to Salke, as will Jason Ropell, VP and worldwide head of motion pictures for Amazon Studios and Prime Video. This resolves one matter up front: After Price’s exit, Ropell refused to report to Cheng and reported directly to Seattle-based Amazon senior VP Jeff Blackburn. With new leadership in place, however, the deep-pocked production and distribution unit also may see a confrontation with an identity crisis that’s been a long time coming.

The day before Sundance, a Reuters report said Amazon Studios’ film team planned to refocus its efforts on more commercial projects. Ropell hotly denied that claim in a Deadline article on Sundance’s opening day, but nothing followed to counter that impression: Amazon bought no new titles and its premieres, Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” Lauren Greenfield documentary “Generation Wealth,” and “Pass Over,” Spike Lee’s record of the Antoinette Nwandu play at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, found modest receptions. (Amazon also screened “You Were Never Really Here” from writer-director Lynne Ramsay, which premiered in May at Cannes and won star Joaquin Phoenix the Best Actor prize.)

Bumphre/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

Salke, who played a key role in launching “Glee” and “Modern Family” at 20th Century Fox Television before joining NBC in 2011, will initially focus on overhauling Amazon’s TV side, which has been in a state of chaos. With film not at the top of Amazon head Jeff Bezos’ priorities, that may be good news for the motion picture side of Amazon Studios: The last year was unkind to its titles that weren’t “The Big Sick.”

After scoring one of the biggest Sundance 2017 buys with “The Big Sick” (and a 2018 Best Screenplay nomination), and significant 2017 Oscar wins for “Manchester By the Sea” and “The Salesman,” its fortunes turned fast: Amazon’s in-house distribution debut, Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” grossed just $1.3 million and was an Oscar nonstarter, partly due to a #MeToo backlash that’s also left its next project with the filmmaker, “A Rainy Day in New York,” in question. Stars Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Hall have already donated their salaries to charity, and the New York Times reported that Amazon is having “serious conversations about ending its relationship with Mr. Allen.”

Another Sundance acquisition, “Landline,” starring Jenny Slate ($3 million, U.S. rights), stalled at $941,000. Amazon co-financed Ben Stiller vehicle “Brad’s Status,” which grossed just over $3 million worldwide.

Other auteur-friendly Amazon productions struggled despite tony festival berths: Todd Haynes’ Cannes competition entry “Wonderstruck” grossed $2 million worldwide. The global take for New York Film Festival opener Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” didn’t cross $1 million, despite a cast that included Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne. Neither made the grade for awards season.

“Last Flag Flying”

Amazon Studios / Wilson Webb

Of course, measures of success at Amazon are different. All Amazon titles are viewed with an eye toward Amazon Prime, and their ability to lure new users to the service. However, it’s unclear whether Amazon’s long-term interests continue to lie with funding $5 million-$20 million movies.

If not, it would follow a growing trend. Bezos has made it clear that priorities on Amazon’s TV side are moving away from quirky properties in favor of big-ticket series with worldwide appeal: less “Transparent,” more Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile, primary streaming competitor Netflix — which nabbed eight 2018 Oscar nominations to Amazon’s one — has clearly come down on the side of greenlighting movies that appeal to the masses. Under motion picture president Scott Stuber, it’s making titles like “Bright,” a $90-million crime fantasy starring Will Smith, helmed by his “Suicide Squad” director, David Ayer. It rated just 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but Netflix announced a sequel ahead of its December 22 release. According to Nielsen estimates, 11 million Netflix subscribers had watched the film by Christmas.

Like Netflix, Amazon relies on user data to drive its programming decisions. However, Price hired a team of unabashed arthouse connoisseurs to head its film division, including Good Machine co-founder and onetime San Francisco Film Society executive director Ted Hope; independent distribution ace Bob Berney, who presided over such lauded theatrical hits as “The Passion of the Christ,” “Monster,” and “Pan’s Labyrinth;” and acquisitions executive Scott Foundas, the former film critic who also served as a programmer at the New York Film Festival.

Ropell’s background may feel more familiar to Salke: Prior to joining Amazon as its head of international content for Prime Video in October 2012, he spent three years in business affairs and development at NBCUniversal, then nearly two years heading North American TV content acquisition and strategy for Netflix.

“You Were Never Really Here”

Amazon has a robust development slate of some 50 features, including a “Suspiria” remake from Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”), and “Beautiful Boy” starring 2018 Oscar nominee Chalamet as the meth-addicted son of Steve Carell.

This will also mark the first full year of Amazon’s first-look deals with Bona Fide Prods. (“Cold Mountain,” “Little Miss Sunshine”), Killer Films (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Far From Heaven”), and Le Grisbi Prods. (“Birdman,” “Black Mass”). Amazon also has big plans for its theatrical distribution arm, with Berney recently making a slate of hires.

However, Amazon’s biggest challenge is an ever-changing distribution landscape in which exciting new players can become yesterday’s news overnight. When Amazon first entered the scene, it was considered a major disruptor. Now, it faces competition from emerging players like financing company 30WEST, which recently poached longtime Sundance director of programming Trevor Groth, announced its acquisition of new distribution player Neon, and spent $10 million on midnight movie “Assassination Nation” in the biggest deal of Sundance 2018.

While deep-pocked Amazon may have the resources to outspend such new contenders, it’s no longer clear if the company will make that a priority. As the head of its acquisitions team, Hope was seen as a major conduit for American filmmakers to gain a degree of financial support that no other company of similar size would ever provide, and it followed through on that potential with risky, unconventional projects from Lee, Ramsay, and others. But while that accomplishment sounds good on paper, it doesn’t gel with the agenda of a company angling to reach the biggest audience possible. If Amazon falls into that category, 2018 may not be the last Sundance where it takes a backseat.

Anne Thompson and Eric Kohn contributed reporting.

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