Amazon Studios’ mission is to make commercial art films headed for critical, festival and (sometimes) awards acclaim. Despite some missteps, its slate shows signs of a developing strategy. In 2017, Amazon made a big splash at Cannes with two auteur-driven Competition films from Todd Haynes (“Wonderstruck”) and Lynne Ramsay (“You Were Never Really Here”), and wound up with a Best Actor prize for Joaquin Phoenix. Now, the company is back at the festival with competition entry “Cold War,” an immediate sensation that suggests the company is still very much in the game.
Last fall, Amazon dominated the New York Film Festival with opener “Last Flag Flying” from Richard Linklater, “Wonderstruck” as the centerpiece gala, and Woody Allen’s scandal-tainted “Wonder Wheel” closing it out — but taking those movies into the crowded fall marketplace was another matter. They floundered. A year later, the company seems to be trying to learn from its mistakes and rejigger its ongoing game plan.
Wisely, distribution and marketing head Bob Berney, who is now releasing Amazon’s slate, held the stylish but bleak Ramsay thriller for spring 2018 release. Phoenix has a shot at 2019 Oscar contention, as long as enough Academy actors see the modest performer.
After a tumultuous #MeToo season, Amazon is under new management as it moves into new offices at the Culver City Studios (where Orson Welles shot “Citizen Kane”), as television executive Jennifer Salke has replaced Roy Price, fired after a sex harassment scandal. While she remains focused on the TV side for now, Jason Ropell’s film division submitted three Cannes hopefuls but landed only one Competition title, black-and-white 50s romance “Cold War” (December), Pawel Pawlikowski’s anticipated follow-up to Oscar-winner “Ida,” and the closing nighter from Terry Gilliam, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” But Amazon withdrew from distributing the film during a prolonged legal morass. (It’s screening for buyers here.)
Neither UK Cannes regular Mike Leigh’s period war film “Peterloo” (November), lacking red carpet stars, nor “Photograph,” about Mumbai Girl Scout Troupe Zero, from “The Lunch” filmmaker Ritesh Batra, made the Cannes cut. For his part, Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”) wanted more time to complete his English-language ’70s Berlin resetting of Dario Argento’s stylized creepy horror thriller “Suspiria,” starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, and Chloe Grace Moretz, which is heading for fall film festivals.
Now all three films will hit the fall circuit, along with Oscar perennial Plan B’s “Beautiful Boy” (October 12 ), directed by Belgian Felix Van Groenigen (“Broken Circle Breakdown”), adapted by “Lion” screenwriter Luke Davies from the memoirs of David and Nick Sheff about dealing with collateral damage around a recovering and relapsing meth addict (“Call Me By Your Name” Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet). Steve Carell plays the concerned father; the movie is testing well. Chalamet’s other Amazon movie, Woody Allen’s “Rainy Day in New York,” is not on the release schedule.
Last August, Amazon acquired “Cold War” (via France’s MK2 Films and U.K’s Protagonist Pictures), written by Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki, which was first presented to buyers in Berlin. The star-crossed romance follows a Stalin-era Polish musician and pianist (Tomasz Kot) and headstrong singer-dancer Zula (Joanna Kulig) on tour with their folk-dance troupe. The lovers (who are inspired by Pawlikowski’s parents) separate and reunite in France, Yugoslavia and Poland as they try to find their authentic selves, thwarted by national politics.
The sumptuously filmed classical drama will be a strong awards contender (for cinematography as well as foreign film) and could prove an art-house hit in North America, adding to such Amazon successes as Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea”(Roadside Attractions) and Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” (Cohen Media), which both won Oscars, as well as last year’s Sundance acquisition, summer hit “The Big Sick” (Lionsgate), which earned an Original Screenplay nomination.
Berney knows how to play the Oscar game, pushing challenging foreign fare like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “La Vie en Rose” to Oscar wins. Could he do the same thing for Polish bombshell Joanna Kulig that he did with Best Actress Marion Cotillard? Only if the film takes off stateside.
Amazon recently previewed its 2018 slate at CinemaCon, promoting Gus Van Sant’s Sundance and Berlin entry “Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (following “The Big Sick” counter-programming playbook on July 13), a biopic starring Phoenix as a paraplegic Portland cartoonist John Callahan; Jack Black and Jonah Hill costar. Sundance also premiered documentarian Lauren Greenfield’s follow-up to “The Queen of Versailles,” “Generation Wealth.”
Next up: Working Title’s “Radioactive,” starring Rosamund Pike as two-time Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie; Tom Harper’s 50s hot air balloon flick “The Aeronauts” starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, and wide release “Life Itself” (September 21), a family comedy from Dan Fogelman (“This is Us”) starring Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Wilde, Olivia Cooke, Oscar Isaac and Antonio Banderas.