Today, Amazon Studios announced it has signed an exclusive first-look deal with indie powerhouses Bona Fide Productions (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Le Grisbi Productions (“Birdman”) and Killer Films (“Boys Don’t Cry”). Amazon is already doing business with all three entities – it’s about to unveil “Wonderstruck” (Killer) and “The Only Living Boy in New York” (Bona Fide) at Cannes – and the news is yet another sign that the company will continue to finance high-quality independent filmmaking from some of the most revered American directors out there. But it also signals a key reunion of major figures from an earlier period — the nineties indie film boom.
By formally reuniting New York indie film icons – head of motion picture production at Amazon Studios Ted Hope and Killers Films founder Christine Vachon – Amazon is almost singlehandedly using its deep pockets to reignite a creative flame that many assumed to have extinguished long ago.
During the nineties, Hope was at the center of a productive arena. In 1991, he and James Schamus launched Good Machine, which quickly became a major player shepherding the early careers of filmmakers like Ang Lee (“Wedding Banquet”), Todd Haynes (“Safe”), Todd Solondz (“Happiness”) – both Todds being produced by Vachon as well – while the breakout success of Ed Burns’ $28,000 “The Brother McMullen” became the poster child for every low budget filmmaker looking to cash in on the indie gold rush.
When Good Machine got bought by Universal – as every studio wanted their own specialty division and folded into a new entity called Focus — Hope moved on to continue to produce films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
When the indie film bubble burst – specialty divisions shuttered, Focus fired Schamus, and significantly cheaper digital films started dominating film festivals – Hope didn’t sugarcoat the situation, writing a series of provocative articles with names like “Indie Filmmakers Can Not Survive As Things Are” that captured the desperate financial state of independent film. Searching for a new way, he made the case for non-profit support and for a year took over the San Francisco Film Society. He then focused on the potential for new revenue in the form of the burgeoning streaming world and spent a year running the online streaming platform Fandor. Every step of the way, he was keying into ways in which filmmakers could access contemporary resources to make great art — and find an audience for it.
Once tapped by Amazon Studios honcho Roy Price to run the original movie side of Amazon, Hope found himself with deeper pockets than ever before — and got to work rescuing nineties icons Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Terry Gilliam and Whit Stillman from having to rub two nickels together to make a movie. (He also built a team of indie film stalwarts that included Picturehouse veteran Bob Berney and film critic Scott Foundas.)
The model of backing auteur-driven art films approach has only continued since with new works by Nicolas Winding Refn, Chan-wook Park, Richard Linklater, James Gray, Woody Allen and Todd Haynes. Meanwhile, Hope and his team have also brought their wallets to film festivals acquiring films like Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” and “The Big Sick” for $10 million a pop. Many kept waiting for the party to end – office pools were started in the industry to predict Hope’s exit day – but as the company’s latest announcement shows, Amazon just keeps expanding its support of arthouse film.
As the IndieWire team argued in the run up to this year’s Sundance, the best case scenario for filmmakers looking to sell their films at the festival was to draw Amazon’s interest because it meant the best of both worlds – deep SVOD pockets, with a promise of full theatrical release. Hope has made Amazon the anti-Netflix – many believing Netflix is burying their quality films – bringing aboard indie distribution veteran Bob Berney to make sure each film took full advantage of each distribution window, including theatrical, before hitting Prime for free. For example, “Manchester” — which was released in November and benefitted from a full and successful awards campaign — will only hit Prime this Friday.
Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Amazon Studios
With Hollywood studios backing away from even funding prestige awards films – this year the major Oscar players “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” “Manchester,” “Arrival” were all not funded by a studio – rumors of Hope and Price knocking on the door of $25-60 million films with an awards angle only seems like the natural next step. While it’s hard to imagine the economic model for Amazon’s original movie strategy is a profitable one in terms of box office and other forms of revenue, Hope and his team have brought prestige and a brand of quality to the streaming giant, which might at this conjuncture may prove to be more valuable to the rapidly expanding company than the bottom line. Most importantly, that quality stems from a world of talent that’s been around for a while, waiting for the right opportunity to find its second act on a bigger platform. Just as Hope has found his second act, the filmmakers he has championed seem to have followed.