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Amazon Studios Executives Reveal How They’re Diversifying into Film Distribution and Cultivating Talent In-House

An octogenarian auteur is a pivotal part of the tech titan's evolving film strategy.


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

Gregory Pace/REX/Shutterstock

Although “Wonder Wheel” will conclude the New York Film Festival (which kicks off tomorrow), Woody Allen’s 48th film marks an important beginning for Amazon Studios: The Coney Island–set relationship drama will establish Amazon as more than just a distributor when it is released in theaters on December 1. “It completes the picture in terms of our ability to control a film from its inception to how it comes to customers,” Jason Ropell, Amazon Studios’ Worldwide Head of Motion Pictures, told Variety.

Additional self-releases from the tech giant’s cinema division will include “You Were Never Really Here,” “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” and “Suspiria,” Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 follow-up to “Call Me by Your Name.” Variety reports that, starting next year, Amazon aims to distribute between 12 and 14 of its own films―each boasting a budget of $5 to $35 million―eliminating the need for rollout partnerships with the likes of Roadside Attractions, Bleecker Street, and Lionsgate (although it will co-finance “The Goldfinch,” an upcoming adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize–winning bestseller).

This strategy is projected to lower costs longterm, but in preparation, Amazon Studios Head of Marketing and Distribution Bob Berney quadrupled his staff over the past 12 months (drafting former IFC Films Executive Vice President Mark Boxer and others).

Exactly two years prior to the opening weekend of “Wonder Wheel”―which reportedly earned Allen the most generous budget he’s had in decades, somewhere in the $20 million range―came the public debut of “Chi-Raq,” the first Amazon-produced film. This February, both Amazon Studios and its rival, Netflix, became Oscar-winning streaming services: “Manchester by the Sea” and “The Salesman” won a combined three trophies for the former, while the latter received Best Documentary Short honors for “The White Helmets.”

Whereas Amazon will release its movies in theaters before eventually making them available to its estimated 65 million Amazon Prime subscribers, Netflix typically releases films solely to streamers (“Okja,” “The Ridiculous 6”), with a few current exceptions boasting same-day debuts in multiplexes and online (“First They Killed My Father,” “The Meyerowitz Stories [New and Selected]).”

“We found that the customers want quality films, but also films that they’ve heard about and perceive as big events, because they’ve been reviewed in newspapers, screened at festivals and had long-running theatrical engagements,” Berney said in Variety. He admitted that Netflix has backed “some great projects” while following “their own very religious philosophy that everything just goes online. I think that our approach is working. It enhances and incentivizes artists globally, and that encourages filmmakers to come work with us.”

At NYFF 2017, Amazon is also responsible for the opening (“Last Flag Flying”) and centerpiece (“Wonderstruck”) films, which will each benefit from award season campaigns, along their summer predecessor, “The Big Sick,” which the company nabbed for $12 million at the Sundance Film Festival (no 2017 film has managed a higher per-theater box office average, per Box Office Mojo).

The company intends for fewer such acquisitions in the next festival circuit, instead favoring movies generated in-house (like “Wonderstruck,” and “Wonder Wheel,” plus collaborations with Killer Films and Sea Change Media―helmed by “Manchester by the Sea” Best Actor winner Casey Affleck―which have both been signed to development deals). Despite the impression that Amazon will soon be a one-stop filmmaking factory, Berney told Variety, “We’re going to try to maintain a handcrafted, artisanal way of doing each film.”

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