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Amazon Could Release Those Big Sundance Film Buys to Prime Video Subscribers Much Sooner

TCA: Amazon's Jennifer Salke said the studio could've built a direct-to-service release option into some deals made at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Late Night Emma Thompson

Emma Thompson in “Late Night”

Courtesy of Sundance

Amazon made quite a mark on this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Spending more than $41 million on four major scripted films — Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night,” Scott Z. Burns’ “The Report,” “Brittany Runs a Marathon” starring Jillian Bell, and Shia LaBeouf’s childhood biopic, “Honey Boy” — the studio behind past acquisitions like “Manchester by the Sea” and “The Big Sick” looked like it was ready to make some noise at the box office in 2019.

[Update:]

That may still be the case, but anyone counting on seeing these films in theaters may be able to watch at home sooner than expected. Head of Amazon Studios Jennifer Salke announced Wednesday afternoon during her executive panel at the Television Critics Association that there’s “flexibility” in those Sundance deals allowing Amazon to shorten or lengthen the theatrical window.

“[Those films are] guaranteed at least some theatrical release, but that could be a very short one or a long one,” Salke told IndieWire after the panel. “What I was trying to say is we have one avenue or we have another. But I think you’ll see more and more movies that [go direct-to-service]. We could’ve acquired some of those movies without a theatrical release. One in particular didn’t care about that, but we thought it might be better to do a shorter [release window].”

Salke said Amazon gauges the value of a film not just on the box office returns, but based on what subscribers are looking for from the service.

“We look at it completely differently,” she said to IndieWire. “Our customers love us having a great selection of movies on the service. We look at it that way. The theatrical is there for, you know, hopefully we have a hit movie or something great happens. But if not, we know the value of what those movies provide on the service for our customers. So it works for us.”

She said the company determines the theatrical release window (or lack thereof) based on “long conversations with the creators” and Amazon’s various film teams, including the marketing team and top brass. “[We look at] what we feel the best opportunity is for the movie individually — it’s a very curated approach.”

[End of Update]

“You just saw that we bought several movies at Sundance, and those movies have some flexibility within the dealmaking that allows us to have the best strategy to get those to our customers,” Salke said during the panel. “So if we feel like it’s warranted to have a theatrical release that’s a full theatrical release, we’ll do that. If it exists somewhere in between, [we’ll do that, too]. We have the ability through our own distribution to adjust those [releases] anywhere in between.”

“I’m not going to say you wouldn’t see a model with a short window — you very well could — but you’ll also see full theatrical and a bunch of things in between,” she said.

These shrinking theatrical windows speak to how much Amazon spent on certain Sundance acquisitions. Given how much money Sundance films have made at the box office of late, it seems like the value of these projects to Amazon has to exist outside the theatrical profits — namely, that these films will drive more subscriptions and satisfy existing Prime customers. Releasing high-quality or broadly appealing films on the service is one way to ensure a growing streaming business, as shown in Netflix’s “Roma” release strategy in 2018.

Salke said the “direct-to-service strategy is happening” in other areas, as well. She cited a deal made with Jason Blum to release eight films direct-to-service, as well as films produced by Nicole Kidman as possible options to go straight to Prime Video. Still, she said Amazon could use theatrical releases to boost the profile of certain projects — like the upcoming “Transparent” movie, which doubles as a series finale.

“We’re talking about all kinds of things,” Salke said of “Transparent.” “I think you can look forward to us giving you a look into [those options],” adding they want to “eventize that ending because it deserves to have a lot of eyeballs on it.”

As Amazon continues to explore various strategies to maximize viewership and make their service integral, Salke said Amazon had seen a direct connection between awards attention and viewership through the success of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

When asked if the Emmy and Golden Globe wins had boosted the show’s audience, Salke confirmed there was a correlation.

“We’ve actually been so happy that we’ve seen that,” Salke said. “To have that show get the attention for the quality of storytelling and addictive nature of it [is gratifying].” She added “Maisel” is “outperforming expectations across the service,” and her co-head of television, Albert Cheng, added the show “continues to build audience over time.”

“I think the awards really help,” he said.

That could apply to the Oscars, as well. If nominated films are available to stream while they’re still earning attention from the awards circuit — instead of screening exclusively in theaters — they would be valuable assets for Amazon Prime Video, and thus more motivation to shorten the theatrical windows, barring big box office returns.

Salke, along with her Cheng and co-head of television Vernon Sanders, took questions on the company’s slate for roughly 20 minutes. Here are the other highlights from their panel:

  • As previously reported, Julia Roberts won’t return to “Homecoming” Season 2 outside her role as executive producer. Salke was asked if anyone would be added to the cast to replace Roberts’ star power, and she said, “There’s an opportunity for a star role in [Season 2], and there’s a list of people” Amazon is narrowing down.
  • “The Romanoffs” faced rough reviews and earned little awards attention for Matthew Weiner’s much-hyped first season. When asked if the anthology series would be moving on for Season 2, Salke said, “That was also designed to be a one-season show. We love Matt and have a good relationship with him. We’re talking about that idea and other original ideas.”
  • Amazon has not made a decision about “Patriot” Season 3. “We just have to see where the audience is,” Cheng said.
  • “The Expanse” was picked up for a fourth season at Amazon after Syfy canceled the series. Though Sanders would not confirm a release date, he said, “We are working toward having that new season by the end of the year. The show has come back strong, and we can’t wait for fans of that show to see what their love has helped us build. We’re aiming for that show to come back before the end of 2019.”

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated Amazon could release the films acquired at Sundance direct to Amazon Prime Video. That statement was misinterpreted, and has been amended.]

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