Ted Hope had quite a ride at Amazon Studios. Early on, when the independent producer (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) saw the digital culture shifts coming to Hollywood, he landed as head of Amazon Original Movies in 2015, where he became the consigliere to successive studio heads who relied on his counsel and support. Today came the news that he would be leaving the job to return to his old routine.
“I came to realize Ted is a producer through and through,” said Amazon studio chief Jennifer Salke in an email to Amazon Studios staffers today. “And that now is the right time for both him and the studio to make a change.”
The news has been a long time coming. Many in Hollywood questioned how long Hope would last inside the Silicon Valley shopping behemoth, but it took five and a half years for Hope to finally make the transition to an Amazon first-look production deal, which may suit him best.
At the start, Hope showed Amazon Studios founder Roy Price the production ropes, shepherding him at his first Sundance. They greenlit Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” as well as the Woody Allen films “Cafe Society” and “Wonder Wheel.”
In 2016, Hope talked about his transition at the Seattle International Film Festival. “Back as an independent producer, I ran about 25 projects at a time,” he said. “At Amazon, it’s significantly more than that. Films are competing for slots. I have to ask myself, each time, ‘Why is this specific film important? Why am I going to spend time on it this week, this month?’ If I keep picking at that question, it starts to move the film forward.”
It didn’t always happen that way. Hope chased such auteurs as a post-“Boyhood” Richard Linklater (“Last Flag Flying”) and post-“Carol” Todd Haynes (“Wonderstruck”), which yielded coveted film festival slots but did not play well for critics or audiences.
Amazon Original Movies struggled with its corporate structure, which siloed production, distribution, and finance. This led to some strange configurations around budgeting, for example; finance could authorize a budget without input from the production or distribution teams.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wanted to score Oscar winners, and acquisitions “Manchester By the Sea” and Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” won the studio its first three Oscars in 2017, for Best Actor Casey Affleck, Kenneth Lonergan’s Best Original Screenplay, and Best Foreign Language film, respectively.
While Netflix was increasing production spending and adding marketing staff, Amazon Studios’ entertainment output looked small by comparison. Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” won Best Actor at Cannes 2017 for Joaquin Phoenix, who also won raves for Gus Van Sant’s Sundance debut “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” but both limped at the box office.
Later that year, Price left Amazon amid sexual harassment charges — leaving the reins to Jason Ropell, who left after TV veteran Salke took over television and movie production in March 2018. She put Hope and six-year Amazon vet Matt Newman in charge of movies.
Salke made swift moves to right the ship, especially on the TV side, holding her own in the talent wars by signing deals with the likes of Jordan Peele, Lena Waithe, Nicole Kidman, Barry Jenkins, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and launched the lauded “Tales from the Loop,” popular “The Boys,” and an upcoming “Lord of the Rings” series.
With the movie division, Salke tried to make sense of what had always been a confusing strategy. Leaning on her trio of production executives led by Hope, ex-critic Scott Foundas and Weinstein-grad Julie Rappaport, Salke hit Sundance 2019 with a bang, plunking down some $46 million on five films, including mainstream comedies “Late Night” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” documentary “One Child Nation,” Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy,” written by and starring Shia LaBeouf, and Scott Z. Burns’ political thriller “The Report,” starring Adam Driver, Annette Bening, and Jon Hamm.
None made back their acquisition and marketing costs at the box office. And none earned any Oscar nominations, either. That led to Salke abandoning a theatrical distribution strategy, instead adopting Netflix’s use of theaters as a short branding platform heading toward streaming. At which point Bob Berney, respected head of Amazon Studios’ marketing and distribution, decided to leave when his contract expired.
Meanwhile, Hope championed Oscar-perennial Mike Leigh’s $18.6 million period epic “Peterloo,” which earned just $152,000 in North America. Other 2018 films that Amazon financed included Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” ($965,000 worldwide), Felix van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy” ($16.5 million worldwide), and Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” ($7.9 million worldwide). In 2019 the critically-hailed “Cold War,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to “Ida,” lost the foreign-language Oscar to Netflix’s “Roma,” while in 2020 “Les Miserables” lost to Neon’s “Parasite.”
Hope soldiered on as he counseled Salke on the vagaries of film production. Salke will now lean on Rappaport, who is focused on more mainstream filmmaking, plus Foundas and Newman. In the post-pandemic world, the future of theatrical movies has never looked dimmer. Amazon Studios has the luxury of its robust streaming capacity. Of course, its measures of success are different, where titles are viewed with an eye toward Amazon Prime, and their ability to lure new users to the service.
Hope is proud of two Amazon streaming successes, “The Aeronauts” and “Troop Zero,” and Amazon has several of Hope’s fiction and non-fiction productions in the pipeline, including documentary “Time,” Benedict Cumberbatch vehicle “Louis Wain” and Leos Carax musical “Annette,” starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard (which may wait for Cannes 2021), with Jennifer Kent project “Alice + Freda Forever” still in the works.
“He lasted through many different people,” said producer Albert Berger, who with partner Ron Yerxa made two films at Amazon, “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “Blow the Man Down.” “He always very much tried to find the right balance between what they were trying to do at various points in time, and his aesthetic, which fundamentally came from the indie film world. That was the highest standard, so that was always the balancing act.”
Will two-hour movies even register as a necessity going forward? Indies A24 and Neon have proven adept at figuring out the right metrics of production and marketing costs as well as evolving multiple platform strategies with partners such as HBO, Apple and Hulu. As Hope heads back to producing, Salke needs to figure out where Amazon Studios is going with its film production and release strategy, at a time when competition has never been greater from new players such as Disney+, Peacock, and HBO Max.
Salke eventually sent the Amazon staff her farewell memo to Hope, and he sent his as well, below:
Hello Team –
I’m writing today to update you on some changes to the Movies team. Ted Hope will be transitioning from his co-head role and returning to his passion of producing. Ted approached me earlier this year and expressed his feelings about taking on a new challenge. Over the course of several months and many conversations I came to realize Ted is a producer through and through and that now is the right time for both him and the studio to make a change. I couldn’t be happier for Ted as he takes on this new adventure.
Beginning June 2nd, Ted will enter into a multi-year, first look deal with Amazon Studios. This will allow him to focus on the kind of critically acclaimed films he produced prior to joining Amazon and the prestige films he shepherded during his tenure here.
As many of you may know, Ted was hired to grow the movies team five years ago initially focusing on prestige films. His first production was Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed Chi-Raq. What followed was a slate of daring, interesting and award-winning films including the Oscar-winners Manchester by the Sea and Cold War, The Handmaiden, Love & Friendship, Paterson, You Were Never Really Here, The Big Sick and this year’s Oscar-nominated Les Misérables.
Ted is a beloved and widely respected figure throughout the industry. We’re grateful to continue our partnership as he enters into this new chapter. Ted will consult on several movies planned for release in 2020 and he will produce select projects on the Studios’ upcoming development slate. Amazon Studios will always be a home for the best filmmakers in the business, and we consider Ted a member of this group. I’m thrilled that Ted will continue to be a vital part of the Amazon Studios family.
Moving forward, Matt Newman and Julie Rapaport will be Co-Heads of the Movies team, reporting to me. I know the group will be in good hands as they continue their collaborative leadership, and build upon on the great successes AOM has had just within the past year with films including Late Night, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Honey Boy, The Aeronauts and Troop Zero. Please join me in congratulating Matt and Julie on their expanded roles.
I’m so proud of everything the Movies team has accomplished and look forward to continued great work in the future.
And finally, please join me in congratulating Ted on his new venture and thanking him for all his incredible work in helping build Amazon Original Movies.
I have long aspired to improve my skills at expressing my thanks; I begin this letter fretting that I am going to fail to fully demonstrate how appreciative I am of the support, inspiration, and outright fun you have bestowed upon me. This is what this letter is really all about: thanks — my many thanks to all of you.
I have greatly enjoyed contributing to the launch, growth, and ongoing distinction that is Amazon Studios. From the start, it thrilled me that we stood for quality and ambition. It inspired me that we always tried to find new and more effective ways of doing things – and how that got us even more enthused. I love the movies that we developed, the ones we made, acquired and released. So many of our filmmakers were heroes of mine, and those that weren’t became so in the process. Many films we deeply value wouldn’t exist — or at least in the manner they do now — if we didn’t have the opportunity of working together at Amazon. It was particularly gratifying that The Aeronauts and Troop Zero – movies we developed, produced and long championed – connected so well with our customers and became the top performing original films on Prime.
Most of all, I loved working with you as a team. I have never been at a place where so many people were so smart, so passionate, and so committed to raising the bar — where they did not seem into it for themselves. When I first considered coming to Amazon and read our Leadership Principles, I was cynical and could not believe that the ALPs would be embodied by you — it is so great to be proven wrong on such things. Thank you, again. I trust we will get to collaborate many more times to come.
I feel the choice of how we use our labor is one of the most profound freedoms we can enjoy. Instead of just “work”, I have always wanted missions, and – not to be grandiose or anything — for a great amount of my five and half years here at Amazon Studios, I got to feel like my job was a great mission. Amazonians “Dig Deep” in our own unique ways, and after much personal reflection, interrogation, and “stack ranking,” my RCA (Recommended Course of Action) is that it is now time for me to say farewell.
Amazon and Jen have been generous in supporting the launch of my next venture, and we all can feel good that our projects — and the next era of movies at Amazon — are in the hands of my co-heads, Julie and Matt. I trust our new missions will demonstrate how aligned we all truly are. Let me know if I can ever be of help.
Keep lifting the good into the great!