When Amazon made a unilateral decision in early February to stop accepting documentaries and short films via Prime Video Direct (a policy that also covers “slide shows, vlogs, podcasts, tutorials, filmed conferences, monologues, toy play, music videos, and voiceover gameplay”), the announcement also served as a quiet purge. Amazon also has been dropping long-running documentary titles from the service, with stakeholders receiving no warning or context for the decisions.
Filmmakers and distributors are aghast, but Amazon Prime Video Direct seems to be egalitarian in how it treats its partners. Whether you’re an individual filmmaker or an established specialty distributor, no one can ask an Amazon Prime Video Direct representative for more information; there’s no one to ask. All inquiries are submitted via trouble tickets, and everyone receives the same boilerplate response via their Amazon Prime Video direct dashboards: Unless otherwise indicated,” the message says, “removed titles (or titles not selected for licensing) may not be resubmitted or appealed.”
“The selections are so random, it feels like a machine is doing this and not humans,” said one executive working on films impacted by the decision. “The lack of any human response adds to the frustration. It reminds me of when politicians want to cut PBS funding.” (An Amazon representative declined to comment for this story.)
Despite Amazon’s dystopian approach to customer service, Prime Video Direct has been in a process of evolution from the start. When it launched in May 2016, it was positioned to lure content creators away from YouTube with bonuses and a more premium experience. Anyone could upload content to Amazon either as titles included free with Prime subscriptions (and earn a royalty) or as digital purchases or rentals. Given Amazon’s massive reach, and multiple ways to make money, it was positioned as a fierce competitor in the battle for video ad dollars.
The tactics were also key in building the streamer’s library, which is now dramatically larger than any of its peers. A recent report from Reelgood found Amazon had over 15,000 movies included with Prime in the U.S. Netflix had over 3,500 and Hulu had just under 1,000. For distributors and filmmakers alike, easy uploading to a scale audience was an irresistible combination. Sure, everyone does business with platforms like Tubi, Vimeo, Google Play, and Apple, but Amazon — the only mainstream service that accepts unsolicited film submissions — is hard to beat.
“Amazon Prime was built on the backs of independent filmmakers,” said Alex Ferrari, a filmmaker and author of “Rise of the Filmtrepreneur: How to Turn Your Indie Film into a Profitable Business.” “If you give too much power to one source, you’re screwed. You need to diversify multiple revenue streams, and you need to control as many of those sources as possible.”
Today, the idea of Amazon creating a YouTube killer seems a little silly: They’re different businesses, and even Google still struggles to make money from its billions of YouTube eyeballs. Instead, Prime Video Direct became very successful as a kind of next-gen ancillary market that helped fill a gap once filled by DVDs.
The ability to upload films directly, without negotiating complex licensing deals, meant every film had a shot at finding an audience, and small companies had a sustainable revenue stream. In 2017, Amazon upped the ante with its Festival Stars acquisition program, which offered bonuses of up to $200,000 for some film festival titles — something that distributors immediately built into their acquisition strategies.
Orion Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn Films
Prime Video Direct continues to be a lifeline for independent filmmakers and distributors, but there have been signs that Amazon is not as enamored. By 2019, Festival Stars was dead, and Amazon significantly changed its royalty structure for titles monetized through Amazon Prime. They are now calculated according to a proprietary “customer engagement ranking.” Currently, rates range from one cent to 12 cents per hour, down from a flat rate of 15 cents when the service launched five years ago.
Amazon’s decision to halt all documentary content submissions without so much as a heads up suggests that relationships with these long-term partners are not a primary concern. And with the surging popularity of nonfiction content well established, it also feels like the amputation of a healthy limb — as if Apple Music decided it would no longer carry country or R&B.
With documentaries no longer accepted for direct submission on the world’s largest website, that’s expected to immediately impact acquisitions across the board. “Of course it’s going to negatively affect the deals,” said one sales agent whose business focuses on both documentaries and narrative features. “If I’m thinking optimistically, I could imagine a part-two of this, perhaps a more curated approach where documentaries that have a certain standard of production value are welcomed back into the fold.”
That’s possible, but it presumes that quality issues drove the Amazon decision in the first place. Certainly, Amazon is well past the point where its demand for volume left room for specious retellings of alien abduction, or the kinds of conspiracy theories that could leave the conglomerate vulnerable to lawsuits. At the same time, this month Amazon took down Katherin Hervey’s San Quentin documentary “The Prison Within,” which follows prisoners participating in a restorative justice program; it won the Social Justice Award at the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Whatever the impetus for the new policy might be, for now it’s a black box. That only trebles the negative impact: It’s impossible to counter a market force if you don’t know what it is.
Top-performing films submitted through the service could make hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is huge by the standards of independent filmmaking. At Amazon, which has a market cap of $1.6 trillion, that sum aspires to be a rounding error. Amazon also suffers from a glut of lesser content (which explains the ban on toy play and slide shows), as well as an interface often criticized for its clunkiness and an inability to highlight its own premium products.
That appears to be changing. Amazon recently made a major overall deal with Donald Glover that, in addition to starring in a “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” series with fellow Amazonian Phoebe Waller-Bridge, will also give him an Amazon Prime channel to spotlight his own work as well as other curated content.
Meanwhile, Amazon is paying more attention to IMDb TV, its free, ad-supported streaming service available both within Prime Video and as a standalone app. Judge Judy is set to revive her iconic role for a forthcoming show on the service, while Amazon opted to put “Mad Men” on IMDb TV in a deal that saw the show move from its longtime streaming home at Netflix. “Schitt’s Creek,” fresh off its record-breaking Emmy sweep, is also available on the free service.
When Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke replaced the disgraced Roy Price in 2018, she came with a directive: Build a service that drives value for Prime subscribers. Some wonder if it’s a matter of time before Amazon decides that unsolicited submissions don’t do enough to fulfill that mandate.
“We would prefer this were not to happen,” said Kino Lorber CEO Richard Lorber. “We will see some erosion. We think we’re going to be able to make up some of it with our Kino Now TVOD platform. Part of the reason we launched it a year ago was in anticipation of the need for us to control our own destiny in the TVOD space.”
Lorber said he has several documentaries processing on the platform. It’s unclear whether they will be rejected by Amazon.