Amazon's Spike Lee Movie 'Chi-Raq' to Debut in Theaters for December Oscar Run (Exclusive)

Spike Lee - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Spike Lee - H 2015

The film — exploring the issue of violence in inner-city Chicago — is the first release from Amazon's new movie division.

Spike Lee's Chi-Raq will kick off Amazon Studios' film slate with an awards-qualifying run in December, The Hollywood Reporter has learned, a bold move as the streamer moves into the original movie space.

Amazon Studios confirmed to THR that it is backing the film after the company's involvement had been rumored for months. ICM arranged financed and brokered the deal for U.S. rights on behalf of Lee, who wrapped shooting last week in Chicago.

Chi-Raq was originally planned for a world premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, if accepted, but Lee and Amazon are so high on the project that they're now hoping for a spot in this year's awards race, insiders say. Following a qualifying run in December, the movie would officially open after the new year.

The streamer declined comment on those plans, but Amazon Studios head Roy Price and his movie production chief, Ted Hope, say Chi-Raq will play first in theaters, then be made available relatively quickly to Amazon Prime customers (that's the plan for all of its movies).

"We couldn’t have come up with a better film to launch our division in every which way. Chi-Raq makes no apologies and dares to shock,” Hope said in his first joint interview with Price since arriving at Amazon in January. “Spike Lee is one of the most distinct and visionary filmmakers of our time.”

Chi-Raq, an update of of the classical Greek play Lysistrata, stars Teyonah Parris as a woman who protests black-on-black gun violence by going on a sex strike. It draws its title from the nickname comparing Chicago to Iraq, and has already sparked controversy. (City elders, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, weren't happy about the name.) Starring alongside Parris are Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris, Angela Bassett, John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson.

“I’m honored to be part of the film that will launch Amazon Studios and to tell a story that is so important. Please don’t be fooled by the title of Chi-Raq, this new Spike Lee joint will be something very special. We have assembled a stellar cast," said Lee, who wrote the script with Kevin Willmott.

Unlike rival Netlfix, Amazon intends to launch its original movies in theaters first, versus a day-and-date release in cinemas and on the streaming service, a no-no among exhibitors. Both Hope and Bob Berney, head of marketing and distribution for Amazon's new film division, are indie veterans.

"For Chi-Raq, and for future projects, we will collaborate with a top-tier theatrical distributor who shares our vision and passion," said Berney.

The movie is written in a distinct lyrical style — akin to Shakespeare, but more accessible. Still, it wasn’t the easiest sell, and Lee, who wrote the script with Kevin Willmott, organized a table read at the W Hotel last winter in Los Angeles after a dinner with Price and Hope at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Some 50 people participated, including Jackson and Common.

Lee is producing Chi-Raq via his 40 Acres and a Mule shingle. IM Global is selling international territories.

Amazon's fledgling film unit — aiming to release 12 films a year with budgets ranging from $5 million to $25 million — is quickly taking shape. In recent weeks, the streamer reportedly acquired domestic rights to Elvis & Nixon, a historical drama starring Kevin Spacey as President Richard Nixon and Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley. It is also pursuing a Jim Jarmusch movie; Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a passion project about an ad executive who travels back in time, where Don Quixote mistakes him for Sancho Panza; and Eleanor Coppola’s Bonjour Anne, a romance drama starring Diane Lane, Nicolas Cage and Yvan Attal.