Amazon Heads to Fall Festivals With a New Film Strategy and Something to Prove

Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Sundance; Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios
Annette Bening in TIFF title 'The Report;' Reid Scott and Mindy Kaling in 'Late Night,' which has grossed only $15.5 million domestically.

In the wake of the underperforming 'Late Night,' the streamer is taking a page from Netflix's book: "Success for our films is not measured by traditional metrics or simple box office reporting."

Seven months after Amazon racked up a record $47 million in acquisitions at Sundance, the company's film division is heading into the fall festival season with a slate of movies it now needs to sell to audiences. After underwhelming box office results for its first Sundance buy, the Mindy Kaling comedy Late Night, which has grossed $15.5 million domestically since opening in June, Amazon is deploying an array of release strategies for its Toronto-destined films, including The Report, The Aeronauts and Honey Boy.

There's no question Amazon had higher hopes for Late Night, for which it spent $13 million on U.S. rights and committed to a wide release, but the streamer says the calculus of an Amazon hit is different from that of a standard theatrical release.

"Success for our films is not measured by traditional metrics or simple box office reporting," says Matt Newman, co-head of movies at Amazon Studios. "The theatrical release is one path for us to market a film before its Amazon Prime Video release."

For two of its awards season-geared films, the streamer has set release dates based not on when a film will fare best in theaters, but on when it will find the largest audience on Amazon Prime. The Adam Driver-Annette Bening CIA drama The Report will open in theaters Nov. 15 before premiering on Amazon Prime on Nov. 29, in time to reach Thanksgiving weekend audiences. Similarly, the Eddie Redmayne-Felicity Jones hot air balloon adventure movie The Aeronauts will open in theaters Dec. 6 before premiering on Amazon Prime on Dec. 20, to reach year-end holiday audiences. Those two-week releases are a departure from how Amazon attained its biggest film successes — Manchester by the Sea ($47.7 million domestic) and The Big Sick ($42.9 million domestic) — both of which were handled by third-party distributors and had traditional theatrical windows.

Since Amazon launched in-house marketing and distribution departments in 2017, the company has yet to match those heights. And Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke's trio of film executives — Newman, Julie Rapaport and Ted Hope — have taken time to find their footing in an inhospitable box office climate.

The truncated releases for The Report and Aeronauts are modeled on the path Netflix pioneered in 2018 with its best picture nominee, Roma, but it's a route that risks what had been one of the company's strongest selling points to Hollywood's creative community, says analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities. "Amazon doesn't care if they lose $30 million," Pachter says. "They do care if they alienate filmmakers. Amazon was able to capitalize on being the benevolent streaming service by giving filmmakers the full theatrical release."

The company is heading to Toronto with a whopping nine movies to promote, including the Kristen Stewart vehicle Seberg, the French-language drama Les Misérables and the Marie Curie biopic Radioactive, and will likely buy more.

"I'm looking at them as a healthy place to sell movies right now," says one agency source. "Late Night on the surface to us didn't work. But we don't have visibility into their Prime metrics. They're not a traditional studio. We're selling them content in the same way we would with the other buyers — when the deal is right."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.