As Amazon Suffers String of Box Office Flops, Executives Struggle to Find Winning Strategy

CinemaCon 2019 - Emma Thompson, Jennifer Salke, Mindy Kaling, and Bob Berney-Getty-H 2019
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Marketing and distribution Chief Bob Berney exits as 'Late Night,' the high-profile Sundance dramedy, becomes the latest in a series of theatrical misses for the streamer, which is testing a number of new release plans.

Amazon Studios' film division hasn't yet caught a break despite the course correction envisioned by Jennifer Salke.

Veteran exec Bob Berney is leaving his post as chief of marketing and distribution, while Late Night's dismal box office performance so far means that all 10 movies released in theaters via Amazon's self-distribution arm have floundered since late 2017.

The disappointment of Late Night, which has earned less than $11 million to date, is significant in that it was the first movie blessed by Salke, a seasoned TV executive with little film experience who arrived to run Amazon Studios in early 2018. The comedy is written by Mindy Kaling, who stars opposite Emma Thompson, and Salke had been hands-on for its acquisition in Sundance, where Amazon beat out rival distributors for U.S. rights in a record-setting $13 million deal.

Hollywood has a long tradition of first blaming marketing whenever a movie doesn't work. But sources say Berney was actually sidelined months ago when Salke elevated production executives Ted Hope and Julie Rapaport to co-film chiefs alongside Matt Newman, who comes from the Amazon side of the aisle. The triumvirate replaced motion pictures chief Jason Ropell, who exited shortly after Salke came aboard.

It was Salke, assisted by her trio of top executives, who doled out $47 million on five films at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the most one company has spent at the fabled Park City gathering. That included a deal to pony up $14 million for worldwide rights to the upcoming films Brittany Runs a Marathon and the documentary One Child Nation, both of which will open in August without Berney's oversight. The Late Night deal called for a (risky) commitment to release it nationwide.

A successful wide opening can be tough to pull off for an indie adult title, particularly in summer. Amazon had previously enjoyed box office success with the Oscar-nominated Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick, but both of those films rolled out slowly. They were also handled by third-party distributors on behalf of Amazon.

Insiders say Amazon paid $35 million to market Late Night. That's a relatively small sum for a film opening across the country in June, and the marketing budget wasn't increased by the higher-ups when the movie registered poor awareness on tracking.

There doesn't appear to have been a personality conflict between Berney and Salke. "There was no clash, but they came from very different worlds. He's very indie. She's very corporate. They were never close," says one source.

The streamer declined to comment, while Berney could not be reached. Berney's four-year contract recently expired, and those close to the executive say he left Amazon of his own accord.

For their part, Amazon insiders note that the film division is still in a reorganization period, which takes time. Also, movies enjoy a second life on Prime. Nevertheless, the mood in the hallways at Amazon Studios was decidedly downbeat, if not tearful, Tuesday following the Berney news, according to several sources.

Amazon is already on the hunt for his replacement, even as Salke pursues a dramatic turnabout in the streamer's release strategy. Finding a replacement is a priority, considering that Amazon has a slew of titles waiting in the wings as awards season approaches. (In the interim, Berney's team will report to Newman.)

Not long after Sundance, Salke revealed that some Amazon movies will receive only a truncated release in theaters — similar to rival Netflix — while others won't play on the big screen at all, including offerings from Jason Blum and Nicole Kidman's Blossom Films as well as the Cannes pickup 7500 starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

At the same time, some titles, such as Late Night or the upcoming Honey Boy, starring Shia LaBeouf, will receive a traditional theatrical release.

Honey Boy was likewise acquired at Sundance. Ditto for The Report, a CIA thriller starring Adam Driver and Annette Bening. The Report, however, will only play in select theaters for a few weeks before debuting on Prime. By contrast, Brittany Runs a Marathon will get a traditional release Aug. 23.

Amazon Studios' track record in regard to in-house productions is spotty, at best. The streamer's launch of its own theatrical distribution arm coincided with the release of Woody Allen's big-budget Wonder Wheel, part of a pricey partnership with the controversial director that since-ousted studio head Roy Price spearheaded and has since imploded. Wonder Wheel grossed just $1.4 million in late 2017. Other in-house productions have also faltered at the domestic box office, such as Peterloo ($152,000) and awards contender Beautiful Boy ($7.6 million).

Wall Street analysts say the cost of content for Amazon Prime means little to the bottom line. Rather, it helps Amazon build a relationship with filmmakers and talent. "No one cares about the box office," says Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities. "And nobody ever joins Prime to get free video. They joined to get free shipping."

To date, Manchester by the Sea is Amazon's top-grossing movie, having earned $47.6 million domestically. The Big Sick is second with $42.9 million. Among the 10 films self-distributed by the streamer, Late Night ($10.7 million) actually tops the list, followed by Beautiful Boy ($7.6 million), Cold War ($4.6 million), Life Itself ($4.1 million) and You Were Never Really Here ($2.5 million), among others.

Before Amazon, Berney worked at a slew of companies after breaking onto the scene and distributing Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Later, he was named head of indie distributor Picturehouse, a specialty label at Warner Bros. Following that, he worked at FilmDistrict.