How Amazon's Film Plans Differ from Netflix (and All the Rest)

Illustration by: Læmeur

Studio chief Jennifer Salke tells The Hollywood Reporter she's planning about 10 theatrically released movies a year, as well as 20 direct-to-service titles, as opposed to 90 movies due from Netflix in 2019.

It was the request for a 2 a.m. meeting that tipped Jennifer Salke to the fact that she was operating in a new realm. When Salke was named head of Amazon Studios in February 2018, the former NBC Entertainment president brought relationships and knowledge from the broadcast TV world, but she was new to the film industry and its cultural quirks, including the phenomenon of all-night festival bidding wars.

At this year's Sundance Film Festival, Salke got a quick education and made a bold statement, spending $47 million on five movies, the most any company has spent in Park City in a single year.

"I thought it was crazy," Salke says of walking into her first Sundance negotiation, for the Mindy Kaling-Emma Thompson comedy Late Night, which she ultimately acquired for $13 million with a plan for a wide theatrical release this summer. "People were like, 'Oh, did you just come in with a money bag over your shoulder?' No, we were disciplined and competitive in all this dealmaking. It was purely about finding the best stuff."

In an early February interview in her office on the historic Culver City lot, where Gone With the Wind was filmed and where construction crews are at work on modern new soundstages, Salke, 54, says deciding at what price a movie is a smart investment for Amazon means answering, "How are you enhancing Prime membership? How are you bringing new subscribers to Prime?" She says she has broad financial latitude at the company, and the trust of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and senior vp business development Jeff Blackburn. "We're seeing the movie and I'm buying it a few hours later," says Salke, who has full greenlight authority at Amazon. "Not one person ever called me and said, 'What are you doing? Are you spending too much?'"

After all, while Salke's Sundance spree was record-setting in the world of independent film, it was a pittance for the world's eighth-biggest company: $47 million represents just one-third of 1 percent of the e-commerce giant's $12.4 billion in operating profit in 2018. "As a business, movies don't matter to Amazon at all," notes analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities, who estimates the company will spend $7.5 billion on video content in 2019 for its more than 100 million Prime members. "They look at it as an amenity that they offer their customers."

Salke says she's divided her 2019 slate into three types of movies: wide commercial plays modeled on Amazon's 2017 release of the $56 million-grossing The Big Sick; narrower, awards and art house-driven releases akin to its $2.9 million-grossing foreign-language Oscar contender, Cold War; and a new category of movies that will go directly to the streaming service, including eight thrillers from Jason Blum's genre factory Blumhouse TV and a group of what Salke calls "sexy, date-night movies" from Nicole Kidman's Blossom Films.

In 2019, in addition to Late Night, Amazon's wide theatrical releases will include Jillian Bell comedy Brittany Runs a Marathon, a $14 million Sundance buy, and the Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones adventure film that the company is financing itself, The Aeronauts. Among its art house-oriented releases will be the Adam Driver drama The Report, which will get a fall 2019 release in the awards window, and the Shia LaBeouf memoir film Honey Boy.

Part of Salke's pitch to film­makers at Sundance was Amazon's flexibility in offering different types of releases, with some movies getting a traditional 90-day theatrical window before hitting Prime Video and others garnering releases similar to the shorter, one- to three-week windows that Netflix offered this year, most notably with Roma. In her interview with THR, Salke never mentioned Netflix. But she talked often about "the competition," and she is positioning Amazon as different in some key ways, including the smaller size of her film slate, which she expects to amount to about 10 theatrically released movies a year, and 20 direct-to-service titles, as opposed to 90 movies due from Netflix in 2019.

Salke's three key film executives, Matt Newman, Julie Rapaport and Ted Hope, who all share the title "co-head movies," brought a large team to their Sundance meetings, including their marketing and publicity departments. Agents describe stark differences between sit-downs with Hollywood's two leading streaming companies. "Netflix likes to come in and talk about their service," says one agency source. "Amazon comes in and talks about your movie."

Says another agent of Salke's team, "They were focused on the new regime there and the direct line Jen has to Seattle to unlock the purse strings to make sure that all the money they have flows."

Asked if she could ever see Amazon taking on a major film franchise, a la the James Bond series, Salke points to the company's recent $250 million rights deal with the J.R.R. Tolkien estate for a Lord of the Rings television series and says the company has charged one of its executives, Genna Terranova, with looking into other intellectual property that might fit such a model.

Much of Salke's first year at Amazon was devoted to creating a new corporate culture after the exit of her embattled predecessor, Roy Price. Salke has inherited some of Price's decisions, including a four-picture deal with Woody Allen that she is attempting to terminate, inspiring the filmmaker to file a $68 million breach-of-contract lawsuit (Salke declined to comment on ongoing litigation). She's also wistful about a movie Price passed on — Netflix's first best picture contender, Roma. "I wish that was our movie," Salke says.

In addition to the high-profile acquisitions, Salke says she remains committed to making original films. "It's not a huge volume, but we have a few really key pieces that are moving down the pathway," she says, noting that she expects a new draft at the end of February of a script about groundbreaking politician Shirley Chisholm, for a film to star Viola Davis under a first-look pact with the Oscar winner's JuVee Productions.

Coming from TV, Salke says she was mindful of the film world's preconceptions about her. "There was a lot of sensitivity to the network person coming over, with big commercial taste," she admits. "And I think everyone was also relieved to know, no, she loves and would support smaller prestige movies, and any movie in between, and different business models."

Salke did, however, draw the line at the 2 a.m. meeting for Late Night, sending her team instead: "Look, I go to bed at 10:30."

This story appears in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.