Why Cannes Is Giving Amazon (and Not Netflix) So Much Love

Amazon Cannes Love - H 2016
Courtesy of Amazon

"They are movie buffs," says fest director Thierry ?Fremaux of the streamer that, unlike its disruptive rival, is playing by Hollywood's theatrical rules (so far).

The last time Ted Sarandos went to Cannes, he got heckled. "You are destroying the film ecosystem of Europe!" a French journalist screamed after Netflix's chief content officer finished a 2015 keynote on the future of cinema. It was up to Harvey Weinstein, also in the audience, to stand up and defend the streaming service, as well as Sarandos' cinematic credentials.

Compare that chilling reception with the warm embrace Cannes has given Amazon. Festival director Thierry Fremaux picked five Amazon titles this year — Woody Allen's Cafe Society for opening night, Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon and Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden in competition, and Jarmusch's Iggy Pop documentary Gimme Danger as a special screening — more than any other studio.

While the traditional film industry has bristled at Netflix's disruptive presence — the theatrical boycott of its Beasts of No Nation by the four largest U.S. exhibitors, a response to the streamer's decision to bow the film online day-and-date, essentially killed its awards chances — it so far has warmed to Amazon.

"There is no suspicion about [their] love of cinema. They are good for cinema," says Fremaux. "Amazon and the people in charge of cinema at Amazon — the people who bought Woody Allen and Nicolas Winding Refn — they are movie buffs."

Ted Hope, head of film production at Amazon, went further, telling THR that Cannes' mandate and his company's "are virtually one and the same. … We are a director-driven company; we aim for visionary and ambitious films that have the stamp of what an auteur is, that singular voice. And that is certainly what Cannes has always been."

Hours after Cannes announced its lineup, international exhibitors at CinemaCon joined the festival in welcoming Amazon to the fold, wildly cheering executives who promised that, unlike Netflix, all of their films will go out in theaters, holding to the traditional 90-day theatrical window.

"Amazon seems to be willing to play the theatrical game, as it were — to play by the rules," says Phil Clapp, CEO of the U.K. Cinema Association. "That commitment to the … theatrical experience sends an important signal to the broader industry that there is a willingness to engage [and] be a full partner, perhaps in contrast to others operating in this space."

Adds Hope: "You look at what our slates are, and most of these films will benefit by traditional windows. We aren't truly doing something — to use the pop­ular, overused term of the day — disruptive. We are doing something that highlights what's great about cinema and trying to make it work better."

Material also matters: Netflix has invested in a slate of Adam Sandler movies. Amazon — which in addition to its Cannes titles has the Kevin Spacey-Michael Shannon starrer Elvis & Nixon, Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship and Manchester by the Sea with Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck — is singing European cinema owners' tune. "I think Amazon's slate might actually do better on the Old Continent," says Eddy Duquenne, CEO of Belgium's Kinepolis movie chain. "We have a population that's a little bit grayer than the U.S., is less interested in the studio sequels and wants more estrogen and less testosterone in its movies."

Amazon insists it sees value in the theatrical release, which, claims Amazon Studios head Roy Price, “positions a movie as a real movie in customers’ eyes.” But Amazon's cinema-first strategy is as practical as it is ideological. Unlike Netflix, which operates its streaming service in virtually every country in the world (China being the one major exception), Amazon's Prime Video service is not available in France, in Italy, in Canada, Spain, Australia, Russia or Brazil. A global day-and-date rollout, the cornerstone of Netflix' release strategy, still is impossible for Amazon.

“At the moment, Amazon loves the art house, or smart house section of the market, where they need a theatrical, critics-supported release to kick-start the next release windows,” says Mike Ryan, chairman of global trade association the Independent Film & TV Alliance. “But we've seen in the past how these digital companies can turn on a dime and change their strategies.”

A version of this story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.