Amazon plans to release 12 movies a year in theaters and on Prime

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »


Amazon Studios might be better known for TV shows, but Amazon has today revealed firm plans to enter the cinema realm by producing and acquiring “original movies for theatrical release and early window distribution on Amazon Prime Instant Video.”

It rather seemed like a one-two punch: Amazon winning a Golden Globe Award for its series Transparent last week; and then Amazon signing up Woody Allen, the incomparable filmmaker, to make an original video series.At last week’s Golden Globes, Amazon Studios snagged two awards — one for best TV musical or comedy series for Transparent and another for the star of the dark comedy, Jeffrey Tambor, who plays a divorced father who has begun his transition to a woman.Among the usual names invoked during the acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes awards — Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin, Les Moonves — was an unusual one: tech billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon.

It followed the lead of Netflix, which became the first non-TV network to win an award at the Emmys back in 2013 with three wins for House of Cards — including best director (David Fincher) and best drama cast. His company’s streaming show Transparent, a dark comedy about a family in which the father comes out as transgender, won the award for best television comedy or musical. Except what the great disrupter was doing wasn’t so much blazing a new digital trail but making good, even perhaps excellent, television — in fact, joining what seems to be an ever-increasing competition to make new golden-age TV.

Symbolically, this marks a full circle for the prolific Allen, who worked in television on “The Sid Caesar Show” and “The Garry Moore Show” in the medium’s early years and went on to win Oscars for “Midnight in Paris,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Annie Hall.” Paralleling the industry itself, the 79-year-old who works via manual typewriter is now going digital. Heading up Amazon’s movie department is Ted Hope, who ran the production company behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Eat Drink Man Woman and who personally produced American Splendour and many others. Quite recently, the financiers of big-budget dramas and comedies consisted of four networks and HBO; now, depending on how you count, there are 17 to 20 serious players, more if you include the British underwriters making shows that also find a home here. Allen’s arrival builds on Amazon’s burgeoning roster of original shows including Alpha House, a comedy from Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, the first series to emerge from Amazon’s test of several pilots in 2013.

But can the seller of cheap off-brand iPhone charging cables, groceries and art also go toe-to-toe with Hollywood to produce award-winners and blockbusters? Not that long ago, television — losing market share, ever subdividing the cable dial, afraid of the Internet and desperate to cut costs — looked like it was on its way to becoming just a new wasteland of cheap reality programming. Where once we waited eagerly to catch our weekly fix, these days we are masters of our own viewing destiny, choosing when to watch and, increasingly, what viewing platform to watch it on. Amazon’s new season, which began Thursday, includes 13 new series such as The Man in the High Castle, executive-produced by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott and Point of Honor written by Lost’s Carlton Cuse.

But now, as though in the blink of an eye, a recast industry has an insatiable appetite for a level of original, intelligent and culture-shaping projects not seen, on this level, since arguably the movies of the 1960s and 70s. For its part, Netflix is adding new series, too, including Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, produced by Tina Fey, Marvel’s Daredevil and Sense8, a sci-fi series from the Wachowskis (The Matrix). The company’s long-simmering conflict with book publishers over e-book prices had broken out into open warfare, with Amazon going so far as to delay shipments of certain Hachette titles deliberately — a move that invited the collective wrath of the literary world.

There’s not only lots of work here, but a high premium on the new, the inventive, the eccentric and really, in the context of traditional television, the virtually unimaginable. Sling TV will cost $20 monthly for about a dozen live Net-delivered TV channels, including ABC Family, Cartoon Network, CNN, Disney Channel, ESPN and ESPN 2, the Food Network, HGTV, TBS, TNT, The Travel Channel and Adult Swim. At the same time that the company was effectively engaged in a book blockade, it was producing what is now an award-winning series that tackles the ambitious subject of transgender people.

While Allen, 79, seemed more than a little bemused, stating laconically “I don’t know how I got into this – I have no ideas and I’m not sure where to begin”, industry watchers hailed it as another coup for a company that started commissioning original television programming only in 2013. And customers can add more channels via news, sports or kids extra packages ($5 monthly). “It’s designed and targeted for millennials, who we see are not choosing traditional pay TV nearly like the previous generation,” said Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch.

But then, gradually, cable subscriber fees began to add another revenue stream to cable channels and, with retransmission fees, broadcast too was getting paid, such that, television is now 50% subscriber supported. Long-simmering controversy follows him no matter the medium, from 1992 and the revelation that Allen, then 56, was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s 19-year-old adopted daughter with composer Andre Previn. (Allen and Soon-Yi married five years later.) But the move confirms the path of creative talent to newer outlets. Then last Wednesday the British cable channel Sky Atlantic said its latest original drama, the eerie thriller Fortitude, would premiere simultaneously in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy on 29 January, launching on the same day in the US through a co-production deal with little-known US cable channel Pivot TV. As consumer adoption of streaming has boomed and some pay TV customers are trimming — and a few cutting — the cord, content providers such as HBO and Showtime have stand-alone services in the works.

Tambor believes that the success of Transparent is only the start of a television revolution. “This is where I feel all content is going,” he says. “Our win was huge; we’re the little engine that could and everyone’s paying attention. [At the Golden Globes] everything shifted.” Certainly Amazon and Netflix have attracted an exciting array of talent. In other words, the company that has changed the way consumers buy everything from diapers to high-definition TVs is disrupting yet another industry. “What we’ve learned, which is kind of our theory from the beginning, is that you really have to go with passion,” Roy Price, vice president of Amazon Studios, said hours after winning the award.

Other film directors taking their work beyond traditional movie studios include Oscar-winner Steve Soderbergh (“Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Sex, Lies and Videotape”) now making “Utopia” for HBO, and David Lynch (“Blue Velvet,” “Mulholland Drive,” “The Elephant Man”) reviving “Twin Peaks” for Showtime. However, Sling will be pivotal to “see whether it can benefit from digital changes in consumer behavior,” says Forrester analyst James McQuivey. “In the end, if Sling TV works it will come down to providing the one thing that millions of people can’t live without: access to ESPN.

Golden Globes voters have always been careful to honour a wide-ranging group of winners, partly as a way to assure high-wattage attendance; still, the box score reveals just how drastically the TV landscape has changed. And awards. “For all of us who are in big broadcast television, you really admire when new voices break through,” Nina Tassler, chairwoman of CBS Entertainment, said. “What it speaks to is the level of authenticity you get when people write from their own personal experiences.” But the night’s big winner was Amazon. Rather than recruiting established talent, it solicited web submissions for scripts and posted TV pilots online, analysing viewer feedback to decide whether to go forward with projects. Search engine giant Yahoo was less cautious: its programming wing Yahoo Screen recently picked up the cult comedy Community for a sixth season in addition to commissioning two original shows. What’s more, with its binge-watching habits, television further defies modern media conventions — particularly the Internet kind — favoring short and fleeting teenage and millennial attention spans (Breaking Bad is 62 episodes over five years).

The Web’s unlimited supply of free content has had the certain effect of devaluing advertising everywhere in a medium where advertising is, as television used to be, the preponderant revenue source. Where a decade ago UK viewers would have waited months for the arrival of the latest US drama, now our fear of missing out, coupled with the possibility of illegal downloading and internet spoilers, means that wait could be a matter of hours.

It also lured bigger names and started paying more competitively, announcing that it would invest $100 million in original content during the third quarter of 2014. Sky Atlantic already airs Game of Thrones on Mondays, 24 hours after the episode has been shown in the US; this year it chose to launch both the Lena Dunham comedy Girls and its newest American acquisition, Togetherness, in the same way. “The world is moving so fast that setting a policy on how to launch something and sticking rigidly to that seems desperate,” says Stuart Murphy, entertainment director of Sky. “The assumption with most of the best American stuff is that we run close to their airdate because generally people don’t like waiting for a show. One of the most notable facets of Amazon’s business model is the way it hands power to the customer, allowing anyone to submit scripts from which pilots are chosen and then asking viewers to vote on which should be developed. It’s an interesting idea (although the viewer vote isn’t final) and one that allows for some pretty esoteric programming: among this year’s pilots is The New Yorker Presents, an odd hybrid of interviews, sketches, poems and cartoons that aims to capture the flavour of the celebrated magazine in TV form. “Our position is not to make TV programmes by committee but to empower the creative executives behind the show,” says Chris Bird, director of content strategy at Amazon. “That gives us the opportunity to make something like that pilot and allow customers to decide what they think.

It’s not how normal TV works but we’re skipping the TV executives and going straight to the user.” Throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks can pay dividends. Though Amazon recently resolved its dispute with Hachette, resentment towards the company still lingers in the publishing industry. “Amazon spent months sanctioning books and hurting thousands of authors,” said Doug Preston, who wrote an open letter signed by more than 900 authors protesting against the company. “This excellent show doesn’t make Amazon a friend of creative content.

Even Napoleon had some mighty fine-looking uniforms.” But on Golden Globes night at least, Amazon’s battles with the book publishing industry were forgotten, and its TV executives vindicated.“A couple of years ago, we were sitting at the El Pollo Loco, thinking that maybe we should develop some TV shows, and now here we are,” Price said. Similarly, the new classical music comedy Mozart in the Jungle feels refreshingly different from most other shows on TV. “I feel as though every good UK TV production company is either in business or going to be in business with Netflix and Amazon,” says Featherstone. “Why wouldn’t you when it multiplies your chances of getting a show made in a writer’s market?” Not that it’s all sunshine and roses.

Curiously, too, the value of high-grade content, of the critically acclaimed, of the lavishly awarded, of the big hit, is that it gets consumers to buy the whole package. The latter ordered a new series from Chris (X-Files) Carter after a positive audience reaction, only to then pull the plug without an episode being aired.

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