Hollywood’s indie film pool prepares for the Amazon plunge

21 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Amazon doubles down on entertainment with ‘indie’ movie bet.

When Amazon Inc announced on Monday its move into the movie business, the Internet retailer sent a ripple through Hollywood’s pool of independent film.(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc is making a high-stakes foray into the challenging realm of independent movies, the latest step in its attempt to move beyond simply distributing digital entertainment content to creating it.

Yesterday, Amazon (whose chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post) announced a new plan to finance lower-budget movies, release them in theaters and then get the films streaming online within a couple of months, rather than making cineplex-averse viewers wait a year to get a look at them.Amazon.com is joining the fray with a hybrid approach to produce and distribute movies in a way that could challenge the film industry’s long-standing business model. Amazon said on Monday it was aiming to produce close to 12 movies a year for theatrical release which would then be available on its Prime video service within two months, significantly faster than the roughly one-year wait it normally faces to stream Hollywood releases. The Seattle-based company said Monday it plans to acquire and produce about a dozen “original, prestige” films a year — about the same sized slate as some Hollywood studios. But from its waters also spring many acclaimed films, best picture Oscar nominees like “Selma” and “Whiplash” and quite a few commercial successes.

And just like its Hollywood brethren, Amazon plans to release movies in theaters first — at least a month before making them available on Amazon’s Prime Instant Video streaming service. While modest compared with Hollywood blockbusters, the move will add to already hefty spending at Amazon, potentially unnerving investors concerned about the company’s lack of profitability. Most of Hollywood’s big studios largely abandoned the dramatic film business to concentrate on action adventure blockbusters and sequels, where there is less risk among a built-in fan base and more likely financial reward. Such films have proved challenging even for major Hollywood studios such as Paramount and Warner Brothers, which have bowed out of the business in recent years, said Jeff Bock, Box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “It’s a tough, tough racket to play consistently,” he said, pointing to the difficulty of getting good content and the competition for quality productions at festivals like Sundance.

It may not have been Sony Pictures Entertainment’s plan to release “The Interview” online, but after hackers threatened theaters that planned to show the movie, Google picked it up, and viewers reached for their credit cards in large numbers, even after the movie eventually hit the big screen. News of a new, deep-pocketed buyer in the independent sphere would always be welcome, but Amazon’s decision to hire a big name in the independent film world to head up Amazon Original Movies drew special praise. “It’s exciting, especially because it’s led by Ted Hope, who has a pretty sterling track record in terms of filmmaking and projects that he’s been involved with,” said Ned Benson, who made his directorial debut with “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” released last year. The move shows Amazon’s growing ambitions in digital media, coming just days after the online retailer signed director Woody Allen to create a TV series and one of its existing series won a Golden Globe Award, a first for Internet TV services. But if Amazon wants to step up and finance a bunch of thoughtful, small-budget movies, and to continue with the kind of consistent indie sensibility to the company’s film projects that has characterized its best television projects, I’m all for it.

Hope was the producer behind films like “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “American Splendor.” The latter won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. However, two years ago Walt Disney Co. agreed to bypass its longtime premium pay-TV partner, Starz, and release its movies to Netflix beginning in 2016.

Dee Rees: “Pariah,” Rees’s first feature, already attracted attention from HBO, which tapped her to direct its upcoming biopic of Bessie Smith, starring Queen Latifah. Director Wash Westmoreland, who made the drama “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore, for $4 million last year, said filmmakers like him could get a lift from the likes of Amazon. “Right now, in independent film, everything is crushed down to budgets below $5 million, so you end shooting in 20 days,” he said. “In the next tier, there is such an expansion with the potential of projects that filmmakers are very eager for.” In announcing the move Monday, Amazon Studios vice president Roy Price said: “We hope this program will also benefit filmmakers, who too often struggle to mount fresh and daring stories that deserve an audience.” With the news still fresh, it was hard to find skepticism in Hollywood for Amazon’s grand plans.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is known for his hunger to tackle new markets but the company has had a mixed track record, as with the recent Amazon Fire phone, whose price tag it has slashed after weak sales. Netflix’s first theatrical feature will be a sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” That film, which is produced in conjunction with the Weinstein Co., is expected to become a summer release.

Even its biggest competitor in the digital original content race, Netflix Inc., threw a rose its way. “In terms of changing movie distribution, we are really allied in our view that consumers are tired of waiting so long,” Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings told Reuters. “It may turn out that their entry is quite helpful to help both of us grow in that area.” (Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine and Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Paul Tait)” Destin Daniel Cretton: “Short Term 12,” Cretton’s movie about Grace (Brie Larson), a troubled young woman in her early 20s who works at a residential facility for children who can’t live with their own families, was one of the best movies I saw in 2013. Sony Pictures’ recent success in releasing its comedy “The Interview” through video-on-demand services after threats from hackers was also seen as a blow to big-screen businesses. “That verbiage probably scares theater owners,” Bock said, referring to Amazons’ plan to narrow the window between theatrical releases and streaming availability, adding that the theater chains could take some solace in Amazon’s decision not to go for simultaneous release or just putting films straight out on video. National Association of Theater Owners Vice President Patrick Corcoran declined to comment on Amazon’s move but said the time between theatrical and home video release would play into theaters’ decision on whether to take a particular film.

Amazon’s “Transparent” won the statue for best original comedy. “Audiences already recognize that Amazon has raised the bar with productions in the episodic realm, tackling bold material in unique ways and collaborating with top talent, both established and emerging,” Hope said in the statement. Amazon may have decided to target theatrical releases rather than pushing movies straight to Prime because big name talent still associates paying ticketholders with prestige, said Phil Contrino, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com. “At the end of the day a theatrical release still generates a lot of publicity, it gets a movie reviewed – every person that goes to watch that movie is paying for it,” he said. I particularly like “Sound of My Voice,” in which Marling plays a cult leader who manages to intuit the hurt in a skeptic who has set out to expose her, and “The East,” about an attempt by a corporate sabotage firm to infiltrate an anarchist collective. The company spent an estimated $2 billion on content in 2014 with about $200 million of that used to develop original shows, according to Wedbush Securities analysts. Such projects include “Mozart in the Jungle” and the multi-Golden Globe Award-winning “Transparent”. “The Golden Globes, they got that, now the next step is Oscar nominations,” Bock said, adding that only theatrically released movies are eligible for Hollywood’s biggest award. (Reporting By Shubhankar Chakravorty and Sneha Banerjee in Bengaluru, and Christian Plumb and Hilary Russ in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Alden Bentley)

Issa Rae: Rae’s attempts to transition from her Web series, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” to television haven’t quite worked out so far. In part because I wonder what might happen if she had to tell a story in the tighter constraints of film, I’d like to see Amazon give her a shot. 5.

Andrew Haigh: Okay, he’s pretty busy on HBO’s sitcom about modern gay life, “Looking.” But Haigh has a wonderfully distinct visual sensibility, and the fog that filters through San Francisco only adds to his gauzy, warm, slightly washed-out worlds. And with the romantic comedy in rather dire trouble at the mainstream box office, he just might offer Amazon a chance to reinvigorate the genre for a new generation — and for audiences who might have been excluded from it in the past.

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