The big surprise in last month’s announcement of the lineup at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, which begins today, wasn’t one of the films. It was that the studio behind 5 of this year’s selections—more than any other distributor—is Amazon, marking the first time Cannes has included films produced by an online streaming company.
The company may have been making a bet on Cannes in February, when it reportedly paid as much as $20 million to acquire the North American rights to Woody Allen’s Café Society, which the festival selected for its opening night. Three of Amazon’s other films will be among those competing for the Palme d’Or; the fifth is a special midnight screening.
Amazon’s presence at Cannes is even more notable given the complete absence of its main competitor: Netflix. Though the two companies made headlines together at Sundance, where they acquired 6 films each in January, Cannes is underscoring their differences, which Tatiana Siegel describes at The Hollywood Reporter:
Though they are frequently lumped together, the two titans’ Sundance strategies differed widely. With Ted Hope leading the Amazon acquisitions charge, the company bought domestic theatrical rights on its six titles and will serve as the domestic distributor. Amazon will be responsible for bringing in a theatrical partner to co-release, with the company's Bob Berney overseeing all marketing and distribution.By contrast, Netflix took only SVOD [Streaming/Video on Demand] rights on their Sundance films, allowing sales agents to sell theatrical rights at a later date. The Netflix model essentially pegs the value of a film — $5 million in the case of Tallulah — to its streaming rights, a dramatic change from the Sundance modus operandi whereby the theatrical rights trumped all else.
At IndieWire, Chris O’Falt details the implications of Netflix’s SVOD-only approach:
As a result, the bigger all-rights distributors will no longer touch these films, while smaller companies will be far less financially motivated to spend money on a theatrical release. One of the reasons companies will put publicity and advertising dollars, to say nothing of the tireless work of their smaller staffs, toward bringing a film to theaters is not simply for box office dollars. They are marketing a film and building its value for its post-theatrical life as well. In other words, they are partially investing in the film’s VOD, SVOD, and premium cable potential. Things get even more complicated on the international front as Netflix also demands the international SVOD rights — Netflix is rapidly and aggressively trying to build its dominance abroad — which all but eliminates an international theatrical distributors’ interest in the film.
By favoring Amazon, Cannes appears to be siding with much of the theater industry against Netflix’s emphasis on both SVOD rights and day-and-date releasing, when a film becomes available to stream on the same day it enters theaters. The festival’s director, Thierry Fremaux, hinted as much to Scott Roxborough of THR, saying, “Amazon and the people in charge of cinema at Amazon — the people who bought Woody Allen and Nicolas Winding Refn — they are movie buffs.” But, as Roxborough notes, Amazon’s stance may be motivated as much by convenience as conviction:
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’s release strategy, still is impossible for Amazon.
Whether Amazon would like to eventually have Netflix-style global exclusivity or not, their current willingness to give films a theatrical release makes them attractive not only to Cannes and exhibitors, but to filmmakers, too. At Wired, Julia Greenberg notes that, for indie filmmakers especially, opting for a Netflix release can be akin to placing your film in a black box:
For the films that don’t make it to theaters, ending up on Netflix in particular can also mean a filmmaker is left in the dark. The company is famously reluctant to reveal viewing figures for any specific piece of content, even to filmmakers themselves. “The big issue is that there’s no transparency,” says Enid Zentelis, an award-winning director and teacher at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts.Zentelis argues that filmmakers can reap a lot of information from the box office numbers that come with a theatrical release. Those numbers help inform future filmmaking choices. Even more importantly, they can influence how much a filmmaker is able to sell her work for in the future.
Amazon had trouble giving its first feature, last year’s Spike Lee-directed Chi-Raq, a very wide theatrical release; theater chains balked at the company’s decision to make the film available for streaming within 90 days of its release. Last month at CinemaCon, the company changed its tune, announcing that it would drop the limited window in favor of the full 90 days, as reported by the financial news service Seeking Alpha:
In fact, the company’s other big CinemaCon news was that it had signed a deal with Lions Gate to handle the theatrical run for its Woody Allen film Café Society, which will be the director's first wide release since 2003. Given Allen’s films are usually platformed out and utilize a limited run model, that’s a big deal.Amazon will also team with Roadshow Attractions for the distribution of its buzzy Manchester By The Sea, [directed by Kenneth Lonergan,] which is an early Oscar hopeful. And let’s be honest, that’s the end game here. Amazon wants to be the home to Academy Award winning content because it knows that will add subscribers and that’s vital to its investors.
Amazon’s acquisitions—which also include the new Whit Stillman film, Love & Friendship, set to open this Friday—certainly give Cannes’ Fremaux ground to stand on when he calls Amazon a company of “movie buffs.” But given the company’s history with book publishers, it’s hard not to conclude that what’s “vital to its investors” is its stronger motivation. David Sims, writing at The Atlantic, agrees:
Allen, Lonergan, and Stillman are the kind of established indie directors who don’t guarantee major box-office takes, but command automatic attention from critics and awards voters, which is exactly what Amazon wants as it looks to make its name as a serious distributor. It has money to burn right now, but it can’t be making $20 million bids for Woody Allen films forever; once these releases gain legitimate traction, the model can shift.
At the moment, Amazon and Netflix need to play by the industry’s rules to get awards consideration, but they will forever be technology, not film, companies. Their first commitment is to a fundamentally different model of distribution than festivals, theaters, cable, and video stores. Rather than selecting the best films, their platforms depend on aggregating the content that will attract the maximum number of subscribers. And in the language of business theory, “the equilibrium state in a market covered by [aggregation] is monopoly: one aggregator that has captured all of the consumers and all of the suppliers.” The ultimate goal of these companies is to control both sides of the market by sheer force of scale. The film industry would be wise not to drop its guard just yet.
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.