CULVER CITY, Calif. – The film business has chewed up Amazon over the past year and a half.
The trouble started late in 2017, when the tech giant moved into self-distribution. No more would it rely on established Hollywood partners to push its films into theaters. But the box-office game is harder than it looks, and Amazon released six flops in a row. Among them were Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” which cost $25 million to make and took in only $1.4 million in North America, and “Beautiful Boy,” based on the bestselling book, which cost $23 million and collected $7.6 million.
Now a company that is accustomed to entering markets and making the incumbents shudder is pushing the reset button.
“What we struggled with, I think, was putting too much focus on a narrow prestige lane,” said Jennifer Salke, who took over as head of Amazon Studios a year ago after successful stints at NBC and 20th Century Fox Television. “I don’t think we had diverse enough points of view in the storytelling.”
To that end, Salke said, she had decided that the way forward for Amazon involves different “lanes.” Those include awards-worthy specialty films, including five she bought at the recent Sundance Film Festival, a couple for eye-popping prices; sexual thrillers like “Basic Instinct” (1992) or “Body Heat” (1981), a genre that most studios have abandoned; and films from Blumhouse, the horror studio behind hits like “The Purge.” Salke also wants to add a pipeline of young-adult films.
Allen is notably absent from her strategy. “We don’t have any plans to release any Woody Allen movies,” she said, declining to comment further on the filmmaker, who is suing Amazon for backing out of a four-movie deal because of a renewed focus on allegations of sexual abuse against him.
Amazon is now striving, at least to start, to roll out about 30 original movies a year. Budgets will range from a few million dollars up to $50 million or more. But not all of those movies will be released in theaters. For instance, the “sexy date-night movies,” to use Salke’s description, will go directly to Prime Video, Amazon’s streaming service. (Look for them on Saturday nights starting this summer.) The scary Blumhouse movies — eight have been ordered — will also skip theaters.
“Some will be thriller-y, some will have a foot in horror, some will be more serious drama,” said Jeremy Gold, who runs Blumhouse TV with Marci Wiseman. “We see this as a critical next step in building an ongoing relationship between Amazon and Blumhouse.”
Amazon emphasized that it would continue to give about 10 movies a year exclusive runs in theaters. Coming up: “The Aeronauts,” starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as hot air balloon adventurers, and “Late Night,” a comedy starring Emma Thompson as a late-night talk show host who hires her only female staff writer, played by Mindy Kaling.
Even so, Amazon could start to shorten the period of exclusivity given to theater owners for some films so it can bring them to Prime Video more quickly.
The company’s movie operation has shown signs of life recently. Its most recent film release, “Cold War,” a foreign-language romance, received three Oscar nominations. “Cold War” has sold $3.6 million in tickets, a decent total for a foreign film. “We really think it’ll also do well when it reaches Prime Video,” Salke said.
She insisted that the company would rather have a few big hits than lots of little ones.
“It’s not about volume and endless scroll,” she said, in a clear reference to Netflix, which unfurls roughly 90 original movies annually, including documentaries. “The curated approach is the only way to go for us. Quality over quantity.”