Can you count on Amazon?
The retail giant is making a bold play for film industry dominance with Kenneth Lonergan's Oscar hopeful, Manchester By the Sea
When Kenneth Lonergan walked into this year's Sundance Film Festival, few anticipated he would find career salvation in the arms of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
It was late January, and Lonergan was in town for the world premiere of Manchester by the Sea, his first film in more than a decade. The writer-director carries a tremendous reputation in both the film and theatre worlds – his feature debut, 2000's You Can Count on Me, is universally adored; his plays, including This Is Our Youth, have enjoyed successful runs off and on Broadway – but he was still shaking off the legacy of Margaret, his second film that, although shot in 2005, took six years to escape the editing room, trailed by disputed cuts, lawsuits and precious little box office.
While critics eventually cottoned on to Margaret, such goodwill can only take a filmmaker so far, and, to some observers, Manchester by the Sea seemed like Lonergan's last chance before the industry had the right to throw the man in director's jail for good.
But then a curious thing happened, the kind of turnaround story Sundance is famous for: Manchester by the Sea brought the house down, hard. The premiere's audience – populated by industry-hardened cynics – wept openly as Lonergan unspooled his intimate and devastating tale of a lonely janitor (Casey Affleck) who is forced to care for his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges).
After the trade reviews poured in – Variety called the film "superb," while The Hollywood Reporter hailed it as a "dense, expert drama of broken New England families" – an all-night bidding war broke out, with Fox Searchlight, Weinstein Co., and Focus Features all circling the film, now branded prime Oscar bait. Which is when another twist landed in Lonergan's comeback narrative.
The eventual buyer was not one of the industry's seasoned indie studios, but Amazon Studios, the upstart film wing of Bezos's retail giant, which paid a whopping $10-million (U.S.) for the movie. Suddenly, Manchester by the Sea didn't just represent the redemption of Kenneth Lonergan, but the rewiring of the entire film industry. By snapping up Manchester, Amazon announced itself as a major player ready to disrupt the holiest of Hollywood rituals: the awards race.
For Lonergan, at least, it was a godsend. "I'm not great at understanding the dynamics of the industry as a business – and I don't mean to sound overly naive or anything, either," says the director, balancing both his trademark characteristics (self-deprecation and grumpy deference) in an interview during this past September's Toronto International Film Festival. "But [Amazon] is very keen to get into the movie business, and they're putting a lot behind this. So I'm just glad they're using me as a stalking horse."
For the industry, though, it is perhaps an unwelcome change to business as usual. Along with fellow streaming service Netflix, Amazon represents a serious threat to the bedrock institutions that traffic in prestige film – the art-house heavyweights (Fox Searchlight, Weinstein, Focus, Lionsgate, Sony Pictures Classics) that thrive under the shadow of the Big Six (Paramount, Sony, Fox, Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal) largely thanks to the Oscar contenders they produce.
With the major studios backing away from such mid-budget dramas in favour of mega-franchises, this is where the imprints shine. But if Amazon – which has a huge war chest to dip into thanks to its parent company, and serious behind-the-scenes talent in indie veterans Ted Hope and Bob Berney – decides to seriously pursue the film business, it could starve the other players out.
"Amazon is doing this the right way – you have a company known for their small-screen programming, like Transparent, and they want to make a foray into big-screen productions. To go this route, you have to go either with a big-budget film or an Oscar contender, and that's what Amazon did," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker comScore. "With Lonergan, he is now exactly the kind of filmmaker you want to be in business with if you want to pursue critical acclaim, Oscar buzz, and all the prestige that comes along with that."
Also critical to Amazon's plan is its patience in not rushing its revolution. The company has committed to traditional theatrical releases for all its films, meaning Manchester by the Sea will be distributed in the U.S. by Roadside Attractions and in Canada by Mongrel Media before it appears on Amazon's streaming service, thereby placating theatre owners nervous that their business might be cannibalized if a film is available to stream the same day. (Netflix has gone the opposite route, insisting that theatres play its films the same day they become available to stream – a strategy that has garnered few takers, and partly led to a failed awards push for last year's Idris Elba-starring Beasts of No Nation.)
"Respecting the theatrical window is smart, because in order to get an Oscar nomination, you have to play a theatre – the tradition of the Academy would never allow for any other way," says Dergarabedian. "So Amazon is playing the long game right here – getting movies that have this art-house style, going limited with the release, getting the critical word out, waiting for audiences to embrace them, crowing about their per-screen averages, and then releasing it on the small screen later."
The end game? To convince more top-tier talent like Lonergan that Amazon has the filmmaker's best interests at heart – which, ideally, will lure subscribers to the company's streaming service.
Even if it all comes down to money, Lonergan is at least satisfied that there is a home for his kind of smaller-scale filmmaking.
"Hey, I like comic-book movies and those big-budget movies, too, but I like these kind of personal stories as much or more, and they're always popular when they're made available," the director says. "When you talk to the Amazon people like Ted Hope, they really want to develop and make and sell movies that are meaningful to people. It's gratifying. If you take a cold, objective look, audiences are interested in seeing other types of movies – and I'm just hoping that companies like Amazon draw people to those movies that others have given up on."
Manchester by the Sea opens Nov. 25 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.