Amazon Studios May Be Falling Behind

The company has had little success at the box office or with awards consideration this year.

Last weekend, Disney held onto the box office throne with Frozen II while it held onto fans at home with the continuation of The Mandalorian, among other Disney+ offerings. Even more talked about over the weekend was Netflix’s latest prestige original, Marriage Story. The streaming giant also revealed that its prior awards contender release, The Irishman, had been watched by about 26 million people worldwide in the first week on the platform (half that in the US alone in the first five days, according to Nielsen). And despite Netflix not being as interested in theatrical showings or revealing their box office earnings, IndieWire reports The Irishman grossed close to $7 million during its run on the big screen. Marriage Story was less successful but still did almost $2 million domestically.

Meanwhile, Amazon Studios debuted one of its big acquisitions on the Prime Video streaming service a few weeks ago to little buzz. If anyone is talking about Brittany Runs a Marathon, which was popular enough at Sundance back in January, the conversation appears to lean negatively, focused on its dealing with body image. The indie comedy did gross over $7 million during its theatrical run in late summer, but the company paid $14 million for it. Who knows how many people have watched it on Prime Video (Nielsen has begun tracking Amazon streaming but haven’t reported figures for films yet). The company had better luck earlier this year with Late Night, which they picked up for $13 million. That grossed $15.5 million domestic, an Amazon best since the company began going solo with theatrical distribution (previous hits were partnered with Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate, and other distributors). According to Amazon (via IndieWire), it’s very popular on Prime.   

Despite showing better numbers in the last two years as a solo distributor, Amazon Studios hasn’t been having many gains in the pop culture discourse. Well, unless the conversation is about a certain canceled filmmaker being dropped by the company or about the legacy of its biggest awards achievements for Manchester by the Sea (distributed by Roadside Attractions) being tied to another controversial Hollywood figure. Amazon also hasn’t had as much success at the Oscars since that initial year of recognition, when it became the first streaming media service nominated for Best Picture (with Manchester). They also had nominees for Best Documentary Feature (I Am Not Your Negro) and Best Foreign Language Film (The Salesman), winning the latter in addition to taking home trophies for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay.

The following year, Amazon received a single Oscar nomination for the screenplay for The Big Sick. Other hopefuls were ignored by the Academy, including Wonderstruck, which was the first Todd Haynes movie in more than 20 years (since before Velvet Goldmine) without a single Oscar nod. You’d think someone messed up. And again last year when Beautiful Boy, which broke solo Amazon’s box office record (before Late Night topped it) and had a ton of awards buzz particularly for Timothée Chalamet, and then despite being a Golden Globe and SAG Award contender he was snubbed by the Academy. Suspiria couldn’t even get in for makeup; You Were Never Really Here couldn’t get Joaquin Phoenix another nomination for one of his best performances ever (his Joker is nothing compared to his Joe). Fortunately, Amazon did find well with Cold War, which was nominated for Best Director and Best Cinematography in addition to the safe bet of Best Foreign Language Film. No wins, though.

Cut to the end of 2019, and Amazon is lacking more than usual in awards consideration for its major movies. Sure, the company did garner eight Golden Globe nominations this week, but most were for TV sensations Fleabag (quite deservedly and one of the pop culture landmarks of 2019) and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (which honestly is not as good in its new third season, which isn’t being gabbed about much since its launch late last week). Its film category appearances include Les Misérables for Best Foreign Language Film, a surprise showing for Annette Bening for Best Supporting Actress for The Report, and Emma Thompson for Best Actress – Comedy/Musical for Late Night. Note: the HFPA loves Thompson so much that she was previously nominated in that category for Junior. Yes, the pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (he was nominated, too).

While Les Misérables is one of the expected Oscar nominees in the newly renamed Best International Feature Film category, neither Bening nor Thompson is likely to see a repeat at the Academy Awards. Adam Driver should have been the best bet for The Report, but Netflix has Amazon beat with his better performance in their better-known movie (Marriage Story). The Goldfinch was once forecast to be a heavy hitter in the awards game this year, but the adaptation was dead on arrival in September with poor reviews and disastrous box office. The Aeronauts, a thrilling historical adventure film starring reunited Oscar-favored duo Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, might have been something, and its reviews are rather positive, but it had a terrible debut over the weekend and has received nearly no awards love. Nobody seems to be interested in it at all. Opening this week, Seberg once seemed a contender, possibly for Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of actress turned activist Jean Seberg, but that’s another loser for Amazon in terms of poor critical reception and festival buzz.

And what of Honey Boy, which is the one awards season player for Amazon Studios this year with a normal theatrical run, well ahead of its eventual Prime Video release? The semi-autobiographical drama scripted by and starring Shia Lebeouf was a relative megahit when it debuted on four screens with a $75K per-screen average. That was one of Amazon’s best limited-release opening grosses ever, even better than Manchester and Late Night (Suspiria had a better average). And yet somehow, the movie is somehow falling apart as it expands. The word of mouth on Honey Boy has sounded really great, but this past weekend its average was under a thousand dollars with the theater count up to 460 locations nationwide. Awards-wise, it’s not doing much better. The Sundance Grand Jury winner should at least be garnering nominations for its performances, but it received nothing from the Golden Globes and its only recognition from the Critics’ Choice Awards is for Best Young Actor, for Noah Jupe.

Other than its chances in the Best International Feature category, Amazon Studios has potential with one other film: One Child Nation. The personal nonfiction effort from Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang has some stiff competition in the Best Documentary Feature category, including another partly China-set film from Netflix (American Factory), but it’s one of the most acclaimed docs of 2019. Unfortunately, it did poorly in theaters and failed to win one Critics’ Choice Documentary Award out of its five nominations, which included such major categories as Best Documentary Feature, Best Directing, and Best Editing. Following its Grand Jury Prize win at Sundance this year, One Child Nation appeared to be a huge get for Amazon, particularly for Oscar contention. They’ve only had one doc nominated so far, I Am Not Your Negro, which was in collaboration with Magnolia Pictures. Two years ago, the Amazon Original Human Flow, which was also partnered with Magnolia and also made by a Chinese filmmaker, at least made the Oscar shortlist.

The primary reason for Amazon to be having trouble as a major movie distributor in the various levels of success is hardly the quality of the films. Many of their acquisitions are festival winners and popular with critics. However, the kinds of movies they get behind are not always the most appealing sells. They don’t have the biggest stars, their comedies aren’t that broad, and their awards-hopeful prestige dramas can tend to be heavier than what audiences are looking for in their night out or their night in these days. And while they often work with some of the most interesting filmmakers of the moment, such as Haynes, Alma Har’el, Luca Guadagnino, Lynne Ramsay, Gus Van Sant, Drake Doremus, Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, Mike Leigh, Pawel Pawlikowski, Park Chan-wook, Nicolas Winding Refn, and James Gray, these auteurs aren’t always the most easily accessible to mass audiences or even Oscar voters.

When it comes down to the business, the product is always a significant factor in whether something sells or not, but there’s always the belief that anything can be marketed well with the right genius behind the campaign. So does Amazon need to rethink their advertising and other strategies for getting butts in seats and awards in hand? The company has the money to afford whatever is needed. They also just might have the money to not care about box office and awards right now if their subscribers (which also receive music streaming, free shipping in their online store, and other benefits) aren’t dropping and perhaps if enough people are watching the content once it reaches their streaming date.

“The mission is to align the movie side to the same values of trying to get premium content to the global consumer,” Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke told IndieWire a couple of months ago. “That’s what pays the bills. I will have streaming movies that I will deliver at a regular cadence to my customers globally.” By the sound of that, the films are just product to the company, which has been moving towards a Netflix model with its theatrical windows lately (The Aeronauts just hit cinemas but will be streaming on Prime this month). But Netflix is packing houses for The Irishman and then also dominating in nominations at the big awards. At least Amazon had been doing their own thing before.

Regardless, true movie lovers will continue to seek out their brand in theaters and online if they keep to the unusual — such as a Leos Carax musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard (Annette), a teen lesbian romance from The Babadook‘s Jennifer Kent (TBD), a drama about a musician who goes deaf that has phenomenal sound design (Sound of Metal), and a graphic novel adaptation from visionary director Marjane Satrapi about Marie Curie (Radioactive) — and mostly find features worth our time (they need to set a date for the intriguing Blow the Man Down, which currently has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score after a few big film fest appearances). I’m curious to see what Amazon picks up at Sundance next month and how much they spend given their record payouts last January. It’s time for the company to find at least their first big film hit or their first award-winning cinematic classic, if not both. After all, if film product drops on Amazon but doesn’t make a sound, what’s the point?

Christopher Campbell: Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.