The Year of Amazon’s Thinking

By  · Published on December 22nd, 2016


How you got Manchester By The Sea, Café Society and The Handmaiden extra fast with Amazon Prime.

Some of the grumpy stars of Amazon’s 2016’s purchases: Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea and Woody Allen’s Café Society.

Amazon once sold books. They still do, at least 4.8 million of them at last count, but if you don’t know any grumpy employees in the publishing or bookselling industry, you probably don’t care. Who still reads, anyway? Amazon knows this and, like somebody trying to peace out of the wedding they crashed after wiping off the cake they ate with their hands, Amazon wants to very much be more than books. Diapers! Delivery! The world!

But 2016 was Amazon’s year of conquering the movies. Little more than a year after financing its first feature, the latest effort to bear their sticker – Kenneth Lonergan’s Oscar-hungry Manchester by the Sea – is under serious Academy consideration. For anyone paying attention to the logos winking pleasantly before your feature presentation, Amazon’s dot-com-era signage has been an odd addition to a number of the most hyped movies of the year – from the US release of Park Chan-wook’s psycho-sexual tour-de-force The Handmaiden to the latest nihilistic ’n’ sultry Nicolas Winding Refn movie, The Neon Demon. But lest you think that Amazon is merely buying imports like some nouveau riche automobile collector, their first purchase was an all-American concern from one of our most idiosyncratic directing brands desperate for a comeback, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq.

Samuel L. Jackson, as a contemporary Dolmedes, appearing in his sixth Spike Lee movie, Chi-Raq

Spike Lee hadn’t made a good move since 25th Hour or Inside Man, the prevailing argument goes. Notorious rival and occasional public advocate Quentin Tarantino reckons it to be Clockers. In 2012, Red Hook Summer, a low-budget effort that featured a crew mostly of NYU students (Lee teaches there), was his first to have to fight for a big-name distributor at Sundance. It lost. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee’s 2014 remake of Billy Gunn’s classic piece of vampire cinema, debuted on Vimeo. But Amazon plopped down an undisclosed sum to buy Lee’s next joint, Chi-Raq, giving it a whole theatrical release and Oscar campaign and whatnot. This said a few things – most importantly, that Amazon Studios wasn’t actually eager to fight Netflix’s grip on the streaming market by buying better binge-worthy content. It wants to be old school Paramount, man.

Amazon has an even longer history than Netflix of wanting to be taken seriously as a content creator. It started naturally with books – Amazon Publishing launched in 2009, an effort that fell somewhat dead on arrival, as most bookstores still refuse to stock anything they published. Amazon was undeterred. They signed James Franco. They built bookstores that proudly make no financial sense. Currently, they publish more translated literature than any other publisher in the country, a statistic that means far less than it suggests. But when Amazon hired Roy Price, the son of a Universal Pictures head from the old guard, to begin building their video platform, something felt curiously canny about choosing someone like Price to make Amazon a respected movie studio.

Chi-Raq was a similarly canny choice for Amazon’s first foray into working with feature lengths. Almost all of the fifteen movies that Amazon picked up this year were work by long-experienced directors, many of whom, like Lee, were no longer popular enough to merit serious financial investment on the distribution end – by which I mean, they had lost massive amounts of money. Lonergan, for instance, had been wrapped up in a lawsuit with both his financiers and Fox Searchlight over his last movie, Margaret. Todd Solondz has been progressively earning less on each movie he has made since his twenty-one year old breakout, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Park Chan-wook’s last movie, Stoker, was supposed to be his blockbuster breakout to English audiences worldwide but barely broke even.

And Manchester By the Sea, Wiener-Dog, and The Handmaiden are all eminently watchable movies! Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship is probably my personal favorite – a period piece whose ruthless refusal to take itself seriously might have sent it straight to VOD, given Stillman’s notoriously low box office returns: The Last Days of Disco bombed famously hard in 1998 and discouraged Stillman from making another movie until 2011’s Damsels in Distress, which succeeded in doing poorly on less money. Many of these movies are prestige pictures and there are many niche audiences, like myself, who have been very glad to be able to see them at their corner independent cinema.

But the kind of prestige that Amazon is buying feels very old-fashioned, both figuratively in that Amazon is a 21st century company setting its sights on very 20th century totems of recognition and literally, in the sense that many of the projects Amazon is taking are by men who are very much getting on in their years. If any purchase really cemented Amazon’s tastes down, it was Price’s committing Amazon, sight unseen, to distribute, essentially, everything made by Woody Allen – a director who possesses a vast cornucopia of issues, none of which have ever been getting any of his forty-seven movies distributed. Amazon’s arresting argument to win Allen from Sony Pictures Classics, his loyal distributor since 2009’s Whatever Works? Large and billowing bags of cash.

Roy Price celebrates good investing.

Is this disappointing? When Amazon Prime announced that it would be distributing original content around 2012, many thought it was just another Netflix clone, destined to be lost amid other uncool or forgotten tech companies that were populating their own streaming services with oodles of original content in a desperate and, for some, a last gasp at relevance (future artifact of this era: Park Bench, a less verbose Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee starring Steve Buscemi and produced by AOL, that is American Online. It won an Emmy!). And through its somewhat-beloved Pilot Season vetting program for selecting which short length programs to buy, Amazon has produced some unexpected hits: both Mozart in the Jungle and Transparent were shows with premises that defied categorization, circa 2013, and featured creative teams, at least in the case of Transparent, that were worlds more diverse than the average cable TV writer’s room. And at one point, it appeared that Amazon would be bringing this scrappy enthusiasm to the silver screen. “We’ve got more than 11,000 movie scripts so far,” Price had bragged to Wired in 2012, referencing the open call the company had made for scripts from anywhere in the world.

But while Netflix released their first original feature, Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, just like the latest season of House of Cards, theatrical release has been essential to Amazon’s very conventional model. The movies that Amazon has bought aren’t released to its streaming service until months have passed, essentially until they have had their entire theatrical run and are indistinguishable from any other deal that many distribution companies have with Netflix or Hulu or any other streaming platform. In recently purchasing over a thousand hours of original programming for 2017, it seems to be Netflix who is keeping Amazon’s maximalist vision, overflowing the marketplace until it is transformed into its own image.

If Amazon is intent on earning the respect of the marketplace by acting like it very much belongs, it becomes interesting to see exactly how Amazon is doing that. Does its preference for old and wizened directors from the first wave of independent filmmaking betray sexism at work in the higher levels or is Amazon simply trying to imagine it is an established studio, warts and all. Price’s controversial decision to cancel Good Girls Revolt, a popular female-centric television program on their Prime service, suggests the latter, revealing Price to be merely another finicky studio head with a taste for the conventional.

Before it made its big-ticket deal with Woody Allen, Amazon also inked what appear to be equally open-ended deals with Jim Jarmusch and Terry Gilliam – the former will first bear fruit in Patterson, which stars Adam Driver and comes out next week (assuming, of course, you haven’t seen already seen Gimme Danger, Jarmusch’s vanity rockumentary on The Stooges, which I assume Jarmusch roped Amazon into buying in order to access his shades collection). And Amazon’s perpetual willingness to throw millions of dollars down a rabbit hole means that they agreed to fund Gilliam’s forever-in-development Don Quixote adaptation, which is nice. These will all be great movies, I am very sure, and I expect to lean back, once Amazon’s ugly dot-com era logo leaves the screen, and feel slightly wowed by the charming work of lifetime consummate stylists and so forth. But it might just feel a little…dusty?

For more year-end analysis, check out our #2016Rewind:

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