By Jake Coyle
AP Film Writer
When Oscar nominations are announcedTuesday, Amazon is virtually assured of notching the first — but probably not the last — best-picture nomination for a streaming service.
Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” which Amazon plunked down $10 million for at the Sundance Film Festival last year, is widely expected to be among the leading contenders at the Academy Awards. It will be a triumphant moment for the nascent Amazon Studios, which acquired its first original film (Spike Lee’s “Chirac”) in 2015 but has, following in Netflix’s footsteps, quickly altered the landscape of Hollywood.
Netflix and Amazon are increasingly influencing the movie awards season, playing the role of both hero and villain in an industry where their entry into the movie business is welcomed and feared in equal measures.
Though viewed as disrupters, both have sought that powerful, old-fashioned Hollywood status – Oscar winner – to bolster their prestige. “We want to win an Oscar,” Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos earlier pronounced. Netflix, a three-time documentary nominee, is still seeking its first win. Propelled by “Manchester,” Amazon is poised to beat its streaming rival to the top Oscar categories.
Starkly different approaches have led them here.
Though Netflix gave its 2015 Oscar horse, Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” a wide theatrical release, it has largely focused on acquiring films to debut on its streaming platform. It prefers a simultaneous streaming and theatrical release, something theaters largely reject. Many filmmakers, too, want their films on the big screen.
Amazon has held off on putting their movies onto its Amazon Prime subscription service until at least a partial traditional theatrical release has been mounted. It partnered with Roadside Attractions for the theatrical rollout for “Manchester by the Sea,” which has proven lucrative. It’s made $37.2 million domestically in nine weeks, making it one 2016’s biggest indie hits.
Lonergan, the veteran New York playwright whose last film, “Margaret,” became embroiled in lawsuits and acrimony before Fox Searchlight gave it a minuscule release, called his experience with Amazon “the most fancy treatment I’ve ever had.”
“If they want to get into the movie business, great, because the people who are already in the movie business could use some improvement,” said Lonergan.
The bar for eligibility to the Academy Awards isn’t high. Feature films generally need a Los Angeles theatrical run of at least seven consecutive days and cannot be broadcast in a non-theatrical format before showing in theaters, though day-and-date releases have been deemed OK.
But that regulation means some Netflix films weren’t eligible this year because they premiered only on Netflix. Jonathan Demme’s concert film “Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids” went straight to streaming after being picked up around its Toronto Film Festival debut.
Though Netflix, like Amazon, doesn’t make viewing statistics available, its films have likely been seen by far more people, around the world, than they would have been in a limited theatrical release – and their makers pocketed bigger checks. But straight-to-streaming films (like Vikram Gandhi’s young Obama drama “Barry”) can receive muted fanfare upon release and quickly fade into a digital ocean.
For a filmmaker like Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia”), the loss of a theatrical release is painful.
“It seems to me that the streaming movies are skewing people from the movie theaters because the movie theaters are reluctant to show a film if a film is going to be streamed within three months,” said Demme. “I worry sometimes that the streamers would be perfectly happy to see movie theaters close up.”
In a statement to The Associated Press, Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix, defended his service as “pro-film, pro-filmmaker and pro-film lover.” He said he would book Netflix films into theaters if major exhibitor chains didn’t boycott movies simultaneously released via streaming and theatrically, “putting the status quo ahead of consumer desire and innovation.”
“We don’t see how it is in the best interest of anyone to hold back a film for 93 million fans around the world to make sure a few hundred or even a few thousand people in New York and LA can see the film in a dark room with strangers,” said Sarandos. “Theatrical attendance has been in decline for decades. Most people watch most films at home and we want to bring films to where the audience is.”
The competition has been heating up. Amazon, with Amazon Prime’s 30.5 million subscribers, last year spent $337 million on original content. It plans to produce 16 movies a year. Now in more than 200 countries, Amazon led a global rollout in December. Netflix, with nearly 94 million subscribers worldwide, dwarfed that spending, laying out $1.2 billion.
Those deep pockets have been a boon to an indie film marketplace that’s been squeezed by declining DVD revenue and diminishing box office. Netflix and Amazon now regularly outbid other distributors at film festivals.
“As they buy in and scoop up product, it’s making the ecosystem for these more independent distributors and specialized divisions very difficult,” said James Schamus, the former head of Focus Features and director of last year’s Philip Roth adaptation “Indignation.”
Some have recoiled from the streamers’ increasing sway. Director Craig Atkinson, whose police militarization documentary “Do Not Resist,” spoke out about what he described as Netflix’s strong-armed negotiation tactics.
Under motion picture production head Ted Hope, Amazon Studios has gone after well-respected filmmakers and largely art house releases, including films by Jim Jarmusch (“Paterson,” “Gimme Danger”), Woody Allen (”Cafe Society”), Whit Stillman (“Love & Friendship”) and Park Chan-wook (”The Handmaiden”). The films, Hope has said, are “essentially advertising” for Amazon’s many other sales items.
Hints of a brewing battle have occasionally flared. Sarandos recently knocked Amazon for “not gaining much traction against all that spending.”
They may square off in one Oscar category in which Netflix has rapidly become a respected industry leader. Of the 15 documentaries shortlisted, four are from Netflix (“The 13th,” “Amanda Knox,” “The Ivory Game” and “Into the Inferno”) and one is from Amazon, (”Gleason”).
This year may be only a preview of what’s to come. Netflix has its starriest prestige films yet on tap for 2017, including Brad Pitt’s “War Machine” and Will Smith’s “Bright.” And on Wednesday, Amazon began lining its coffers, picking up an anticipated Grateful Dead documentary ahead of its Sundance premiere.