Market Insight

Amazon takes new fronts in content wars

January 21, 2015  | Subscribers Only

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Retailer and online video service Amazon will finance up to 12 US theatrical movies in 2015, releasing them on its Prime Instant Video subscription service one to two months after the cinema. The move into film production and distribution follows the commission of the first episodic series directed by Woody Allen, which will also be exclusive to Prime Instant Video.

Content produced and distributed through Amazon Original Movies will move quickly from cinemas to subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) - four to eight weeks instead of the usual six to ten months. The move will also greatly expand the size of Amazon’s content production and distribution capabilities, with VP of Amazon Studios, Roy Price, pledging to release ‘close to twelve’ movies in 2015. An unspecified number of these will be originals. This movie strategy is also the first definite commitment to showing an Amazon film in cinemas, a route already offered via Amazon Studio’s open-call, online script development workshop.

Competitor SVoD service Netflix is also experimenting with windowing, producing movies to be released day-and-date with IMAX cinemas. The first of these will be the follow-up to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, co-produced with the Weinstein Company, to arrive in some cinemas in 2015 - although not the large circuits which have already declared it won’t run on their screens. 

Our analysis

Amazon has brought the appeal of its service forward using a mixture of a sure thing (a well-respected Hollywood director), a proven thing (home-grown niche comedy), and an experiment (bringing Amazon’s branding to cinema content, and then offering it online quickly). While its direct competitors Hulu and Netflix still have strong content offerings, these recent moves will help distinguish Amazon Prime Instant Video to potential subscribers.

This is not to say that Amazon’s content strategy had no successes previously. Amazon Studios has been running for four years, produced 44 shows to at least pilot stage, and created an experimental forum for soliciting series and movie ideas from the public and developing them online. The open-submissions feature film development has receded on the Studios website, and appears not to feed into Amazon Original Movies. However, the episodic series, with their publicly-commentable pilots and other name talent such as Roman Coppola, Gary Trudeau and Michael Connelly, has built a library of exclusive content for Amazon. Original Amazon series Transparent won two Golden Globes earlier this week.

The service has also made large financial commitments to acquire network TV content, obtaining very early windows for major US shows such as Under the Dome, available on Instant Prime four days after broadcast transmission. Importantly, however, awards and big-name Hollywood talent help to distinguish Amazon’s offer much more sharply, and build a recognisable content-commissioning ‘personality’ for the service.

Amazon’s movie strategy, while it alters the access for the consumer, is modest compared with Netflix’s day-and-date model. It still allows theatres to show the film exclusively, albeit for a shorter run. But without a binding partnership guaranteeing the exhibition of its content in the way Netflix partnered with IMAX, exclusivity is still needed for any theatres to have the security when picking up Amazon’s movies. However, for the type of movies that Amazon is aiming at, the proposed shortening may well prove less controversial. There have been a number of experiments aimed at trialling day-and-date for smaller films, which tend to get past exhibitors as they don’t generate the same box office revenues as the leading films (the top 100 films at cinemas take over 90 per cent of box office). Amazon has not yet made public its distribution strategy for cinemas. It is likely that the movie spending will be modest. With a budget level between $5 and $25 million, Amazon’s long-form content will be less blockbuster and more niche or ‘independent’. This is also indicated by the choice of person to lead the venture. Ted Hope, new Head of Production for Amazon Original Movies, is a noted and experienced independent producer (American Splendor, The Brothers McMullen, 21 Grams), previously of Good Machine Productions, and recently CEO of streaming platform Fandor.

While Amazon has the disadvantage of following Netflix in its move to feature film, the difference between the scale, ambition and type of the two services’ movies makes for a clear point of differentiation. That could be advantageous for Amazon as it continues to define its video offering in a competitive marketplace. The company needs to get the films right, though, as previous attempts by TV companies to make theatrical films have not always gone well. Films can end up being governed by TV rather than cinema. This is where an experienced producer such as Ted Hope can make a difference; as, conceivably, could the Amazon ‘open review’ approach where audiences reviewing their TV pilots before they are commissioned to series.

The strategy starts off as a US only service, with US cinemas and the US-only Amazon Prime Instant Video being the beneficiaries. The Amazon Prime Instant Video subscription service is also available to Amazon Prime users in UK, Germany and Austria. At the end of 2014, IHS Technology estimates that  there were over nine million users of Prime Instant Video in the US and over three million internationally. It is unclear whether international markets will receive Amazon produced features via more traditional route of distribution or using the US ‘cinema-to-Prime’ approach. At this early stage, it might be dependent on US reception and its effect on net additions to the US Prime user base. 

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