Amazon Studios Boss Jen Salke Gives a Primer on Amazon’s Film Strategy — It’s About Prime

“We don’t evaluate our movie performance based on theatrical tickets sold,” Salke said

Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke
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At a glance, recent Amazon Studios theatrical releases seem to have fallen short of expectations at the box office — But the studio’s boss Jennifer Salke really does not care.

Theatrical release is important for presentation of certain films or to honor the wishes of filmmakers the studio works with — and of course for awards consideration. But during a discussion at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills on Thursday, Salke said the company measures a film’s success by standards aside from box office performance.

“We don’t evaluate our movie performance based on theatrical tickets sold. We didn’t pretend to think that we would suddenly have 30 million people watching the movie in the theaters,” Salke said about the Sundance darling “Late Night.”

“People can say, ‘Oh that failed, you must have gotten a spanking,’ and like, I didn’t, but O.K., whatever you want to say,” she continued. “Everything we do is designed to enhance, or to drive Prime subscriptions.”

Amazon won a bidding war at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival to nab the rights to “Late Night” for $13 million. After hitting theaters in June, the film contributed to an industry debate about the economics (and wisdom) of releasing indie films to mass audiences in theaters. To date, “Late Night” has earned $15.5 million at the domestic box office.

To hear Salke tell it, however, the real story for an Amazon-released film doesn’t fully take hold until it launches on Amazon Prime.

“On the night ‘Late Night’ was released on Prime Mindy Kaling called me and said ‘oh my God, I have more social action on this Prime release, than I did when the movie was released [in theaters],’ which we gave a very generous marketing campaign,” Salke said. “And I said ‘yeah.’ And that movie, within two weeks of being on Prime, has been watched more than any movie in the U.S.”

Salke, who came from the TV network world, has led Amazon Studios now for roughly a year and half and, she said Thursday, the film side of the business was the biggest challenge when she took the job. Now, with theatrical in a challenged state, Salke said Amazon was pivoting its strategy and how it releases films, while not abandoning theatrical completely.

“As far as other movies being released theatrically, we’re kind of pivoting that strategy more into the stunt theatrical and eventizing on Prime and taking all of that marketing to really push it straight to the global Prime release,” Salke said. “‘The Report’ and ‘The Aeronauts’ is a good example of a movie we thought ‘Well we could release it theatrically,’ but we talked to the producers and we all decided we wanted as many eyeballs as possible on it, so why not eventize it globally.”

“We know how many people will watch it vs. how many could watch it theatrically, so we’re really pivoting toward a goal of getting these movies to the global customers as quickly as possible. But at the same time, not walking away from theatrical,” she continued. “You may see us arrive at Sundance and buy a movie and release it theatrically, but that’s not the end all be all of our success on that movie.”

Amazon’s main goal is pleasing its global Prime audience, giving them movies and TV shows that either keep them subscribed or convince them to subscribe to Amazon Prime.

The projects Amazon has on the way, and how Salke and her team approach what to pursue is all a direct response to that goal.

“My team and I got together, rolled up our sleeves and figured out a way to create a streaming strategy for movies on the service,” Salke said. “So we have core thriller movies with Jason Blum — eight greenlit movies, we’re in production on one of them. We have a YA pathway for movies with Greg Berlanti, Denise Di Novi — different really culturally relevant movies that I think will really capture a younger, diverse global audience.

“There’s prestige, for which we will release multiple movies — four to six movies or more a year in the prestige space — could be awards worthy, these kind of prestige movies that we want to support as a company, that we love,” she continued. “The movie business is challenged right now theatrically, we’re a company that’s creating a home for talent. We don’t want to abandon a theatrical strategy — so how to make the movie business feel like it’s customer focused.”

Salke also spilled on the conversations that led to Amazon signing Nicole Kidman to a first-look deal, and what the two are cooking up — something hot and steamy — to bring to the service.

“I met with Nicole probably a month into being here and she was so like a compelling, prolific producer on top of being an incredible actress… And she’s like ‘Where are the movies that Keith and I can watch at home?’” Salke said, “We had this whole conversation about it and we were talking about psycho-sexual thrillers and these kind of sexy movies and no one was making them anymore and so she’s producing a couple of those for us, in addition to being a producer and hopefully more to a big global TV show we have in development called ‘Expatriates.’”