Last year, Amazon Studios had a rough 2018 when it came to the awards season. On the one hand, you can make the argument that they had good films after “Cold War” picked up three nominations, including a surprising Best Director nomination. However, in July, it looked like the studio had a much stronger lineup. “Beautiful Boy” flamed out in the end, leaving Timothée Chalamet fans upset. “Life Itself” might have been the worst film of 2018. “You Were Never Really Here“ really never caught on, despite Joaquin Phoenix and Lynne Ramsay showcasing some of the best work of the year. “Suspiria” could not break through in any category, despite finding itself on the song and makeup shortlist. Oscar morning must have been tough on Amazon. 2018 sets up the context for their spending spree at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. They will not let 2018 happen to them again.
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival had plenty of fun films to offer, representing some breakthrough independent voices. Feel good movies have long been the bread and butter of Sundance, with many mid-tier films finding distributors and selling for big price tags. However, this year seemed to have a few more commercial films than usual, with several potential big earners finding their way into significant discussions. With that in mind, Amazon went swinging for the fences on some of the larger showcase films. The result became a trio of powerful films that should set up the studio for commercial success and awards season at the same time.
The first big acquisition made by Amazon was buying up “Late Night,” written and starring Mindy Kaling as well as Emma Thompson. The comedy drew considerable praise, currently sitting at an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film features a smart as hell screenplay, and several pundits have already begun positioning it as a potential screenplay nomination. Watch out for Thompson as well. Karen specifically cited her as a complete character with a full arc. Thompson received her last Oscar nomination in 1996. Maybe she should return.
After Amazon locked in “Late Night” as a potential commercial play with Oscar potential, they went for their big Oscar player. That came in the form of “The Report,” which many cited as one of the best of the festival. Scott Z. Burns may not have been a household name, but he’s been busy since his debut film “Pu-239” aired on HBO. He wrote screenplays for “The Bourne Ultimatum” and three (soon to be four) Steven Soderbergh films. The writer turned director honed his craft making shorts, and now has a legit Oscar contender under his belt.
“The Report” follows Washington insiders and CIA agents in the fight against using torture. The belief that enhanced interrogation led to credible intel had massive flaws, the effects of which are still being seen today. Led by Adam Driver, the cast features some of the best talent working in film today. Most appealing of all could be Annette Bening, who plays a supporting role in the film and remains criminally overdue for Oscar. Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, and more help make up the ensemble. While it has a small sample size, “The Report” sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Watch for this one at SAG next year as it pushes to be Amazon’s showhorse.
Finally, Amazon closed down the festival with “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” a potential star-making vehicle for Jillian Bell. The actress, known for roles in “22 Jump Street” and a bevy of Comedy Central shows, turns on the charm in this film. It allows her to be very funny when asked but also showcases depression and self-loathing for who she becomes. The actress always could steal entire movies from talented performers. It’ll be curious to see how audiences react to the film that sparked a $14 million bidding war. Again, it’s a small sample size, but “Brittany Runs a Marathon” sits at an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes.
With those three films, Amazon constructed a new base for their 2019 year. The trio represents a rather massive turn away from films they usually put out. While Amazon has done well on the international market, they rarely have had “pop” movies in their stable. Both “Late Night” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” have the goods to become hit comedies. Currently, “Manchester By the Sea” holds the box office record for Amazon Studios, earning $47 million. The only Amazon films to break $10 million at the box office are “The Big Sick” ($41 million), “Love & Friendship” ($14 million), and “Cafe Society” ($11 million). There is a strong possibility that each of their new films could become Amazon’s highest grossing films, and will certainly need to get to at least “Love & Friendship” levels to make back their cost.
The change in tone for Amazon should be a good thing. They were not willing to gamble with Apple becoming the studio of 2019, and it showed. Beyond that, they set themselves up nicely as an alternative to Netflix, who continues to spend like crazy. In fact, it appears that Netflix will acquire “Knock Down the House,” a documentary following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she ran for office. While other studios created momentum for their future films by winning bidding wars, Netflix used Sundance as a platform to release some of their future products. For the most part, the results went very well for Netflix.
Their loudest movie at the festival was undeniable “Velvet Buzzsaw” by Dan Gilroy. The satire of the art world, mashed together with a horror film, drew strong responses. Our own Karen Peterson awarded the film a four-star review and praised it for its performances and general weirdness. The film premieres on Netflix today. Despite dipping to a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, it remains one of the most exciting movies to check out from the festival.
Meanwhile, one of the films receiving considerable praise, despite a quiet opening was “High Flying Bird,” the latest film from Steven Soderbergh. For my money, it is easily one of Soderbergh’s best films in years, at bare minimum hitting “Behind the Candelabra” and potentially his best since “Solaris” in 2002. The film juggles some interesting meta-commentary about people (be they artists or athletes) who just want to show the world what they can do, and how forces larger than themselves try to stop them. It’s riveting stuff and features knockout performances from Andre Holland, Bill Duke, and Melvin Gregg. Seriously, this one was fun.
Last up, Netflix debuted “The Boy Who Harnassed the Wind” from director and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ejiofor proved he has some chops in the director’s chair, finally bringing the long-gestating project to life. Karen enjoyed the film and pointed to some excellent cinematography from Dick Pope on the film. The performances also warm the heart, with another breakout star potentially on the way in the form of Maxwell Simba. This one is a crowd pleaser and helps set up the war that will occur over 2019 between Netflix and Amazon.
Each of the streaming services has some big guns to roll out his awards season. Yet their strength at Sundance will just begin to light the path. The two competing studios have often used each other a measuring stick. Watching “Roma” pull a ten nomination day surely inspired Amazon to spend some serious cash. With the festival finishing up, we will see how the year sets up for each of the streaming services. It’ll be curious who will come out on top in 2020.