Earlier this year, Amazon and Netflix made headlines by becoming the top buyers at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. By the end of the festival, both companies had secured the rights to multiple titles, with Amazon paying out a whopping $10m for Casey Affleck drama Manchester By The Sea, beating off interest from Fox and Universal. This aggressive purchasing strategy continued at Cannes in May, with both services again acquiring multiple titles, but the Croisette marked a significant shift for Amazon Studios: it also had five films in competition, including Woody Allen’s Cafe Society for the Opening Night Gala and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon.
This shift from acquiring films at festivals to using festivals to launch already acquired titles makes perfect sense from a publicity point of view, particularly for Amazon, which is committed to giving each of its films a theatrical release before they stream on its Prime Video service. It also lends each of the projects a significant amount of prestige, positioning them as major players in the US distribution field.
It’s a tactic that has worked well for Netflix, which has already racked up a number of Oscar nominations for documentaries, which it has traditionally launched at festivals. The twin appeal of mainstream publicity and festival-anointed prestige is proving an irresistible proposition for both companies and the trend looks set to continue, with both the recent Sundance London and the upcoming Edinburgh International Film Festival featuring multiple VOD acquisitions in their line-ups, such as Tallulah and The Fundamentals of Caring (both via Netflix).
It’s a development that’s welcomed by Sundance London festival organiser Trevor Groth, who had this to say when asked if he thought recent developments at Cannes and Sundance were indicative of where the future of distribution was headed: “I don’t know if it’s where we’re going, but it’s where we’re at right now. The amount of attention that Amazon and Netflix received at Park City and then at Cannes as well – I mean, Amazon had five films in the official line-up and then they had five more during the festival at Cannes. Look, I think there’s that new money, and they do good work.”
Groth also noted, with interest, the differing distribution strategies from the two main players:
“They’re taking different approaches to it too – Amazon is getting a lot of credit right now in the press for their commitment to the theatrical exhibition of their film, it’s not just about the digital platform, where Netflix is taking a slightly different approach – although they’re doing limited theatrical with stuff too – it’ll be interesting to see what the long-term end result is for those two approaches and where it all ends up, but I think right now it’s great for our filmmakers and our producers to make their money back and they have a chance to reach massive audiences through these digital platforms.”
Either way, these are exciting times for the future of VOD, particularly for fans of art-house cinema, with both companies heavily targeting less mainstream and indie fare. Other SVOD services, such as MUBI, are also getting in on the game, with their recent acquisition of Un Certain Regard winner The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki from this year’s Cannes as a global exclusive.
“It’s very exciting – since last year, our role has changed significantly,” MUBI’s UK curator, Chiara Maranon, pointed out in our interview with her. “Previously, our main focus was meeting industry people, negotiating the rights to their film libraries. Now, content acquisition is key.”
However, Groth made no secret of which of Netflix and Amazon’s models he prefers: “Hopefully the mentality in future will be more consistent with what Amazon is doing, where you’ll still have the theatrical push, where people will see these films where they were intended to be seen, but then they’ll be caught by millions of people on these digital platforms, that’s the ideal goal of it.”
Read our reviews fresh from Sundance London here.