Amazon and Netflix want to control the market for deep, edgy indie films, too

The Sundance Film Festival kicks off tomorrow.
The Sundance Film Festival kicks off tomorrow.
Image: AP/Chris Pizzello/Invision
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Amazon is upping the ante at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

The e-commerce company, which scored its first Golden Globe film award for Manchester by the Sea, a title it picked up at Sundance last year, plans bonuses of up to $100,000 for two-year streaming rights to this year’s official Sundance selections. That’s in addition to royalties, according to Deadline.

The incentives are an extension of Amazon Video Direct, a program that feeds entertainment content into Amazon’s streaming-video platform, Prime Video, by allowing creators to upload videos directly.

Streaming technology has made it easier than ever for independent filmmakers to reach audiences. But it’s also introduced new competition, making it harder for small films to get noticed. Getting a film on Amazon or Netflix, however, gives filmmakers a built-in audience, one that is both big and small.

“These new players came in and disrupted the market and it’s great,” said Joana Vicente, executive director of the Independent Film Project in New York, a non-profit that helps independent filmmakers to navigate production and distribution. “There’s hope for independent film.”

Vicente cautioned, however, that landing a major deal with Amazon or any other distributor at Sundance is still like winning lottery. Smaller filmmakers, she said, should be strategic about their options.

Prestigious, independent titles, meanwhile, have helped solidify Amazon and Netflix’s standings as serious players in the film industry. Movies like Manchester by the Sea and Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation have captured the type of awards buzz and critical recognition that put those same companies on the map in the TV genre. And all of that begets more talent and viewers.

Amazon is searching for more smart and inspiring films that touch on real issues, like Chi-Raq, a Spike Lee-directed musical satire about gun violence in Chicago. The film, also a Sundance find, was Amazon Studio’s first branded original.

“We’re looking for visionary films from visionary filmmakers — unique stories, voices and characters, from top and up-and-coming creators across all genres,” an Amazon spokesperson told Quartz. “Indie films embody the kind of smart, thought-provoking content that we aim to bring to our customers. Many films that fit the indie bill tackle real issues, which inspire the kinds of thoughtful conversations that we hope any of our TV series or films will stimulate.”

Netflix, meanwhile, has shown more of an appetite for global fare, like the Iranian horror film Under the Shadow, which it acquired the streaming rights to last year. Amazon may follow suit now that Prime Video is available in most of the world.

The company is reportedly offering bonuses of $100,000 for US dramas and premieres, $75,000 for US documentaries and documentary premieres, and $25,000 for other Sundance categories including world dramatic, world documentaries, next, spotlight, kids, midnight, and new frontier. The royalties for filmmakers who opt-in to the program are also double what Amazon Video Direct normally offers. As part of the deal, filmmakers must sign over the worldwide streaming rights, or the US rights plus all other available territories, for two years, and exclusively for the first 12 months.

The offer is middle-of-the-road in terms of the types of deals that can struck at Sundance, said Jake Hanly, vice president of acquisitions at Gunpowder & Sky, an independent video company. But it should be enough to grab filmmakers.

“That’s a fairly compelling offer just in terms of the price,” he said. “It’s a number that’s well-thought-out to be attractive to filmmakers without running into the issue of overpaying.”