Behind Amazon’s Abrupt Change in Its Film Strategy

In January, Ms. Salke attended the Sundance Film Festival for the first time as the Amazon Studios head — and the company went on a spree, shelling out significant sums for several films, including $14 million for “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” a low-key, feel-good comedy now in theaters; another $14 million for “The Report,” a government cover-up drama starring Annette Bening and Adam Driver that will have a limited release in November; and $13 million for the domestic rights to “Late Night,” a comedy written by Mindy Kaling and starring Ms. Kaling as a neophyte TV writer and Emma Thompson in the role of an imperious talk show host.

With “Late Night,” Amazon hoped to repeat its success with “The Big Sick,” a Sundance pickup that grossed more than $56 million at the box office. At the height of its run, “Late Night” played on 2,200 screens across the country this summer.

Despite largely positive reviews and a $32 million marketing budget, audiences stayed away, and “Late Night” generated $15.4 million in domestic box office. The trade press pounced. IndieWire called the release “a disaster.” Variety said Amazon had been “thrown off-balance.”

Ms. Salke called the coverage “frustrating.” She also defended the “Late Night” acquisition, saying it has been streamed on Amazon Prime Video more than any other Amazon original film since it appeared on the service Sept. 6. She would not reveal specific figures.

When “Late Night” was still in theaters, Amazon parted ways with the company’s head of film marketing and distribution, Bob Berney, a Hollywood veteran whose four-year contract had expired. At roughly the same time, Amazon also changed course on “The Aeronauts,” a film with a budget of roughly $40 million that it had developed in house.

Along with her three co-heads of motion pictures — Ted Hope, Matt Newman and Julie Rapaport — Ms. Salke called the makers of “The Aeronauts” and told them that, instead of the exclusive IMAX engagement and extensive theatrical release in the United States, the film would open Dec. 6 at a limited number of theaters and start streaming Dec. 20. (Entertainment One, known as eOne, will distribute the film in Britain for a full theatrical run, including IMAX theaters.)

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