Cannes a coming-out party for Amazon Studios

CANNES, France (AP) — The party, stocked with pretty people and schmoozing filmmakers, looked like any other at the Cannes Film Festival except for the neon lights on the wall that glowed “Amazon Studios.”

Cannes has been a coming-out party for the upstart digital distributor, which feted its big year at a soiree Sunday night. Amazon Studios has five films at the festival, including the opener Woody Allen’s 1930s Hollywood romance “Cafe Society” and three films in competition for the Palme d’Or: Jim Jarmusch’s well-received blue-collar poet drama “Paterson,” Park Chan-wook’s sumptuous gothic thriller “The Handmaiden” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s fashion-world horror film “The Neon Demon,” which premieres Friday.

Though the increasingly ubiquitous Amazon has been a growing player at other film festivals, it’s robust presence at Cannes — the most hallowed celebration of cinema — has the feel of a baptism.

It hasn’t been without hiccups, though. The premiere of “Cafe Society” might have been a crowning moment for Amazon, which paid $15 million for the film’s rights. But opening day headlines were largely overshadowed by Ronan Farrow’s renewal of accusations against his father for sexually abusing his sister, Dylan, when she was 7.

Allen has maintained his innocence. But the resurrected uproar poses potential problems for Amazon, which has warmly embraced the 80-year-old filmmaker. Later this year it will debut a six-episode series from Allen.

Farrow’s recent column caused many film reporters to declare that they wouldn’t see or write about any more projects from Allen. In Cannes, the actress Susan Sarandon said frankly Sunday in Cannes: “I think he sexually assaulted a child and I don’t think that’s right.”

Amazon Studios declined to comment.

Last year in Cannes, the new digital heavyweight on the Croisette was Netflix. It found turbulence of a different kind on its touchdown in Cannes. At a talk by Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content office, a French reporter cried out that Netflix will “destroy the film ecosystem in Europe.”

But whereas Netflix has sought to disrupt the traditional theatrical window with day-and-date releases like Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” and Adam Sandler comedies, Amazon has charted a different course that hasn’t roused the same anxieties for cinephiles in France and elsewhere.

Amazon has instead sought to pair with independent theatrical distributors, content to have movies hit its streaming service three months later — the traditional rollout, just with Amazon taking the first window in home release.

Such an approach not only has benefit for Amazon (theatrical release is still easily the biggest marketing splash for a movie) but it appeals to the kinds of filmmakers Amazon has pursued and landed: directors who want their films on the big screen, too.

Amazon’s top executives — chief Roy Price, a former Walt Disney Co. executive; production head Ted Hope, a veteran producer; and distribution head Bob Berney, former chief of Picturehouse — are all well-known and respected names in the business.

They have thus far targeted auteur directors and films without huge commercial upside, including Spike Lee’s “Chi-raq” (which debuted in December as the studio’s first release), Todd Solondz’s upcoming “Wiener Dog” and Whit Stillmans’ “Love & Friendship,” a movie acquired in Cannes last year. The Jane Austen adaptation opened on four screens in New York and Los Angeles last weekend, grossing $132,750.

By pairing with such filmmakers, Amazon Studios is signaling — to moviegoers as well as to other filmmaking talent — that they’re serious about cinema. The studio plans somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-15 films annually that will bolster Amazon’s subscription service. Amazon Prime, also home to a growing stable of TV series including Jill Soloway’s “Transparent,” was recently made available as a stand-alone service.

And Amazon’s pockets are deep. It plunked down $10 million for Kenneth Lonergan’s Sundance hit “Manchester by the Sea,” which has been slated for this fall. In Cannes, it’s been a busy buyer, acquired Lynne Ramsay’s Joaquin Phoenix thriller “You Were Never Really Here” and Mike Leigh’s period drama “Peterloo.”

Other young distributors like STX Entertainment and A24 have also been active in the market at Cannes. But several directors who have signed up with Amazon have praised Amazon as a savior to independent film. Refn has said theirs was the best offer he’s ever received. Jarmusch reminded reporters of the wider climate for indie filmmakers.

“Financing our film was quite difficult and complicated,” said Jarmusch, who cobbled together financing from Amazon, Germany’s K5 and France’s Le Pacte. “But in the end … we were able to make this film in the way we wanted to. But, yeah, it’s rough out there.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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