“Life Itself” Flop Impacts Amazon’s Film Slate

In December, Amazon beat out Paramount and Universal for domestic rights to “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogleman’s new film “Life Itself” – nabbing the high-profile ensemble drama for $10 million at auction. It was expected to be one of those rare birds that would go well with both critics and audiences.

Cut to today, a week after the film opened and it bombed with both. The movie opened to not only scathing reviews but also a disastrous $2.1 million in its opening weekend. Fogelman has famously blamed critics, specifically white male critics, despite the near-universal panning.

Today, Variety reports that the film’s failure has had a “sobering impact” at Amazon itself and Fogleman is concerned executives there will be fired over the failure. But concerns run far deeper with the film following on from numerous critical and commercial flops this year including “Gringo,” “Wonder Wheel” and “Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (though the latter fared well with critics).

In the wake of the firing of Roy Price late last year, Jennifer Salke was appointed Amazon Studios chief and planned to follow the edict issued to Price that the streaming giant’s struggling TV and film business needs to re-focus their attention towards more commercial and broader appealing fare. Those reforms in the TV department seeks more shows akin to the recently launched “Jack Ryan” and the planned “The Lord of the Rings” TV series.

In recent years the online retailer has made big waves at film festivals as both producer and high profile acquirer of films with a fairly enviable track record of critical hits from the past few years including “Manchester by the Sea,” “The Big Sick,” “Chi-Raq,” “Elvis & Nixon,” “Love & Friendship,” “The Lost City of Z,” “The Dressmaker,” “Paterson,” “The Salesman,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “The Handmaiden,” “The Wall,” “Wonderstruck,” “Last Flag Flying” and “You Were Never Really Here”.

Despite the critical love and awards acclaim, many of these films fared poorly at the box-office (“Last Flag Flying” for example didn’t even crack $1 million domestic). Then there are the ones that weren’t so well received “The Neon Demon” and “Zoe” which fared even worse. The trade says Salke this week has encouraged the faltering division to push harder to develop more commercial fare and appeal to broader tastes. So it is re-examining its business model and has already restructured somewhat – appointing Julie Rapaport to co-head the film division with that plan in mind. Rapaport will focus on blockbusters while fellow exec Ted Hope will handle auteur fare.

The trade says the company still “wants to make elevated material” and potential Oscar contenders, but they’re now pretty much done handing out lavish budgets to indie directors with no major commercial hits on their resumes (Todd Haynes and James Gray are cited as examples).

The changes come as the competition intensifies – Netflix, which has spent several years blindly stumbling with its film slate, has suddenly righted itself with a Fall 2018 original film line-up that would be the envy of any distributor. Apple has begun to ramp up its own film efforts, and Disney’s streaming service is expected to be a potentially formidable player on the scene next year.

Amazon still has “Beautiful Boy,” “Suspiria,” “Peterloo” and “Cold War” scheduled for release before year’s end.