If Amazon’s purchase of Landmark Theaters goes through–it’s reportedly in talks to acquire the chain–the tech giant will be staking a claim in yet another physical retail space just a year after it made the surprise move of buying Whole Foods for $13.7 billion.
This deal isn’t on that scale, but it represents another opportunity for Amazon to market itself and drive more consumers to its Prime delivery service, the guiding force behind just about all of Amazon’s moves. Within Hollywood, though, the move has more significance, as it represents yet another way that Amazon is distinguishing itself from arch-rival Netflix as it tries to make more inroads with filmmakers. Unlike Netflix, which only releases a few of its original movies in theaters, expressly for the purpose of being eligible for awards nominations, Amazon has always supported theatrical runs and has partnered with companies like Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions to get its films (both those it produces and those it acquires at festivals) on the big screen. As it happens, Netflix has also been rumored to be interested in buying Landmark.
Besides the prestige factor, Amazon covets the publicity that comes from theatrical release–all of the talk-shows, magazine features, and red carpet interviews that talent takes part in during the weeks leading up to a movie premiere. And it gives the company a carrot to use with talent. For all of the Netflix and Chill-ing that’s going on, most filmmakers still prefer to have their work shown in theaters before hitting a streaming service, even if it doesn’t always make financial sense. Indeed, this factor has helped Amazon land Oscar-winning films such as Manchester by the Sea and The Salesman. At festivals, Amazon also woos filmmakers who don’t wind up with traditional deals, using its Festival Stars program, which allows filmmakers to self-distribute their movies on Amazon.
If Amazon ends up buying Landmark, a small but prestigious indie and arthouse chain with 50 theaters in 27 markets, the company will have yet another perk to offer filmmakers: its own theater chain that it can use not just to screen its films, but also paper with Four Your Consideration ads and other marketing materials. In other words, it can become more of a white glove service for films—not just releasing them, but releasing them in a carefully orchestrated way. It can also tap into Landmark’s database of members and directly promote its films to cineastes. And then of course there’ll be the inevitable cross-promotion that now takes place every time you ring up your items at Whole Foods (“Are you a Prime member?”).
The move also signifies how companies like Amazon and Netflix are increasingly becoming nose-to-tail businesses that want to eliminate middlemen wherever possible. A year ago, Amazon announced that it was going to start distributing its own films, and has since beefed up its distribution arm so that it now oversees every aspect of a film’s release and theatrical campaign. At the time, Amazon’s then head of motion pictures Jason Ropell said that distribution “represents the final stages of the evolution of our strategy. It completes the picture in terms of our ability to control a film from its inception to how it comes to customers.” (Ropell left the company earlier this year and was replaced by NBCU TV executive Jennifer Salke.)
At this point, the news isn’t shaking up Hollywood too violently, in part because Landmark, which is owned by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, isn’t on the scale of, say, AMC. “I don’t think it means all of the incumbents in this space will go to zero immediately,” said one former streaming executive. “It’s more of a flag-planting move for [Amazon].”