With Manchester by the Sea’s Oscar Nods, Amazon’s Big Bet Pays Off

THIS MORNING, AMAZON Studios’s Manchester by the Sea became the first movie from a streaming service to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. It also, with a half-dozen Oscar nods, validates Amazon’s counter intuitive approach to releasing its prestige films: The streaming service is all-in on theaters.

That may not be as obvious a play as it seems. Amazon’s core video business takes place online, and the budget required to market and distribute films in theaters is astronomically higher than simply pushing it onto the Internet. But putting its marquee features on literal marquees turns out to be a gamble worth taking, both for Manchester and the rest of its business.

Catch and Release
A year ago at the Sundance Film Festival, Amazon Studios acquired six films. Among the haul was Manchester by the Sea, a buzzy production from an established director, Kenneth Lonergan. Amazon spent $10 million for the rights to Manchester, making it last year’s second-most expensive Sundance pick-up behind Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. From the start, Amazon was clear that its acquisitions would show up the big screen before making their way onto Amazon Prime. (It’s a strategy the company is sticking to. Over the weekend, Amazon acquired The Big Sick for $12 million, promising a full theatrical release, something co-writer and star Kumail Nanjiani wanted.)

“All [of Amazon’s Sundance] films will be released theatrically, with an aggressive marketing campaign to bring audiences to your theaters,” Amazon Studios executive Bob Berney reassured assembled theater owners at CinemaCon 2016 last April. For Manchester by the Sea, the company partnered with Roadside Attractions to handle the actual distribution.

There’s one very obvious reason for streaming services to put their prestige movies in theaters: That’s the only way to qualify for an Oscar nomination. But Amazon took its commitment a step further, though, honoring traditional, months-long release windows before plopping its hits on the Internet.

In doing so, Berney and Amazon staked out a distinctly different position from streaming-competitor Netflix. In 2015, Netflix released the critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation in theaters, but simultaneously made it available to stream, making an already jittery group of theater owners and operators even more ill at ease.

That tension became the dominant narrative around Beasts of No Nation. And, possibly as a result, the film ended up being 2016’s most notable Oscar snub. By positioning itself as a partner to theatrical gatekeepers, Amazon helped avoid the same fate.

Risky Business

But releasing the movie in theaters didn’t guarantee its success. Sure, a Best Picture Oscar nomination definitely validates Amazon Studios’ decision-making around Manchester—and will likely give it a box office boost, and a lot of attention when it’s finally available to stream February 7—but it was still a risk.

Consider a similar push that Amazon Studios made at the end of 2015 with Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, another film with all the hallmarks of awards season success. That time, the Oscar gamble didn’t pay off; Chi-Raq took in $2.6 million at the box office, against a reported $15 million budget.

That’s not to say Chi-Raq was any kind of failure; it was mostly a critical hit, and should still pay dividends as a part of Amazon’s streaming stable going forward. But it does illustrate that theatrical release is hardly a sure bet, especially for a streaming business.

Promoting a movie and getting it into theaters, even with the help of a distribution partner like Roadside Attractions, is a costly endeavor, and without an occasional Oscar payoff, the theater-first strategy can become a losing proposition. It’s more surprising, in many ways, that Amazon committed its full Sundance slate last year to theaters than it is that Netflix put its priciest pick-up, The Fundamentals of Caring, directly online.

The Long Tail
There’s another reason the Oscar nod will pay off for Amazon more than it would traditional studios. Because it owns both the movie and the platform on which it will stream, it can offer its subscribers Manchester by the Sea forever, all around the world, without worrying about the shifting rights issues that can make streaming services seem abundant one month and barren the next. A theatrical release may cannibalize some of its streaming audience, but not enough to matter in the long run.

“Probably very few people who watched it in the cinemas will watch it again on Amazon Video, but I would assume the streaming audience is many times larger,” Tony Gunnarsson, streaming media analyst with Ovum, “especially if you factor in Amazon Video’s global reach and the fact that the film will be on the services for years to come.”

(Using exclusive content to capture audiences is one area where Netflix has found a way to benefit—particularly when it comes to documentaries. While it still hasn’t netted a Best Picture nod, it’s had multiple documentaries capture the Academy’s attention, and Ava DuVernay’s 13th, nominated this year, is as good a reason to subscribe as you’ll find.)

So yes, it’s significant that a streaming service is within statuette’s reach of a Best Picture Oscar. What’s more interesting, though, is how it got there: By not acting like a streaming service at all.

CLAIRE FOLGER/AMAZON STUDIOS/ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

MANCHESTER FRENTE AL MAR

Manchester by the Sea es una cinta sobre la pérdida y la culpa, desde una perspectiva natural y hasta divertida.

Manchester frente al mar es una historia relativamente simple, pero que tiene mucho qué decir. Tanto, que sus 137 minutos –aunque podrían parecer excesivos a primera instancia– son apenas adecuados para expresar todos los temas que Kenneth Lonergan se dispuso a tocar.

La trama sigue a Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), un intendente de limpieza que se demuestra en todo momento solitario, desganado y con una compulsión por el alcohol. Tiene su lado impetuoso y hasta violento, pero en ningún momento se percibe como una persona desagradable, se le ve, sobre todas las cosas: triste. Las razones de su tristeza y desesperanza las iremos conociendo conforme avanza la historia, mientras tanto, será suficiente decir que luego de una tragedia familiar, él se ha construido una vida de soledad y odio a sí mismo que lo han paralizado. Las tragedias en la película, como en la vida, supongo, no se tientan el corazón ("¿Qué relevancia tiene si lo mereces o no?", recuerdo al Will Munny de Clint Eastwood diciéndole a Bill Daggett justo antes de dispararle en Los imperdonables) y lo impensable vuelve a suceder: su hermano muere y es Lee quien deberá hacerse cargo de su sobrino adolescente. Difícil tarea la de cuidar de alguien más cuando uno no se puede cuidar ni a sí mismo.

En un fascinante entretejido de narrativas presentes y pasadas, Lonergan lo que va construyendo es, más que una historia con un claro principio, medio y final, una oda a los sentimientos, a la complejidad de la emoción humana que nos lleva del dolor y desesperanza profunda, a las lágrimas de risa y alegria. Y es que sí, aunque en su totalidad Manchester frente al mar es una película a todas luces sobre la tristeza, brilla también la habilidad del director y guionista –y elenco, claro– para inyectarle momentos de levedad y risas. Como la describió el crítico Matt Zoller Seitz, es "la película más chistosa sobre el dolor jamás hecha".

Todo esto dicho, pasemos entonces al "plato fuerte" de esta cinta y el elemento del cual todo aquel que la haya visto estará hablando: Casey Affleck. Sin duda, esta es –hasta ahora– su mejor actuación y la logra haciendo algo que, curiosamente, ya lo hemos visto hacer antes. Es el papel del inadaptado, el tipo que parece vivir en una realidad diferente a la de los demás y sin mucho interés en ajustarse a las reglas de una sociedad que le pide sólo una cosa: sé normal. Él, sin emabrgo, no es normal. O no se siente así. Y la puesta en escena de Lonergan nos deja ver esto, nos adentra en la psique de un hombre en la más terrible de las situaciones, una realidad donde la culpa le atormenta, donde el cambio (cualquier cambio) luce aterrador y uno que, en aquellos momentos fugaces de violencia parece gritarle al mundo que lo dejen en paz.

Al final, Manchester junto al mar no es una cinta fácil. Eso no la hace difícil, ni quiero decir que sea complicada de soportar, es difícil porque es dolorosa y la situación en la que Lonergan coloca a su Lee Chandler es imposible. Imposible de imaginar, imposible de sobrepasar.

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