On a recent Saturday, producer Todd Lieberman trekked to the Rose Bowl Stadium to witness a marketing stunt for his new movie, “The Aeronauts,” starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as 19th-century hot-air balloonists.
Amazon Studios, the distributor of the estimated $40-million period drama, had set up an old-timey carnival replicating the fair depicted in the movie, with a juggler, a tightrope walker and a hot air balloon that took guests 60 feet in the air. After sunset, guests watched the film on a giant screen attached to the side of another balloon equipped with a wrap-around screen.
During its two-day late-November stint in Pasadena, thousands of people attended the fair, which Amazon is taking to multiple cities as a touring show before returning to Los Angeles later this month to coincide with its streaming release. Lieberman said he was wowed.
“The whole experience of it made the film feel like a massive event,” Lieberman said.
Amazon is hoping audiences will agree when the film comes out in select theaters this weekend, shortly before it becomes available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Building audience interest has been a challenge for the period drama, which tells the story of a scientist (Redmayne) and a balloon pilot (Jones) who attempt to soar higher than anyone before them. The roll-out hit a setback earlier this year when the studio backtracked on its plan to wage a full-fledged theatrical release for the London-set feature.
Amazon had initially planned to give the movie a high-profile fall release, starting with a week exclusively in Imax auditoriums to take advantage of the movie’s aerial visuals. But those plans were scrapped this summer, when Amazon decided to instead put the film in theaters Dec. 6, followed by its release on streaming on Dec. 20. The move represented a surprising shift for Amazon, which theater owners had seen as an ally. Unlike its disruptive competitor Netflix, Amazon’s practice has been to release films in theaters nearly three months before bringing them to streaming viewers.
With its brief two-week window, “The Aeronauts” is playing in only about 100 theaters this weekend, including Los Angeles arthouse locations The Landmark and Laemmle’s Playhouse. But Matt Newman, co-head of Amazon’s film division, said he’s satisfied with the theatrical footprint.
“To me, the most important thing was ensuring our customers have that choice to watch it in theaters or to watch it on Amazon Prime Video,” Newman said. “It makes me pretty excited that we’re giving customers a chance to watch it in theaters if they want to.”
Analysts and executives say the plan supports the company’s larger strategy to better serve customers by bringing some movies to Prime Video viewers more quickly. Meanwhile, the company is facing an onslaught of competition in the streaming wars from rivals including Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+ and the upcoming HBO Max.
As it fights for viewers amid an unprecedented wave of new streaming movies and shows, Amazon is hoping its marketing ploys will help grab attention for its films.
The idea to re-create the 1862 fair from “The Aeronauts” came during a fall brainstorming meeting at the Amazon Studios’ Culver City headquarters. During the meeting, an employee floated the idea of showing the movie on the side of a hot air balloon. Newman initially thought it sounded like a “pretty crazy idea.” They went ahead with it anyway and attached a giant, flexible LED screen to the side of the floating vessel.
The company has taken its touring show to San Francisco and Phoenix, and it will also hit Atlanta, Orlando and Austin, Texas. The initiative will then have a three-day stop at the Grove in Los Angeles starting Dec. 20. The Rose Bowl event drew more than 5,000 attendees over two days and employed a staff of 100, including an aerial acrobat and a fortune teller.
“Aeronauts” isn’t the only Amazon film this season to get a short theatrical window. The political thriller “The Report,” starring Adam Driver, opened in theaters Nov. 15 for a limited run. Mirroring Netflix, Amazon has not released box office tallies for the film and won’t for “The Aeronauts” either.
To tout “The Report” debut the company bought front-page ads in newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal. The ads resembled the front page of each publication, with headlines and stories redacted with black lines.
The campaign for “The Report,” which the company sees as an awards hopeful, was successful, according to Amazon executives. Newman said the movie had the biggest first-weekend viewership of any film on Amazon Prime Video, though he couldn’t specify how many people watched; Amazon does not release viewership numbers.
“We’re doing something new,” Newman said. “Knowing we have a two-week theatrical window, we wanted to make sure we went above and beyond to allow these movies to create noise and become a cultural moment.”
Such marketing tactics are becoming more common for studios. On the TV side, Amazon got attention during its Emmys push for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” when the company partnered with Los Angeles-area businesses to offer 1950s-inspired prices on goods and services, including $40 hotel rooms, 30-cent malts and $2.50 makeovers.
Other companies have been experimenting with unusual marketing ploys. For “The Irishman,” which was briefly in theaters before its Nov. 27 streaming release, Netflix gave New York’s Little Italy a 1975 makeover, hiring actors to dress up and interact with passersby as if it were the day after the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The company printed out fake newspapers and offered food specials at local restaurants. Earlier this year, Universal Pictures offered blowouts for dogs at Drybar locations to advertise “The Secret Life of Pets 2.”
Such initiatives aren’t cheap. People familiar with the matter say the campaigns for Amazon’s recent movies cost close to what the company spends on a traditional domestic release, which industry sources estimate at about $20 million. But analysts say the spending is necessary for companies like Amazon that are trying to compete during awards season.
“I think it’s a smarter way of using your media buy,” said Jim Amos, former studio executive and founder of entertainment consultancy Scout53. “This is a lot more targeted.”
The campaign for “The Aeronauts” comes amid broader questions about Amazon’s larger film strategy. The decision to give the movie a truncated release prompted wide speculation that the company had lost confidence in its box-office prospects.
For movies including “Manchester By the Sea” and “The Big Sick,” Amazon pursued the more standard film release pattern, betting that it set it apart from Netflix and helped attract filmmakers who want their movies seen on the big screen in thousands of theaters. But recently, its movies, including the Mindy Kaling-Emma Thompson dramedy “Late Night” and the Jillian Bell film “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” have struggled in theaters. “Late Night” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” grossed $15.5 million and $7 million, respectively, in North America.
Amazon executives have insisted that the about-face for “The Aeronauts” was not related to the struggles of its recent films, nor is it a sign that Amazon is abandoning theaters altogether. Rather, the company is determining its distribution plans on a case-by-case basis to best serve its Prime customers, executives say. For example, “Honey Boy,” Shia LaBeouf’s dark semi-autobiographical drama, is getting a release typical of arthouse pictures, debuting in four theaters Nov. 8 before expanding to 186 last weekend.
“We wanted to make sure the movie found the widest audience possible,” Newman said of “The Aeronauts.” “I think we’re going to be very happy with that decision.”
Lieberman said he’s pleased with the roll-out, despite the limited theatrical run: “I’m very glad Amazon sees this movie as the event that it is, and is treating it that way.”