By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When Amazon Inc announced on Monday its move into the movie business, the Internet retailer sent a ripple through Hollywood's pool of independent film.
It's a pool where the major studios don't swim much any more and where projects get stuck for years for lack of financing. But from its waters also spring many acclaimed films, best picture Oscar nominees like "Selma" and "Whiplash" and quite a few commercial successes.
With plans to produce 12 films per year with budgets ranging from $5 million to $25 million, for theatrical release and streaming on Amazon Prime video 4-8 weeks later, a digital company is creating a new art-house studio and getting films into consumers' hands and living rooms faster.
"It's a great business," said Mark Gordon, the veteran Hollywood television and film producer behind movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and the new Steve Jobs biopic.
"By financing a movie they feel good about and knowing where their second window is going to be, there is a huge opportunity for them and the rest of the creative community."
Amazon's announcement came as a surprise, but the Seattle-based company had already built up its credibility among Hollywood's creative types, most notably with its television
series "Transparent," which won two Golden Globes last week, its first major awards since starting Amazon Studios in 2010.
"They have clearly been able to do it on the episodic side, I see no reason why they can't do it on the feature film side," said Franklin Leonard, founder of the Black List, a site where unproduced screenplays are shared with filmmakers and producers.
"The real challenge will be getting filmmakers in the door who want to make films for Amazon and giving those filmmakers the freedom to make the films that become '12 Years a Slave' or 'Birdman'," he said.
Amazon has already drawn Woody Allen to make a new TV series, his first foray onto the small screen.
WINK TO STRUGGLING FILMMAKERS
Most of Hollywood's big studios largely abandoned the dramatic film business to concentrate on action adventure blockbusters and sequels, where there is less risk among a built-in fan base and more likely financial reward.
News of a new, deep-pocketed buyer in the independent sphere would always be welcome, but Amazon's decision to hire a big name in the independent film world to head up Amazon Original Movies drew special praise.
"It's exciting, especially because it's led by Ted Hope, who has a pretty sterling track record in terms of filmmaking and projects that he's been involved with," said Ned Benson, who made his directorial debut with "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby," released last year.
Hope was the producer behind films like "Eat Drink Man Woman" and "American Splendor." The latter won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Hope will be at Sundance looking at films when it opens later this week, Amazon said.
Director Wash Westmoreland, who made the drama "Still Alice," starring Julianne Moore, for $4 million last year, said filmmakers like him could get a lift from the likes of Amazon.
"Right now, in independent film, everything is crushed down to budgets below $5 million, so you end shooting in 20 days," he said. "In the next tier, there is such an expansion with the potential of projects that filmmakers are very eager for."
In announcing the move Monday, Amazon Studios vice president Roy Price said: "We hope this program will also benefit filmmakers, who too often struggle to mount fresh and daring stories that deserve an audience."
Production will start later this year.
With the news still fresh, it was hard to find skepticism in Hollywood for Amazon's grand plans. Even its biggest competitor in the digital original content race, Netflix Inc., threw a rose its way.
"In terms of changing movie distribution, we are really allied in our view that consumers are tired of waiting so long," Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings told Reuters.
"It may turn out that their entry is quite helpful to help both of us grow in that area."
(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine and Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Paul Tait)