It was a full house at the AMC Town Square in Las Vegas in September when Ben Affleck slipped into the darkened theater. He wanted to see how his new film, “Air,” would play with a test audience, some members of which might have shown up just to escape the scorching heat outside.
To his amazement, the crowd went nuts for the movie, about Nike’s efforts in the 1980s to lure a young Michael Jordan to its struggling basketball brand. The viewers clapped when Chris Tucker appeared onscreen, and they hooted for Viola Davis.
“People were cheering before they said a line,” Mr. Affleck said in an interview.
And that left him feeling rather deflated. He exited the theater and called Matt Damon, his longtime collaborator and new business partner.
“God, man, this is tragic,” Mr. Affleck recalled telling Mr. Damon. “I haven’t had a movie play in a theater like this in years. And it’s going on a streamer.”
He added, “I felt like Charlie Brown with the football.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to Amazon’s Prime Video service, which bankrolled the $130 million film. After similar raucous screenings in Los Angeles, Amazon decided the film would go to theaters first — opening on 3,500 screens in the United States this week, and more than 70 other markets worldwide. It will play for at least a month and is the company’s largest theatrical release since it began making movies in 2015.
“Originally we thought, well, our customers are on Prime, so that’s where we need to deliver our movies, but we’re now thinking of the bigger audience and assuming that most of the United States are Prime members anyway,” Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon and MGM Studios, said in an interview. “So why wouldn’t you offer these movies theatrically and allow people to come back to that experience and then move directly to Prime afterwards?”
She added, “It’s only the beginning for us.”
Amazon now says its ultimate goal is to release 10 to 12 movies a year in theaters. Not all will be on as many screens as “Air” or play as long. Rather, each theatrical strategy will be based on the perceived box office potential. And other films will still debut on Prime Video.
The news is a huge victory for the beleaguered theatrical exhibition business, with year-to-date ticket sales down 25 percent from before the pandemic.
“It’s not really about just playing ‘Air,’” said Greg Marcus, chief executive of the Marcus Corporation, a movie entertainment and lodging business in Milwaukee. “The bigger, more important story is its commitment to doing a theatrical slate so that some of it’s going to work and some of it won’t. Success should be judged over an entire slate and include all revenue generated throughout the life of the slate.”
Between the advent of streaming and consumer habit changes brought on by the pandemic, Hollywood has been constantly re-evaluating how it thinks about movie theaters. The common wisdom over the past year is that superhero movies still draw crowds (even if the numbers are waning), as do films with wild spectacle (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) or established characters (“Creed III”).
Less certain are the films that Mr. Affleck prefers to traffic in, especially when he’s behind the camera: adult dramas with touches of comedy and an earnest feel-good bent, like his Oscar-winning “Argo.” Recent Oscar contenders, like Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” disappointed at the box office.
But a strong performance for “Air” could indicate to the industry that movies for adults are still viable in theaters. Apple, which previously eschewed theaters, already has plans to release both Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” theatrically this year.
That could encourage other distributors to release more films in theaters, and filmmakers eager for streaming money but still yearning for their work to be seen on the big screen may look to Amazon. (“Air” brought in $3.2 million at the box office on Wednesday, and Amazon is expecting it to gross a modest $16 million through the weekend.)
“I think there is a legitimate case to be made that some movies are better experienced in the theater with a group of people,” Mr. Affleck said. “If they can provide robust theatrical releases where the movies are well supported, then it will move Amazon to the front of the pack.”
When Ms. Salke, a veteran television executive, took over Amazon’s studio in 2018, her knowledge of the movie business was cursory at best. She had spent years overseeing television at NBC, shepherding hits like “This Is Us.” At the beginning of her tenure, she plunked down close to $50 million for five movies at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The films, including “Late Night,” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” underperformed.
Suddenly, Amazon, which had been a friend to the theater business with its films “Manchester by the Sea” and “The Big Sick,” was no longer interested in the cutthroat world of box office receipts, where the entire industry knows if a movie is a success or a failure by Saturday morning of opening weekend.
“It was like, why would we put ourselves through that step if it’s going to tear down the film and require us to double our investment in marketing to get to Prime to kind of turn that story around?” she said.
When Amazon bought Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 2021, there was trepidation that the historic label would be reduced to a tile on the Prime website. MGM had recently been resurrected by Michael DeLuca and Pamela Abdy and had made theatrical commitments to filmmakers like Mr. Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson and Sarah Polley.
Instead, Ms. Salke seems to have been influenced by the executives at MGM. She also saw how films Amazon acquired during the pandemic — like “Coming 2 America” and “The Tomorrow War” — did as streaming-first movies.
“The performance of those films on the service already made us feel like we want to go bigger on the movie side,” she said. “Then we’re buying MGM and closing that deal. We have more movies.”
While Mr. DeLuca and Ms. Abdy decamped for a job running Warner Bros., the MGM executives who remained had shown Amazon what a successful theatrical strategy could look like. It culminated in the early-March release of “Creed III,” which has grossed close to $150 million in North America, outperforming its predecessors.
In the meantime, Ms. Salke has consolidated her power. The company’s new head of film, Courtenay Valenti, who will oversee both Amazon and MGM after a long career at Warner Bros., will report to her instead of to Mike Hopkins, Ms. Salke’s boss and the senior vice president of Prime Video, Amazon Studios and MGM. And Ms. Salke said she would not waver from her theatrical strategy no matter how “Air” performed.
“We are committed,” she said.
There is no guarantee that Amazon’s strategy for “Air” will succeed. With many moviegoers requiring a spectacle before buying a ticket, a film that is shot primarily in office buildings and never actually shows the face of the actor playing Michael Jordan could be a difficult sell.
Sue Kroll, the studio’s new head of marketing, argues that despite the setting and the talky nature of the film, “Air” has the makings of a crowd pleaser.
“It really does take you to another place,” she said of the movie, which stars Mr. Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, a sad-sack basketball scout asked to find up-and-coming basketball stars to endorse Nike shoes.
“It’s emotional. It’s funny. And it has a lot of heart,” Ms. Kroll added. “I think it can pave the way for a lot of other great movies out there that should be seen theatrically.”
The company hopes so. At the end of April, it will release Guy Ritchie’s “The Covenant,” an MGM film that stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an Army sergeant ambushed in Afghanistan. On Sept. 15, it will release “Challengers,” an MGM movie that stars Zendaya as a tennis player turned coach. “Saltburn,” a film from the “Promising Young Woman” director Emerald Fennell, which Amazon acquired out of Cannes last year, will open sometime in the fall.
Ms. Valenti, who started last month, is still putting her full schedule together. “There is fantastic development here, but movies don’t grow on trees,” she said, before adding that she thinks her job will be made easier because of Amazon’s commitment to marketing its films, wherever they land.
“The only way you attract the best talent, the best filmmakers, the best storytellers to make their larger-than-life films here,” Ms. Valenti continued, “is because they have to know that their movies aren’t going to die in the quicksands of the service.”