The Industry

When Did Rey Become Amazon’s Chess Piece?

If you’re not a Prime member, the online retailer won’t sell you The Last Jedi on DVD. It’s a minor annoyance—and a revealing one.

Photo illustration: Rey from Star Wars with a Prime-exclusive price tag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine noticed that Amazon didn’t appear to have plans to sell Blu-rays of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the most popular movie of 2017; only a digital version was up for presale. He thought he’d noticed something similar recently “with a couple of big geek films”—a “weird war against Blu-rays” that seemed to cut against the entire point of the everything store.

I wasn’t surprised. Amazon would be foolish not to use its platform to advance its position vis-à-vis its competitors. Searching for a Google Home on the site, for example, takes you to listings of Amazon’s own smart speaker, the Echo; the closest you’ll get to Google’s product is a self-published manual on setting up your Home that you can skim on your Kindle. Yes, it was a bit curious that Amazon was willing to cut into its own sales of Last Jedi DVDs, but perhaps blackballing the product to boost digital purchases on its video platform was worth it. Naively, I assumed Amazon’s “weird war” was against itself.

When I checked the Amazon page for The Last Jedi the next day, March 27—the first day that home copies became available—the Blu-ray Discs remained listed as “out of stock.” (It certainly wasn’t a manufacturing issue: Target and Best Buy had discs to sell.) A week later, The Last Jedi Blu-rays’ status on Amazon had changed to “temporarily unavailable.” As of this Wednesday night, they are there for purchase—but only if you join or are already a part of Amazon’s loyalty-fostering system. “This item is reserved for Prime members,” reads Amazon’s copy about The Last Jedi’s Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K Ultra HD versions. If you were going to purchase The Last Jedi from the retail giant, it wanted to anchor you to its ecosphere in one way or another, either by signing you up for Amazon Prime or selling you the Amazon Video edition.

Rey and Finn aren’t the only pop-cultural heroes being held hostage by Jeff Bezos. I checked the Amazon availability of the 10 highest-grossing films of 2017, and three other films were in the same or roughly equal position as The Last Jedi: Beauty and the Beast, Thor: Ragnarok, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Could it be that Amazon’s “weird war,” then, is with Disney (which owns the Marvel and Star Wars franchises)? A largely under-the-radar feud between the two companies is now in at least its third year—with signs pointing to future escalation. (Disney and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.)

In 2014, Variety reported that Amazon had halted DVD presales of Disney titles like Maleficent and Captain America: The Winter Soldier following a dispute over the digital giant’s cut. That standoff seems to be ongoing: Home copies of Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time are unavailable for preorder, but you can buy a physical copy of the new Tomb Raider (from Warner Bros.), which opened a month after those Disney films.

It’s striking how neither side is worth rooting for in this battle between behemoth and colossus. Amazon sales made up a terrifying 44 percent of online purchases in 2017 (a primary reason I opted to cancel my Prime membership several years ago). A 2017 study found that 40 percent of American consumers are Prime subscribers, who of course are incentivized to buy more from Amazon, rather than other retailers; this week the company revealed it has more than 100 million Prime members. For its part, Disney is poised to gain an estimated 40 percent market share of the film industry after its fast approaching merger with Fox Studios. Mickey’s imminent streaming service, too, has many in the entertainment and digital industries trembling, as rival studios and TV/video platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube will have to contend with a new service whose brand has long been synonymous with wholesome children’s entertainment.

The mild difficulty of purchasing The Last Jedi Blu-ray via Amazon was probably a minor if confusing bump in the road for a few consumers, but it just might be a preview of a larger fight between mammoth entertainment and retail conglomerates that reduces customer choice and turns online ecospheres into gilded cages. The more we build our Amazon Video library, for instance, the more we’re likely to continue using the service to the neglect of others. It’s yet unclear what form the Disney streaming site will take, but a subscription structure that results in canceled Netflix and cable accounts could mean a childhood media diet determined by the Mouse House and little else.

So who wins the current corporate spat between Amazon and Disney? If sales of The Last Jedi Blu-rays are anything to go by, the answer is both. Rey’s adventures sit at No. 2 and No. 5 on Amazon’s Blu-ray best-sellers list Thursday, which means that there are enough Prime members to drive that many DVD sales. And when competing corporations are stuck in win-win quagmires, a loss for consumers can’t be far behind.