In the Amazon–Lego Movie Standoff, Is Jeff Bezos the Real Lord Business?

A blog about business and economics.
June 11 2014 1:48 PM

Amazon Takes Aim at The Lego Movie in Latest Supplier Dispute

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L'ego my Lego!

Screenshot from YouTube

The arch villain of The Lego Movie is Lord Business, a controlling tyrant played by Will Ferrell who loathes creativity and imagination. Lord Business demands that a certain structure be upheld in the Lego world and uses his considerable powers to ensure that his vision is not disturbed. Original thought and a free flow of ideas are two casualties of his influence.

Is Jeff Bezos the real Lord Business? It seems possible, now that The Lego Movie and other Warner Bros. productions have become the latest target of Amazon's highly visible standoffs with suppliers. The Lego Movie, which is set to be released on DVD on June 17, is no longer available for advance order on Amazon. Neither are the Warner Bros. features 300: Rise of an Empire, Transcendence, or Winter's Tale. Customers can instead sign up to be notified when the item becomes available.

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While Amazon has not commented on any dispute with Warner Home Video, the disappearance of pre-orders on some of its biggest film titles suggests that Amazon is trying to leverage its retailing power over yet another of its suppliers. Amazon is using similar tactics against Hachette, the major book publisher, and the German division of the Bonnier Media Group. Hachette-published titles by J.K. Rowling and Malcolm Gladwell have been either rendered unavailable entirely or hit by lengthy shipping delays.

Amazon's willingness to sacrifice customer satisfaction and its own reputation over these negotiations is notable, particularly for a company that has built its name on putting users first. But as David Steitfeld points out in the New York Times, perhaps more notable is the increasing willingness by suppliers to hold firm against Amazon's demands. "If other suppliers adopt the same attitude, that might have significant implications for Amazon's pell-mell growth," he writes.

Another point to remember is one made well in the Atlantic a few weeks ago: The Amazon-Hachette conflict is not only about the future of publishing, but of ideas. Amazon controls the lion's share of book sales in the U.S., not to mention a huge percentage of e-book sales. And keep in mind that another Hachette title to briefly vanish from Amazon's virtual shelves was The Everything Store, a book that Bezos' wife gave a scathing one-star review

When Amazon gains too much power over the publishing industry, it also gets a dangerous level of control over which books—and the ideas they contain—are distributed to the public. It could promote books that are the most profitable to Amazon, or it could bury ones that subvert its own agenda. The Lego Movie (spoiler alert!) reaches a happy resolution: Lord Business has a change of heart and abandons his restrictive policies. But the end of Amazon's supplier tale has yet to be written.

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

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