Amazon Studios’ New Boss Is Reshaping Its Strategy. Step One: Lure New Talent.
Posted June 11, 2018 4:23 p.m. EDT
Updated June 11, 2018 4:24 p.m. EDT
CULVER CITY, Calif. — Jennifer Salke has been the head of Amazon’s television and movie division for four months. Her sunny corner office at Culver Studios, a historic movie lot that now serves as Amazon’s entertainment headquarters, has not yet been fully put together. She is still getting to know some staff members in the film department.
That is because Salke has been busy performing triage — fixing what was left behind by her predecessor, Roy Price, who was ousted in October after a sexual harassment scandal. She has been meeting with producers and writers to unmuddle the message of what kind of programming Amazon wants and jump-starting Amazon’s assembly line to catch up to a fast-moving Netflix and an insurgent Apple.
“I’m out there banging the drum,” Salke, 53, said last week, striking the air with two imaginary mallets.
“I’m a killer, and I’m ambitious, and I’m going to compete,” she added.
Salke, who was previously a president of entertainment at NBC, had decided that the time had come to take her campaign public. One by one on Thursday, reporters from various publications were invited over — never mind those pictures still waiting to be hung — to briefly chat about her strategy while snacking on cheese and crackers.
Her message to Hollywood’s creative community boiled down to this: Amazon now has its act together — come join us.
Does that mean Amazon plans to pay stratospheric prices to secure the exclusive services of heavyweight show creators, as Netflix has done with Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy?
“As the network business is shifting, and there are all of these mergers and acquisitions going on, which will result in potential changes of leadership, there is a lot of talent out there looking for a home,” Salke said. “We have the resources. And I’m known for my deep relationships with creative talent.”
One television kingpin seen as potentially being available in the next year or two is Dick Wolf, whose “Law & Order” and “Chicago” series have powered NBC for two decades.
“Dick is a very close friend of mine,” Salke said, putting her hand on her heart. “He and I are talking. In fact, we’re talking about developing something together.”
She added: “A few months in, I’m not going to be publicly poaching. But I’m going to be out there like I was with Jordan, proactively approaching people who are available or coming available.”
Salke was referring to Jordan Peele, the Oscar-winning writer and director behind the hit film “Get Out.” Under a deal completed last week, Amazon will have the right of first refusal for any of Peele’s TV ideas. Amazon also announced last week that another Oscar winner, Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), had agreed to direct all 11 episodes of a coming miniseries based on the best-selling book “The Underground Railroad.”
New comedies and what Salke called “big, addictive shows for women” are also in the works, including a half-hour anthology series called “Modern Love,” which filmmaker John Carney (“Begin Again”) is basing on the popular relationship column in The New York Times. Over eight stand-alone episodes, “Modern Love” will explore various forms of love: sexual, romantic, familial, platonic, self.
And then there is “the long shadow,” as Salke put it. Amazon is moving forward with a high-risk adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” which was announced after Price left but before Salke was hired. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, has been said to see the project as a potential “Game of Thrones” — a hit on a global scale. Salke said she communicates with Bezos about every other day. She goes to Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle roughly once a week.
“We’re homing in on a strategy,” she said of the “Lord of the Rings” adaptation. “The estate has actually been super helpful. Offering insight. Giving permission to make some big moves. They’re not being precious.” Amazon’s cupboard of original programming was not completely bare when Salke arrived. “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” which stars John Krasinski, will premiere on Aug. 31 on Amazon Prime Video, the company’s global streaming service. (There are more than 100 million Prime subscribers worldwide.) Salke also inherited the coming series “Homecoming,” starring Julia Roberts as a caseworker at a secret government facility.
Among returning series, there are “The Man in the High Castle” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” about a 1950s housewife turned bawdy comedian, which is expected to be a major contender at the Emmy Awards in September. “Mrs. Maisel” won the Golden Globe for best TV comedy in January.
For a company that spent an estimated $4.5 billion on programming last year, however, the programing slate is thin.
A cascade of shows have been canceled — “The Last Tycoon,” “One Mississippi,” “I Love Dick,” “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” “Good Girls Revolt” — as Amazon has backed away from series aimed at exclusive, liberal enclaves. Amazon’s signature program, “Transparent,” is still going, but it may be fatally wounded: “Transparent” jettisoned its Emmy-winning star, Jeffrey Tambor, after he was accused of sexual harassment.
“We’re not going for something small and niche,” said Salke, describing her strategy. “You can still have something that feels specific. But it needs to invite people in.”
That’s certainly how her bosses in Seattle feel. Because Amazon’s hefty investment in content has yielded only mixed results in Hollywood, it is up to Salke to change that as quickly as possible.
“The pressure on Amazon is their Prime membership growth has been slowing,” said Greg Melich, a retail analyst at MoffettNathanson. “As a result, they need the members they have to get that much more engaged. And people that stream content also shop more frequently, spend more and are more likely to renew their Prime membership.”
Salke comes to Amazon with a proven track record. She helped orchestrate a turnaround for NBC, taking it from a nadir when it briefly abandoned 10 p.m. dramas to first place for each of the last two seasons. During her tenure, NBC found the smash hit “This Is Us.” Salke previously worked at Fox’s television production studio, where she guided notable shows like “Glee” for Fox and “Modern Family” for ABC.
Dan Fogelman, the creator of “This Is Us,” credited Salke with taking an interest in his drama even before it became a runaway hit.
“When she is impassioned about a project, she is more intimately involved with the material than a quote-unquote entertainment president normally would be,” he said.
But she has no movie experience — and a large part of Amazon’s success in Hollywood so far (it arrived in 2010) has come from its film division. Its box office successes have included “The Big Sick” and “Manchester by the Sea,” which was nominated for six Oscars, winning two. Salke inherited some baggage on the film front, too. Price spent lavishly to bring Woody Allen to Amazon, bankrolling “Wonder Wheel” for $25 million; it collected $1.4 million at the domestic box office in December, most likely hurt by renewed scrutiny of allegations that Allen molested his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992. Allen has steadfastly denied the claims and was not charged. Amazon also financed Allen’s next film, “A Rainy Day in New York,” but there has been no word on how the film will ultimately be made available to see.
Salke may luck out with another film from the Price era, however — one from Fogelman. He directed “Life Itself,” a romantic drama about intersecting lives over multiple generations that is scheduled for release by Amazon in September. Amazon has high box office hopes for the film, which could also figure in the Academy Awards race.
Amazon also has another likely Oscar contender in “Beautiful Boy,” about a father coping with his son’s drug addiction. Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me by Your Name”) stars.
Salke will probably add a senior executive to Amazon’s film team. With movies, “we want to maintain the level of excellence,” she said. “At the same time, we do want to widen the aperture a little bit.”