The story you are about to read is true. No names have been changed to protect the innocent. since no one named is.
Monday, April 3rd, 4:27 a.m. It was unseasonably cool in Los Angeles. As I tend to do at that time of the day, I was doomscrolling through my overnight e-mails and alerts on the entertainment industry, as per usual, a lengthier list on a Monday. I got a link to this one, which teased me with the description that it was lengthy but revealing and further tempted me with this provocative headline and kicker:
Inside Amazon Studios: Big Swings Hampered by Confusion and Frustration
And from there, ace reporter and investigator Kim Masters, along with the extremely knowledgable Lesley Goldberg, laid bare the frustratingly mediocre and haphazard track record of Amazon Studios in the five years since a team led by former NBC executives Jen Salke and Vernon Sanders were brought in to right a whole bunch of wrongs that their predecessors oversaw and engaged in. Two of her most torch-lighting paragraphs occur early on:
Many current and former Amazon executives, as well as showrunners who have series at the streamer and agents who make deals there, believe that this is no accident. They describe Amazon Studios as a confusing and frustrating place to do business. When it comes to movies, where Amazon’s footprint is expanding following the $8.5 billion acquisition of MGM a year ago, a veteran producer says that, in recent years, “there has been no sense of what the philosophy is.”
On the series side, numerous sources say they cannot discern what kind of material Salke and head of television Vernon Sanders want to make. A showrunner with ample experience at the studio says, “There’s no vision for what an Amazon Prime show is. You can’t say, ‘They stand for this kind of storytelling.’ It’s completely random what they make and how they make it.” Another showrunner with multiple series at Amazon finds it baffling that the streamer hasn’t had more success: Amazon has “more money than God,” this person says. “If they wanted to produce unbelievable television, they certainly have the resources to do it.”
Now I’m going to preface all of my thoughts with the affirmation that, having been a colleague of both Mike Hopkins, the de facto head of Amazon’s platform and studio and Albert Cheng, his longtime ally who now heads Prime Video, I have the utmost of professional and personal respect for them. And while I personally don’t know either Salke or Sanders, I do know plenty of people who do, and both are described as warm, approachable people with strong family values who you’d love to have brunch with.
But I also know that I worked on numerous projects where both were the ultimate decision makers, and many on my team of colleagues described them both as “easily manipulatable by data and perception, and if you catch either of them on the right day, you can sell them anything.”
So when I read more of Masters’ revelations, I knew darn well they were much more fact that rumor. To wit:
What generates some of the frustration that sources cite in dealings with Amazon is that Salke, who was previously president of NBC Entertainment, seems to be pursuing conflicting goals. Despite her assertion that Amazon is “a home for talent,” insiders say the mandate is increasingly not on finding the kind of curated hit that defines HBO, but more middle-of-the-road, meat-and-potatoes shows like Jack Reacher. “We’re so desperate right now for safe hits,” an Amazon exec says. (Netflix has also been pursuing broader material.)
But at the same time, current and former Amazon executives say Salke has a pattern of “chasing what she perceives as hot,” as one insider puts it. That person cites as examples paying a premium for Daisy Jones because of the Witherspoon connection, or making a Dead Ringers series, based on the 1988 David Cronenberg film, that came with Rachel Weisz attached. Salke makes deals with auteur talent to “deliver Jack Reacher results,” says an Amazon veteran. “But they don’t.”
The lengthy article cites several examples of waffling and knee-jerking that has resulted in some shockingly astronomical commitments, particularly at a time when other areas of Amazon, not to mention a majority of their TV and movie competitors, are laying off thousands. Amazon Studios was started up by Jeff Bezos, according to many who know him personally, as a personal obsession to win an Oscar. When MANCHESTER BY THE SEA succeeded in doing that for them three years into the studio’s existence, he was overjoyed and redoubled his commitment to Prime Video. He loves Emmys as well, we’re told, and when FLEABAG won six for the studio in 2019 star Phoebe Waller-Bridge was rewarded, and Masters picks up the story from there:
The plan was for Waller-Bridge to collaborate with Donald Glover on a Mr. and Mrs. Smith series, based on the 2005 film.
But within a few months, Waller-Bridge departed the show due to clashing creative styles. Her three-year deal, at $20 million a year, bore no fruit, yet Amazon recently renewed it, announcing that Waller-Bridge would write (but not star in) a Tomb Raider series. Some Amazon insiders have questioned how much she will contribute to the project, noting that Amazon has been seeking a showrunner to help write and oversee it.
The low-key Sanders bristles a little at the assertion. “Phoebe has not only fully embraced Tomb Raider and I think is feeling very committed to it, but she’s in a writers room right now working on it,” he says. Waller-Bridge is developing other material for the streamer as well, he adds, “She’s a perfectionist, so she absolutely wants to make sure that what she does is great and right, but she’s proven that when she does deliver, she delivers.” Waller-Bridge declined to comment.
But a showrunner with considerable experience at Amazon sees it differently: “They don’t learn from their mistakes. They [say], ‘We can’t do any more deals like that.’ You turn around and they’re right back to — the impolite term is ‘star-fucking.’” For creative executives at the studio, the result has been exasperation. “They say, ‘We don’t want to buy from outside studios,’” says a former Amazon exec. “Then packages come and they buy everything that comes through the door, and our development is thrown out.”
This experience seems to parallel many others more directly laid at the feet of Salke, including the recently dropped and critically acclaimed DAISY JONES AND THE SIX, which Amazon invested $140M in with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and which Salke envisioned merchandising opportunities with the book from which it was drawn and the retro fashions the period piece about a rock group wpre. So far, it has not met expectations, despite strong “demand metrics” (which, if you’ve read this space for a while, you know I know is mostly worthless intent-to-view data).
There are also even bigger swings upcoming. CITADEL, an ambitious project from Joe and Anthony Russo. Again, Masters provides sobering details:
Anthony Russo says Salke first approached AGBO, the Russos’ production company, with a general concept of making a U.S. show with international foreign-language versions. AGBO came up with “a global spy show where you would have a mothership U.S. language show” alongside foreign-language versions in other countries, Russo says. The various versions are “related to one another, but they also exist independently and distinct from one another.” Some of the international shows may be set in different time periods, he adds.
Amazon has committed to three seasons of three versions of the show; so far, a local-language production is underway in Italy and in early stages in India. “We love the ability to communicate with people all over the world, and to connect people through stories,” Russo continues. “Amazon and Jen basically brought us a brand-new opportunity to do that at a scale that’s never been attempted before.”
But in December 2021, with production well underway, the Russo brothers decided to replace showrunner Josh Appelbaum. “It was clear after some audience feedback and discussion that some changes needed to be made,” says Mike Larocca, president and co-founder of AGBO. “We felt like it needed some more character work early to draw people into the show. It was that straightforward.” Appelbaum declined to comment.
David Weil took over as showrunner. When Joe Russo came on set, a “huge bunch of material” was tossed out, an insider says. Sources say the cost of the series climbed toward $300 million, making it Amazon’s second-most expensive show after LOTR. (In an onstage March 10 conversation with Salke at SXSW, Priyanka Chopra said her work on Citadel was the first time she had achieved pay parity in 22 years. That prompted some Amazon executives to joke internally that this was actually the first and second time, since she and the other leads on the show got paid significantly more than planned due to the massive reshoots.)
While the original plan called for eight hourlong episodes, the show that will drop on Amazon in April ended up at six, roughly 40-minute episodes. Amazon has already renewed it for a second season of six hourlong episodes. “There are a couple of relationships where I don’t really understand the bet that is being made,” says one Amazon veteran of the commitment to the project. “But Jen believes in the Russos.”
There’s plenty more examples that Masters cites, including an exceptionally consternating scenario regarding the experience that my former Sony colleagues found themselves in with renewal talks on Amazon’s more “honest” rebooting of A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN. This one is especially resonant with me, since it involves my area of expertise and is alarmingly similar to the sort of selective retention I thought was limited to the regime that preceded the current one:
Another complaint is that Sanders relies heavily on feedback from focus groups, which tend to favor broad and less inclusive programming. Several Amazon insiders say the reliance on testing and data led to a clash late last summer, when an Amazon executive said in a marketing meeting for the series A League of Their Own that data showed audiences found queer stories off-putting and suggested downplaying those themes in materials promoting the show. Series co-creator Will Graham became greatly concerned about bias built into Amazon’s system for evaluating shows, which multiple sources say often ranked broad series featuring straight, white male leads above all others. One executive calls A League of Their Own “a proxy for how diverse and inclusive shows are treated.”
Graham launched into an interrogation of the system, questioning multiple executives about it. Amazon took the issue seriously and dropped the system of ranking shows based on audience scores. Insiders cite this show as one that Sanders did passionately support, but for months after it dropped, there was no word on whether it would be renewed. Ultimately, Amazon agreed to a four-episode second and final season. Still, several Amazon veterans believe the system remains too dependent on those same test scores. “All this perpetuation of white guys with guns — it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says one. And another: “Relying on data is soul crushing … There’s never, ‘I know the testing wasn’t that great, but I believe in this.’” Graham declined to comment.
My own experience with this sort of double-speak occurred in 2016 with the well-received GOOD GIRLS REVOLT. Goldberg herself reported on this when the show was surprisingly one-and-doned in 2016:
The series debuted Oct. 28 to mostly positive reviews (it has a 65 on Metacritic) and four and a half stars on Amazon. Sources say streaming monitor Symphony Advanced Media metrics had Good Girls Revolt collecting more viewers than many of Amazon’s other originals. Sources say Amazon Studios head Roy Price was not a fan of the series and didn’t deem it to be an awards season player in opting to pass on ordering a second season after hearing Sony’s season two pitch this week. The studio had hoped to file on time for a California tax credit.
Well since seven years is how the State of California determines statute of limitations, I can safely share that yours truly was one of those sources, and since Scott Porch of Decider already wrote up the reason that the Amazon team at the time gave us for its cancellation (albeit a year and change after the fact), I can share that as well:
The 10-episode series was viewed by 1.6 million U.S. households, according to a Reuters report Thursday based on a review of Amazon internal documents, but the viewership numbers didn’t appear to be the reason that Amazon cancelled the show. Analysts have pegged U.S. subscribers to Amazon Prime at 90 million, but the documents reviewed by Reuters indicated that only 26 million of those subscribers were using the Prime Video service as of early 2017. That’s roughly the same number of U.S. subscribers are STARZ and Showtime, and Good Girls Revolt‘s 1.6 million viewers was on par with STARZ’s Counterpart (1.8 million viewers) and Showtime’s The Chi (1.7 million), which were both quickly renewed for second seasons.
The killer for Good Girls Revolt, rather, was that it failed to bring enough new subscribers to Amazon Prime. The most revealing tidbit in the Reuters report was that one of Amazon’s key metrics for original programming is how many subscribers a show brings to Amazon Prime vs. how much the show costs. Amazon calculated a “cost per first stream” metric for each of its originals, which was the number of subscribers who made that particular show the first thing they watched after signing up for the service divided by the show’s budget (production and marketing) to determine how efficiently the show generated new subscribers.
Amazon’s flashy automotive series The Grand Tour had a production and marketing budget of $78 million and generated more than 1.5 million first streams worldwide, which worked out to an average of $49 per new subscriber. Good Girls Revolt, though, had a production and marketing budget of $81 million but generated only 52,000 first streams worldwide, which worked out to $1,560 per new subscriber,
So, in other words, the show was cancelled because while it significantly appealed to the existing Prime Video subscriber base, it didn’t to people who did not. Focus groups, when executed properly, draw from both viewers and non-viewers to a platform. One question I’d have hoped Graham would have asked was what differences, if any, existed between those the contributed to the research on A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN. But even had he asked it, I’m dubious if the people in charge might have answered it honestly. The person who runs that area for Amazon these days is a former colleague of mine as well, who was actively recruited as a diversity hire but openly shared in skewing results to produce what executives they wanted to curry favor from in a manner that supported their pre-conceived perceptions, and would reactively retrofit the findings should there be waffling. That person now reports in part to Sanders. You draw your own conclusions.
Besides, I’ve had more direct dealings of late with other areas of Amazon that seem to be talking out of both sides of their mouth. At the request of a friend, a respected international media executive, I brought to their acquisitions team an acclaimed documentary about the creation of a temple that serviced the addiction recovery community of Southern California called THE JEWISH JAIL LADY AND THE HOLY THIEF. Hopkins personally connected me with members of his acquisitions team, names that seemed to change with every e-mail where planned meetings (zooms, of course) were regularly postponed. Reluctantly, we sent them the movie to review without our presence. After about a month of radio silence, one of the nameless underlings finally responded with the “oh, it’s great, but it’s not what we’re charged with finding” kiss-offs. We have never even met any one of these people in person nor spoken to them on the phone. That’s not COVID paranoia per se, that’s buck-passing. We can only assume they watched the film–unlike the case with Price and GOOD GIRLS REVOLT. I’m kinda hoping that much had changed with the current regime.
And yet, at the same time, THIS documentary WAS on the platform:
If I mentioned Kyrie Irving’s a fan, you might remember its relevance. If you’re a Brooklyn Nets fan, you certainly do. And yet, per Wikipedia, Amazon’s top executives DID defend this being part of what of they ARE looking for:
In November 2022, major American Jewish organizations—including the ADL, American Jewish Committee, and Jewish Federations of North America—petitioned Amazon to stop distributing the Hebrews to Negroes book and film on its platform, writing, “By continuing to platform this film, and other clearly hateful content, Amazon is knowingly and willingly propagating antisemitism.” Amazon’s CEO Andy Jassy later announced that the company would refuse to pull the film or book from its website. The book had become a No. 1 seller in Amazon’s “religion and spirituality” category. Amazon has rules prohibiting “derogatory comments, hate speech, or threats specifically targeting any group or individuals”; the company maintained that the film had been reviewed prior to being made available on its site, it declined to provide the details of that review..
Well, here’s some good news. Another friend of mine appears in a recently acquired short that launched this week on the platform. The film’s called PAPER LINE, and, per IMdB (who owns THAT?) is a short film about a secret fraternity of black martial artist at a prestigious HBCU in Florida.
Maybe you can treat his film better than you treated mine? After all, you did pay for it. And I’m willing to bet a lot less than the Russos or Waller-Bridge did.
By the way, for you young ‘uns–the theme today references the classic TV show DRAGNET, which told the tales of two investigative LAPD detectives–as good as what they do as Masters and Goldberg are in what they reported this week. I’m sure Salke and Sanders know it–it is, of course, a Universal Studios property. You’d have to make a deal to acquire it, but if history is any indication, you’d probably overpay.
But you DO own a more recent series where the squad car was replaced by motorcycles. And, hey, it already HAS a diverse cast!!!