In a wide-ranging interview about his vision for Amazon Studios, the company's founder and CEO — who sits in on greenlight meetings for his upstart content division — reveals his plan to turn the $200 billion retail company into an industry player and his hands-off approach to content creators like 'Transparent's' Jill Soloway: "How in the world could I possibly help Jill? I can help Jill by leaving her alone."
When Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.com from his garage in 1995, creating television shows was far from his mind. But in January, the wiry billionaire (his estimated net worth is about $40 billion) could be seen mingling at the Golden Globe awards as his Amazon Studios won two statuettes for Transparent. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, where he owns a Beverly Hills home with his wife, MacKenzie, Bezos, 51, sat down with THR for his first extensive interview about his vision for Amazon's content play.
You've said Amazon is the first company to use a Golden Globe to sell toilet paper. What is your ultimate goal for original programming?
It's how our whole model works. When people join Prime, they buy more of everything we sell. They buy more shoes, they buy power tools and so on. How you pay for great content is an important part of making great content available.
What are you looking for in an Amazon show?
Is this something we can imagine is someone's favorite show? One way you can think about TV is you can say, "I want to make something that millions and millions of people are going to watch." If that's your starting point, you paint yourself into a corner and you often end up with homogenized, uninteresting content. If you say, "Let's hire the world's greatest storytellers. Let's encourage them to take risks," then you're going to end up with a remarkable story, and remarkable stories always find an audience.
Will Amazon ever share viewership numbers?
I don't think so. I don't think it's useful. I don't want our team obsessing over ratings. I want them obsessing over quality. If they can pull that off, we will have millions of happy viewers.
Will we at least find out how many Amazon Prime subscribers there are?
Maybe. Every once in a while we give a little more data. We grew 53 percent year-over-year, so it's a big number. And it's a global audience. Prime members are more likely to renew because of Prime Instant Video. They're more likely to start a free trial. They're more likely to convert from free to paid.
How involved are you in studio decisions?
I'm involved very significantly when final decisions are made; so after the pilot process, when we sit down to review all the shows and figure out what to say yes to. But I'm really a reverse-veto person. I would never say no to something the team wanted to do, but I might say yes to something the team didn't want to do. You want there to be multiple ways to get to "yes" because you want to encourage risk-taking.
How do your greenlight meetings work? Does the team fly to Seattle?
Yeah, yeah. We sit in a big conference room and we've all watched all the shows, and we've got all the data [from users who have watched the pilots and given feedback] in front of us. You absolutely have to be willing to make something that's going to be remarkable. You've got to take some risks.
Netflix has said it wants to debut a new show every week. What's your volume threshold?
Instead of setting a long-range goal, I would just say we're going to keep pushing forward, making more and more. We're still sort of filling a pipeline. But I like the vision of doing things frequently. The reason we're doing this is because we want Prime members to value their membership. If you look at the upward trajectory of how much content we're creating per quarter, it's increasing very rapidly. I don't envision that slowing anytime soon.
Woody Allen said at Cannes, somewhat in jest, that he regretted agreeing to make a show at Amazon. How do you respond?
I breathed a huge sigh of relief. You know Woody. If he ever gets optimistic, then I'll be worried. As long as he's pessimistic and anxious, I think we're in good shape.
Bezos (right, with Price) says he’s most excited about Amazon’s upcoming World War II drama 'The Man in the High Castle.'
So it's still happening?
Amazon bought Twitch, which gives you live-video capabilities. Will you get into sports or live events?
I can't say what we will or won't do in the future, but I can promise we'll try lots of new things.
How important are awards like Golden Globes and Emmys to you?
I think they're important to the creators. The audience also likes it. Is it the only thing that matters? No, but it's very good validation of the quality of the work that the team is doing.
Do you spend much time in Los Angeles?
I do, only socially. From a business point of view, I don't need to be involved in those meetings. [Amazon Studios chief] Roy [Price] and his team have all of that authority to make those decisions and move forward, and they don't need me. I don't need to interject myself.
Do you feel like there's a learning curve for a technology company in a creative industry?
The way you get good storytelling is important because the process can matter. That's why I like our approach. I'm not even saying it's the right approach, I'm just saying it's ours. It's this very rigorous process to say yes, but then once we say yes, we keep our Amazon Studios team size very small so that's consistent with not wanting to interfere with the work the storyteller does. For example, I'll give you the alternate scenario that would be horrific in my mind, which is that I'm sitting there in Seattle and Roy is sending me early drafts of Transparent season-two scripts and I'm giving Jill [Soloway] ideas. How in the world could I possibly help Jill? I can help Jill by leaving her alone. And everyone at Amazon takes that same approach.
'The Man in the High Castle'
But what happens when a creator doesn't respond to the hands-off approach?
Then we probably shouldn't pick that person in the first place. Doing what Jill does is super hard, and there are only a limited number of people who are great at it. My view: We need to focus on those people.
What are your assurances to your creators and the L.A. team that Amazon Studios won't go the way of Microsoft's shuttered Xbox Entertainment Studios?
The best assurance is what's happening, which is just that it's working. Companies don't stop doing the things that are working. They stop doing the things that are failing. And this is already working.
Some Amazon users complain that the interface makes it hard to find content. Is that a fair criticism?
It's available on hundreds of devices from Xbox to Roku to smart TVs. If you want to see our very best experience, get a Fire TV. Millions of folks around the world already have.
What advice would you give tech startups like Snapchat or Meerkat that are starting to make media plays?
Start from the customer and work backwards. Focusing on customer needs is very motivating because customers will never be satisfied. Also, it's OK to fail — you should expect to fail. A pioneering culture is one that rewards experimentation even as it embraces the fact that it is going to lead to failure.
Lastly, on another topic, how is your plan for drone delivery progressing?
We're continuing to conduct flight tests on rapidly improving designs. That testing is going well, and we are very pleased with the R&D progress. The long pole in the tent here will be regulatory approvals.
By Natalie Jarvey