4:01pm PT by Natalie Jarvey, Lesley Goldberg, Bryn Elise Sandberg
Amazon's Roy Price on Why Data Still Matters, Woody Allen's Future and Demise of 'Alpha House'
A year after Amazon Studios chief Roy Price failed to charm television critics during his awkward debut in front of the press, he was back on the hot seat for another session that did little to help make sense of the e-commerce giant's Hollywood ambitions.
Amazon left just 15 minutes of Q&A with Price at the end of its daylong panel on Sunday during the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, and the press was hungry for him to explain the streamer's programming decisions. But while Price extolled the value of Amazon's pilot process, he offered up few concrete examples of the way in which it has influenced a greenlight decision. He was similarly evasive about how much programming he envisions for the fledgling service or how large a budget he has to spend on originals.
Almost any appearance in front of the press would have been better for Price than his first turn in the TCA hot seat last summer, in which he forced to address (or in many cases, decline to address) potential controversies over new shows from Woody Allen and the vocal trio of former Top Gear hosts. This time, Price was saved from some of those tougher questions.
Amazon even slyly addressed last year's criticism with a video that rolled before Price's appearance that teased the upcoming The Grand Tour with former Top Gear hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May in which an unidentified man dressed in a lion suit expressed worry that the audience would be critical of the new series.
And Price appeared to find his stride partway through the session when he began to extol the precision of the Amazon Fire Stick's voice recognition software. "It always knows what I'm saying," he said. "It's unbelievable."
But for all the critical and awards success of Transparent, Amazon hasn't figured out its messaging, even as Hollywood has finally come to grips with the increasingly important role of streaming thanks to the dominance of Netflix. That much was clear during the session, during which Price fielded several questions about how Amazon does business, what exactly he's looking for and, even, how to watch his shows. Here are the highlights:
Viewer Opinions Still Matter
When Amazon first began releasing programming, it stood out for its unusual pilot process, in which it released the pilots for free and considered the feedback before making its greenlight decisions. But as the streamer has matured, it has begun giving full-season orders to some projects that get to bypass the pilot process (like David E. Kelley's Goliath). But when asked about the value of that viewer feedback, Price said it was still important. "You can take the audience feedback, which has a lot of dimensions, then you have the critics and our own observation," he said. "Put that all into the mixer and figure it out. It is helpful." But he cautioned that the data wasn't the only factor that went into the decision-making process, adding "you have to not get lost in the weeds of the data."
Price was asked specifically if he hoped his scripted originals would have multiple-season runs and noted that was "definitely a goal." The executive stressed that it was helpful to have previous seasons of a series available to benefit viewers who may come in during a second season. "As we mature as a service, we'll be glad to have more long-running shows," he said. As part of that, Price declined to provide a Netflix-like dollar figure for Amazon Studios' spending on originals. Weeks after Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky said Amazon would double its content spending in the second half of 2016 compared with the same period last year, Price would only say it was on an "upwards trajectory." "The programming is expanding versus previous years," he said, stressing that spending was double in the second half of 2015 vs. the same period in 2014.
Price confirmed that Alpha House — whose second season was released Oct. 24, 2014 — was indeed canceled. While he did his best to avoid calling the show outright canceled, the exec stressed it wasn't a "current" show for the streaming service but he would remain open to doing more episodes down the line. As for Amazon Studios' latest pilot crop, the streamer picked up The Last Tycoon to series and has passed on fellow pilot The Interestings. Meanwhile, Whit Stillman's The Cosmopolitans "could still happen," he said, adding that Stillman was working on new scripts following the release of Amazon's Love & Friendship.
Ratings Remain Under Wraps
Lately, several outfits have been hot on the trail of Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu in an effort to out the streaming services' extremely private viewership numbers. Among the companies that have received the most attention for doing so recently: Symphony Advanced Media and Nielsen. Symphony's publicized numbers led to Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos calling them "remarkably inaccurate." Well, Price, too, has seen the numbers — and he's not impressed. "I saw one article about that and the numbers were definitely incorrect. I can confirm that," he told a small group of reporters after his executive session. But were the stats really that off? "They were definitely off," added the exec, whose company has yet to disclose just how many people subscribe to its Prime membership plans. "And it's not like they were off by, like, five people, so."
Mum on Working with Woody
When one reporter brought up Allen — whose new show, Crisis in Six Scenes, was previewed earlier in the day with two short teasers — in a small scrum after Price's 15 minutes in front of the press, the exec smiled and responded cryptically, "I look forward to your reaction. See it in the fall." Another reporter then pressed him on the process of working with Allen on the series, which he confirmed will be six episodes of continuous story. "My reflection is that it comes on in September. Check it out, see what you think," he said, keeping quiet on the specifics of working with the controversial filmmaker. He did, however, add that the door is open to Allen should he want to do more of the series. "That's something we have to figure out with Woody. We'll see how he feels and what he wants to do. He's busy because he does a movie a year, so it's hard," the exec acknowledged. But is Amazon game for more? Yes, according to Price: "I would do it."