Amazon Studios Head Roy Price on Competing With Netflix, Xbox Studios' Demise (Q&A)

11:00 AM PST 07/30/2014 by Natalie Jarvey
Jose Mandojana

Amazon doubles down on drama as its rivals fall.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Roy Price comes from a long line of Hollywood executives. His father, Frank Price, was president of Universal Pictures in the 1980s and his grandfather, Roy Huggins, co-created The Rockford Files. "We would watch dailies sometimes at home on Sunday night," he says. "You had to have a projector and a projectionist come over to your house to turn it on."

Now, nearly 10 years after Price moved from Los Angeles to Seattle to help Amazon.com launch its own streaming video service, the 47-year-old exec is returning, with his wife and three children, to Santa Monica, where he'll continue to run Amazon Studios, the $74 billion e-commerce company's original content division. "You can't run a full-time TV and movie studio from Seattle," he says (although he'll still be shuttling up north for occasional meetings with digital music and video head Bill Carr and CEO Jeff Bezos).

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With Amazon's July 24 announcement that it'll be spending $100 million on original content in the third quarter -- to help Amazon Prime further transform its premium shipping service into a media streaming entity (with a $99 annual fee) that can compete with the likes of Netflix and Hulu -- being close to Hollywood has become all the more important.

Since Amazon Studios began producing original programming two years ago, it has generated more buzz over its method of picking up shows -- pilots are released online and judged by viewer enthusiasm -- than for the shows themselves. Just two pilots made it to series in 2013 (Alpha House and Betas). But Amazon's more recent slate of pilots, released in February -- including transgender dramedy Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Bosch -- has been gaining critical traction. And acquisitions such as Under the Dome and Extant, as well as a deal to stream HBO's library of shows, including The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and True Blood, also have boosted its profile. (Amazon, though, does not release actual viewership or Prime-subscriber numbers.)

A new batch of pilots is due in August: among them, Whit Stillman's Paris-set drama The Cosmopolitans and the Steven Soderbergh-produced comedy Red Oaks. Meanwhile, THR traveled to Seattle to talk with Price about his upcoming move, Amazon's recent stock tumble (down 20 percent since January), why Xbox's studio failed and how he'd rather have a show that only 30 percent of audiences love.

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If Amazon is spending more than $100 million on content this quarter, is that all coming to you?

It's mostly me personally, yeah. I get a little bonus. (Laughs.) We're producing episodes. Transparent is going to wrap before the end of Q3, but I think Mozart, Alpha House, Bosch, all those shows will be active. So yeah, we're busy. We're going to spend some money in Q3.

You've mentioned before that if a show is set in Paris, you'll film in Paris …

If a show has a very particular spirit, like Jill Soloway's Transparent -- that show is an L.A. show -- you cannot move that show. You're going to feel the L.A.-ness of the show as people drive around, as they go to Griffith Park. For Cosmopolitans, they're not in Paris randomly. They're in Paris because it's Paris, so you need to go there. Our priority is: Let's make the show great and let's make the show a specific story about real people.

What's your mandate?

To create fantastic content that Amazon customers will love, that will make Prime more fantastic and desirable. That is really goal number one. We also think that as you look forward into the media business, the distance from creators to customers or viewers or whatever is going to get a lot shorter. It's going to be more common for creators to be able to reach out and directly interact with their audience. In addition to producing great shows, there’s an opportunity to try to help make this happen and maybe create a platform for that. 

Why did you initially leave Hollywood for a tech company?

Around 1999 I decided that the Internet was going to be big, and so I decided that it was going to change the TV business in major ways— really change how we watch TV — and I wanted to be part of that. 

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Explain the decision to start Amazon Studios.

I was running Amazon Instant Video for a period of time, and I came to the conclusion that it was inevitable that basically everybody in the business was going to get into original content, because if you're licensing and you go to the studio they will say, "OK, here's exactly the same stuff as your competitor down the street will get." Everyone's looking for opportunities to be special and different, and it seemed like original content was inevitably going to be that thing.

How does working for a digital platform affect the shows you buy?

In an on-demand environment, people have to demand your show. Nobody turns on the TV and, what do you know, Alpha House is playing. Let's say you had a show where 80 percent of the people you show it to think it's pretty good. They might watch it, but none of those people think it's a great show nor is it their favorite show. But then you have another show where only 30 percent of people like it. For every single one of them, they're going to watch every single episode and they love it. Well, in an on-demand world, show No. 2 is more valuable. That really changes how you approach it, because what you need to do is get more specific. It's less about following generic, general rules for creating television and more about finding a specific voice and a specific artist that people are going to be a fan of.

What is your pitch to creatives who might be skeptical about Amazon?

We give the shows the resources they need to be great. And Amazon can reach out to the audience. For a show like Transparent, there is an audience out there that we can speak to and reach out to [via Amazon]. One other factor is that shows at Amazon don't get canceled. There's no scenario where you create three episodes and then we cancel your show. You're going be able to follow through and do the whole season as planned.

Is it frustrating to get outbid by Netflix or HBO or FX on projects?

Most shows are not good shows for all networks. So you're rarely in the mix with more than a few other places. But in terms of high-end half-hours and hours, there are a few places that are on the list. There is a type of show that probably can go to AMC, FX, HBO, Showtime, Netflix or Amazon. On the whole, there's a group of people who get a look at a certain show and we're in that group.

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Like others, you don't release ratings. But how much do they factor in to whether you renew a show?

We know what the numbers are. But we pay attention to how many people are engaging with this show — whether they appear to be enjoying it and talking about it — and that's going be a factor in getting renewed. We don't talk about the exact numbers. I'm not sure if that would even be helpful. I don't really want the producers second-guessing themselves or thinking about their show on a meta level.

What are you learning from your shows about the best model of distribution?

There are arguments on both sides of whether you launch the show over time or launch it all at once. There is definitely a lot of enthusiasm for the whole binge-release idea. We're going to do whatever people respond to. If people are enthusiastic about it, that's what we'll do.

Is there a show on TV that you wish Amazon had?

If I could wave a wand, I would order another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. That's a show with a real voice.

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Microsoft just shut down Xbox Studios. What does that say about the digital space?

They didn't really get started, so it didn't really influence the marketplace. It would be different if a major player dropped out.

Has Amazon given you any assurance that won't happen to you? The stock has been down lately.

Why? Do you think that's going to happen? (Laughs.) Look, I think original content is really important to any subscription video-on-demand service these days. And there's a real opportunity for us, through original content, to make Prime even fantastic-er. I worry about a lot of things on a day-to-day basis but that's not one of them.

If viewers are choosing which pilots to pick up, why employ executives like you?

Maybe one day the computer will just pick the shows. You'll come in on Monday and the computer will say, "I ordered Transparent over the weekend." I don't anticipate that. Some algorithms are very difficult to create and that would be one of them, so I'm not worried about that. Did you ever see The Barefoot Executive? It's a Disney movie about a monkey who can pick TV shows. It's hilarious.

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