Is Amazon Studios in the process of emptying its shopping cart?
The exit of programming chief Roy Price on Oct. 17 after a harassment claim was made public has prompted observers to question if the retail giant will clean house and reboot its streaming video strategy. Price was put on indefinite leave Oct. 12, hours after The Hollywood Reporter published allegations of his vulgar propositioning of The Man in the High Castle executive producer Isa Hackett. Five days later, Amazon announced Price is stepping down. Now the focus is on whether other executives will survive amid a push to change course both creatively and culturally.
Amazon Studios COO Albert Cheng, a former Disney/ABC digital exec, is taking over on an interim basis, and the hunt is on for a new — and, according to sources, preferably female — content head. Amazon approached Paramount Television president Amy Powell over the summer but Powell, sources say, is no longer a contender. Other potential candidates include Amazon’s head of event series Sharon Tal Yguado, who helped turn The Walking Dead into a global phenomenon when she was at Fox International.
In the aftermath of Price’s exit and revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged harassment and assault, questions for the studio are coming into focus: Did Amazon tolerate behavior that men and women who worked there found inappropriate? And did the company permit Price to set what some saw as an anti-women tone in its programming choices? Amazon and Price declined to comment via spokespersons.
Price, 51, joined Amazon in 2004 and oversaw the company's launch of its digital video store and, later, its Prime Video streaming service. While the company has released a few film successes, including this summer’s The Big Sick and double Oscar winner Manchester by the Sea, Amazon’s scripted TV series have yet to deliver a mainstream watercooler hit similar to Netflix's Stranger Things or 13 Reasons Why, despite a content budget of about $4.5 billion this year.
In September, it was Hulu that became the first streamer to take home the best drama series Emmy for The Handmaid's Tale. The lack of buzz has caused Amazon to recently cancel a number of high-profile shows, including Billy Ray’s The Last Tycoon and Zelda Fitzgerald drama Z: The Beginning of Everything. The thinking is that Price was programming for “Silver Lake,” referring to Los Angeles’ hipster neighborhood, rather than pursuing a broad Game of Thrones-style hit.
After the new Weinstein claims emerged, Price’s relationship with The Weinstein Co. has been scrutinized. When Price was dissuaded from trying to set up his then-girlfriend Lila Feinberg’s television series at Amazon, her manager found a home for it at Weinstein Co. (Feinberg, who had appeared at events in gowns designed by Weinstein’s estranged wife, Georgina Chapman, recently called off her wedding to Price.)
Prior to Feinberg’s deal, insiders say Price “kissed” Weinstein into two costly projects — a $75 million anthology series from Matthew Weiner and a now-canceled $160 million drama series from David O. Russell — that helped Weinstein’s struggling company gain status and profit. Two sources say Weiner insisted on barring the Weinsteins from any creative involvement with his series, and in the wake of Price’s exit, Amazon has taken it over.
Meanwhile, Weinstein is said to have convinced Price that because of his personal relationship with the temperamental Russell, he could keep the show on track, but sources say early work on the production was chaotic. Amazon is said to have sunk $40 million into the Robert DeNiro-Julianne Moore series before scrapping it when Price was put on leave.
Amazon had been aware of allegations involving Price since at least July 2015. That’s when Hackett first reported to Amazon his alleged harassment at Comic-Con in San Diego. (Price is alleged to have told Hackett, “You will love my dick” and loudly said “anal sex!” in her ear.) Amazon brought in investigator Christine Farrell then and again this past spring. Amazon’s HR department also questioned executives about what they may have seen and heard.
Sources say insiders related incidents in this article to the department, Farrell or both. But what, if any, action was taken remained a mystery to company insiders, as is common in internal employee investigations. The existence of Hackett’s claims were first reported by the website The Information, but it was only in the immediate aftermath of THR’s Oct. 12 interview with Hackett, in which she addressed her encounter with Price in graphic detail, that Amazon suspended him. Reached for comment on Price's exit, Hackett says she hopes the move will further a culture in the entertainment industry that "values respect and decency and rejects the abusive power and dehumanizing treatment of others."
Now further details of Price at Amazon are becoming known. At work-associated gatherings, Price had a penchant for crude talk, insiders say. In August 2015, weeks after his encounter with Hackett, Price joined TriStar TV executive Suzanne Patmore Gibbs, then-Amazon development executive Carolyn Newman and Amazon’s then-head of hourlong programming, Morgan Wandell, for drinks at Soho House in New York following a table read for Good Girls Revolt. Patmore Gibbs tells THR that the evening became “awkward and uncomfortable” when Price began to steer the conversation to the sexual history and drug use of those gathered. Wandell departed quickly with the two women.
In addition, Amazon — along with HBO, Showtime and Netflix — was offered a chance to lock up the planned Nicole Kidman-Reese Witherspoon series Big Little Lies. The project was a hot commodity and the other bidders made straight-to-series offers. Price would only allow Amazon to offer a development deal, and company insiders say at a staff holiday party at the Lucky Strike bowling alley in Hollywood, Price asked a group of staffers if the two stars would “show their tits” and mused aloud why he would greenlight the show if they didn’t. (In fact, Kidman did multiple nude scenes.) Big Little Lies went to HBO and won eight Emmys — four times more than Amazon’s overall haul.
Under Price, Amazon has had few female-fronted shows, and the studio attracted negative attention in the wake of its December 2016 cancellation of the well-reviewed Good Girls Revolt. Series creator Dana Calvo took the rare step of publicly castigating Price for never learning the characters’ names. David E. Kelley, writer-producer of Big Little Lies and Amazon’s Goliath, also has gone public with his frustration with the streamer, telling The Wall Street Journal that the company “is a bit of a gong show.”
Amazon does have programs intended to appeal to women — including Jill Soloway’s Transparent as well as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, whose pilot debuted in March — and recently has made efforts to add more. But with Price at the helm, most of Amazon's shows have seemed to be aimed primarily at men, including Sneaky Pete, Bosch and American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story. Price also gave a wildly lavish $80 million deal to Woody Allen for a poorly reviewed six-episode comedy.
For its part, Amazon has pressed showrunners to hire more women directors and is at 50 percent on its half-hours. In April, it gave its first two-season order to Mrs. Maisel, making it the first multiseason order from the streaming service. But Amazon has yet to greenlight a show from a woman straight to series, though it has done so in several instances with male showrunners. Even Soloway had to make a pilot for Transparent follow-up I Love Dick.
According to sources, for several long and expensive years, Price has also had comedy and drama chief Joe Lewis and his team at work developing a series called Shanghai Snow, based on his own idea. The project is not listed on IMDb, which is owned by Amazon, though several writers with credits say they have worked on it and Price’s friend, the filmmaker McG, was attached to direct. Aspiring script writer Yale Hannon produced one outline with scribes Evan Spiliotopoulos and Raven Metzner also having written versions. In the draft written by Hannon, obtained by THR, Shanghai Snow follows a young woman named Cindy who is sold into sex slavery. Under the control of a “psychotic imperial Thai dwarf” named Mr. Goodtimes, Cindy is drugged, beaten with a machete and told she will be “fucked like a dead fish.”
Metzner tells THR through his rep that he was repulsed by the misogyny of an earlier script and told an Amazon executive that he would only work on the project if he could tone down that aspect. (McG declined comment.) This spring, after Metzner had done a rewrite in which he attempted to lessen the treatment of women, Amazon hired seasoned writer Chris Levinson — a woman — to work on the project.
It seems unlikely now that a pilot will ever be shot. Certainly, Shanghai Snow never seemed likely to provide Amazon with the Game of Thrones type hit that it seeks.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.