Critic's Notebook: A Redefined Amazon Studios Is Primed to Disrupt Its Rivals' Plans

With new leadership and vision, the streamer will be a threat to Disney and Apple in 2019.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Amazon Studios' 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel'

Most observers of game-changing shifts in TV streaming are looking toward 2019 for two of the industry's biggest developments: the arrival of Disney's massive new platform and whatever it is that Apple unveils as the tech giant theoretically makes its debut. But don't discount the possibility that a dark horse — namely, Amazon Studios — will steal the spotlight.

Disney is the potential Death Star in this scenario when it comes to streaming — a no-doubt-about-it massive player that will instantly rival Netflix for both content and subscribers. There's no believable way to downplay that threat. But things are decidedly different with Apple. A number of executives at rival companies believe that Apple has been subject to a far less critical eye than any other outlet on a couple of key points: the state of flux its developing shows are in right now, and the question of how its underdeveloped or soft-launch platform will play out with subscribers. (On the latter front, I'm a longtime doubter who is feeling less confident in Apple's launch as the calendar pages drop.) But Amazon Studios? That's a whole other story.

In October 2017, I wrote that Amazon Studios wasn't a reclamation project but a golden opportunity. The streamer has long had a stronger-than-credited development slate and a gigantic corporate wallet. The problem that has plagued it for the last several years, a tendency to shoot itself in the foot, is easily fixable.

Factor those together and you're not dealing with an underdog. You're looking at an underappreciated threat.

For a while the jury was out on the young Amazon Studios' development slate. But another reason it hasn't received proper credit for its lineup is that the service was woeful, in its first three years, at promoting its original shows and making them easier to find on the site (issues covered extensively in that earlier Critic's Notebook). Once sexual harassment claims and word of a toxic and bumbling executive environment drove the bulk of Amazon Studios' leadership out the door, nobody was looking at the service as something ripe to be exploited.

That was a mistake.

Soon after the upheaval, the revamp started. Jennifer Salke took over as head of Amazon Studios, naming Albert Cheng and Vernon Sanders as co-heads of television, building upon the stabilizing influence of previous hires, notably Sharon Tal Yguado. A relatively young studio had righted its listing ship and got to work expanding on the foundation established by Roy Price and Joe Lewis, who got it right with more shows than you probably realize (I ranked the streamer's Patriot my No. 6 series of 2017). Amazon had swung for the fences with things that seemed like good ideas at the time and had other outlets jealous (signing Woody Allen to work in TV, for example). Add to this some of the bigger plays that bore Jeff Bezos' stamp of approval (landing the Lord of the Rings franchise development rights and, to a lesser degree, saving good established shows like The Expanse). Things were already trending in a positive direction. Then The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel happened, and the platform's profile reached new heights.

Now, with stability and an aggressive, focused agenda, Amazon Studios is positioned to increase its influence and define its brand — and has a running start into 2019 to make that happen.

Relaxed, confident and expansive, Salke set an impressive tone during Amazon Studios' portion of the recent Television Critics Association press tour, introducing Cheng and Sanders and essentially reintroducing herself (she'd previously headed programming at NBC). The projects she announced involve high-profile creators and stars, among them Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Sam Esmail, Carlton Cuse, Alan Yang, Maya Rudolph, Orlando Bloom, Neil Gaiman, Jordan Peele and Lena Waithe. Salke said Amazon Studios is acutely aware that its user interface and user experience needs to be upgraded and announced that a revamp is nearing completion. She noted too that the whole "you pick our pilots" thing is over and done with, which is more than just a nod to reality — it will get developed Amazon Studios originals made and released sooner.

Salke even took a credible stab at explaining Amazon Studios' brand, noting that it wouldn't be in the volume business like Netflix, but would emphasize a more curated approach to high-quality series in the mold of HBO or FX, but with its own (likely larger) identity, especially because it will continue to expand internationally. 

Salke said she understands the need to better explain Prime Video, which encompasses original and purchased content, to Amazon subscribers so that its healthy catalog of series and movies doesn't feel like a secret streaming service hiding inside a shopping service. And she also seemed to understand the need to energize its promotion of original series both inside and outside the platform.

Unsaid in all of this, but critically important, is that if Amazon Studios can position itself as a welcome home to creators (which is already happening) while maintaining an interest in high-quality fare with mass appeal (think Lord of the Rings) and modulating its growth so that corporate enormity doesn't wash out the personal touches and attention to detail that creators need, this combination might be a bigger threat to Netflix than even Disney. 

Catering to creators has been very successful for HBO, FX and AMC — smaller planets in the galaxy — and now Amazon Studios is rededicated to achieving that kind of profile. There's a real opportunity in the market for a major, international streaming service to develop relationships that make it feel more like a boutique. You can't overstate how Netflix's money and reach are important to creators, but getting lost in the onslaught of programming there is beginning to offset those dollar signs. 

That puts Amazon Studios in a particularly intriguing position to exploit an opening in the marketplace — certainly right now, but imagine the allure as its profile rises in 2019. This isn't an institutional problem of creating a platform from scratch; as with Apple, it's an image issue, which is infinitely more fixable.

Amazon Studios has always been a strong and viable threat, but little elements conspired to keep it too far in Netflix's shadow. That's changing. It has hits and will likely have more, plus rising buzz as a content creator that finally got its shit together with new management and vision.

Oh, and that wallet isn't getting any thinner.

Look out, the sleeping giant is waking up.