- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
It’s long been an open secret that Jeff Bezos has yearned for his own Game of Thrones, and that Amazon’s big swing as it reached for its own massive hit was The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, believed to be the most expensive series ever made.
Last September, the show began with a bang, delivering the biggest debut ever on the streamer in what Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke called “a very culturally defining moment” for the company. But when season one wrapped, the show was less defining than hoped, falling short of being the breakout hit that Amazon had envisioned.
While Amazon, like other streamers, provides only limited data — and internally, it held information even more closely than usual on the series — sources confirm that The Rings of Power had a 37 percent domestic completion rate (customers who watched the entire series). Overseas, it reached 45 percent. (A 50 percent completion rate would be a solid but not spectacular result, according to insiders). The show has not been a major awards contender, either, overlooked by the major guilds with the exception of one SAG-AFTRA nomination for stunt ensemble.
But according to Salke, the series has worked. “This desire to paint the show as anything less than a success — it’s not reflective of any conversation I’m having internally,” she says. The second season, currently in production, will have more dramatic story turns, she adds. “That’s a huge opportunity for us. The first season required a lot of setting up.”
Data from Nielsen on minutes watched reveals that when it comes to original shows generally, Amazon has lagged. In 2022, Netflix hoovered up the top 10 spots for original streaming series, with Amazon’s The Boys in 11th place — ahead of The Rings of Power at No. 15. Using the same measurement, none of the top 15 originals of 2021 came from Amazon. (Netflix again took all the slots except for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale in 10th place, Apple’s Ted Lasso at 12, and Disney+’s WandaVision in the 14th spot.)
Many current and former Amazon executives, as well as showrunners who have series at the streamer and agents who make deals there, believe that this is no accident. They describe Amazon Studios as a confusing and frustrating place to do business. When it comes to movies, where Amazon’s footprint is expanding following the $8.5 billion acquisition of MGM a year ago, a veteran producer says that, in recent years, “there has been no sense of what the philosophy is.”
On the series side, numerous sources say they cannot discern what kind of material Salke and head of television Vernon Sanders want to make. A showrunner with ample experience at the studio says, “There’s no vision for what an Amazon Prime show is. You can’t say, ‘They stand for this kind of storytelling.’ It’s completely random what they make and how they make it.” Another showrunner with multiple series at Amazon finds it baffling that the streamer hasn’t had more success: Amazon has “more money than God,” this person says. “If they wanted to produce unbelievable television, they certainly have the resources to do it.”
But Salke believes the studio’s approach fits Amazon’s broad remit. “I have never been one to say [to the creative community] ‘We need five action franchise shows and three workplace situation comedies.’ That’s the kiss of death,” she says. “You don’t reverse-engineer true creative vision. We are programming for over 250 million households across the entire globe. We would say we have a big, broad audience, and we are looking for content that entertains the four quadrants.” (That is, male and female, under 35 and over 35).
The question that makes many in Hollywood nervous is whether the Amazon Studios overlords in Seattle believe they are getting enough bang for their megabucks. The last thing the industry wants at a time of belt-tightening is a cutback in spending from a deep-pocketed buyer. According to Salke, that concern is misguided. “The proof exists that the giant tentpole shows are driving people to subscribe to Prime,” she says. “Do we pressure ourselves to be more disciplined, more strategic? Of course. We consistently examine if we’re producing the right amount of content at the right value to drive the most engagement across our service.”
Like Apple, Amazon is not a traditional entertainment company but a huge retailer with a side hustle in Hollywood. Amazon’s view is that the more hours you spend watching Prime Video, the more likely you are to renew your membership and the more likely you are to shop on the site. As Amazon, like Netflix, pursues overseas growth in the wake of saturation in the U.S., Salke notes that in some countries like South Africa and Argentina, Amazon’s programming is the tip of the spear, entering the territory before retail sales or fast, free shipping is even available. “International is everything,” she says. “It is our business to deliver global shows for a global audience.”
The streamer has certainly had its success stories, including buzzy shows like Transparent, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag, and popular series like The Boys, Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher and The Terminal List. But it has arguably never had a brand-defining show that is a commercial and critical juggernaut in the vein of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Netflix’s Stranger Things or Apple’s Ted Lasso. And all of those Amazon series, except Jack Reacher and The Terminal List, were launched when Salke’s predecessor, Roy Price, ran the studio. (Price departed in 2017 amid allegations of improper conduct; Salke took over in 2018.)
One of Salke’s first greenlights was Daisy Jones & The Six, based on the Taylor Jenkins Reid novel and co-produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. Lauren Neustadter, president of film at Hello Sunshine, says she and Witherspoon had lunch with Salke just as she was starting at Amazon. “She was really clear and articulate in her vision” for what she wanted to do with the job, Neustadter says. “Reese and I both said Daisy is all the things she was talking about. The book, the show, fashion — we had big dreams for this.”
Amazon put more than $140 million into production, in part due to high COVID protocol costs. The show dropped March 3 with solid numbers and eventually topped Parrot Analytics’ weekly engagement chart. The 2-year-old novel popped back onto Amazon’s best-seller list, and the retailer is able to sell tie-in merchandise. Aurora, an album featuring songs from the fictional band, is climbing the Billboard charts. However, insiders say the show remains shy of the breakout hit the studio hoped for. (Released around the same time, Donald Glover’s Swarm is also delivering strong results for Amazon at a more modest $30 million budget.)
A far more costly and troubled production was the Russo brothers’ Citadel, which debuts on April 28. Anthony Russo says Salke first approached AGBO, the Russos’ production company, with a general concept of making a U.S. show with international foreign-language versions. AGBO came up with “a global spy show where you would have a mothership U.S. language show” alongside foreign-language versions in other countries, Russo says. The various versions are “related to one another, but they also exist independently and distinct from one another.” Some of the international shows may be set in different time periods, he adds.
Amazon has committed to three seasons of three versions of the show; so far, a local-language production is underway in Italy and in early stages in India. “We love the ability to communicate with people all over the world, and to connect people through stories,” Russo continues. “Amazon and Jen basically brought us a brand-new opportunity to do that at a scale that’s never been attempted before.”
But in December 2021, with production well underway, the Russo brothers decided to replace showrunner Josh Appelbaum. “It was clear after some audience feedback and discussion that some changes needed to be made,” says Mike Larocca, president and co-founder of AGBO. “We felt like it needed some more character work early to draw people into the show. It was that straightforward.” Appelbaum declined to comment.
David Weil took over as showrunner. When Joe Russo came on set, a “huge bunch of material” was tossed out, an insider says. Sources say the cost of the series climbed toward $300 million, making it Amazon’s second-most expensive show after LOTR. (In an onstage March 10 conversation with Salke at SXSW, Priyanka Chopra said her work on Citadel was the first time she had achieved pay parity in 22 years. That prompted some Amazon executives to joke internally that this was actually the first and second time, since she and the other leads on the show got paid significantly more than planned due to the massive reshoots.)
While the original plan called for eight hourlong episodes, the show that will drop on Amazon in April ended up at six, roughly 40-minute episodes. Amazon has already renewed it for a second season of six hourlong episodes. “There are a couple of relationships where I don’t really understand the bet that is being made,” says one Amazon veteran of the commitment to the project. “But Jen believes in the Russos.”
The challenges on Citadel can happen with the “best-managed creative endeavors with the highest level of talent,” Salke says. “Given the choice of making it mediocre or fucking great — we made the right call there. And at the end of the day, our customers will be the judge.”
Hunters and A League of Their Own, which is ending with a truncated season two, stand out as expensive disappointments of the Salke era. The latter cost in the ballpark of $90 million for eight episodes, including a premium paid to Sony for certain rights.
What generates some of the frustration that sources cite in dealings with Amazon is that Salke, who was previously president of NBC Entertainment, seems to be pursuing conflicting goals. Despite her assertion that Amazon is “a home for talent,” insiders say the mandate is increasingly not on finding the kind of curated hit that defines HBO, but more middle-of-the-road, meat-and-potatoes shows like Jack Reacher. “We’re so desperate right now for safe hits,” an Amazon exec says. (Netflix has also been pursuing broader material.)
But at the same time, current and former Amazon executives say Salke has a pattern of “chasing what she perceives as hot,” as one insider puts it. That person cites as examples paying a premium for Daisy Jones because of the Witherspoon connection, or making a Dead Ringers series, based on the 1988 David Cronenberg film, that came with Rachel Weisz attached. Salke makes deals with auteur talent to “deliver Jack Reacher results,” says an Amazon veteran. “But they don’t.”
Amazon recently renewed The Peripheral, a sci-fi drama from Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy that cost close to $175 million for eight episodes (sources say their final eight-episode season of Westworld at HBO cost about $140 million). Amazon has ordered six additional hours of The Peripheral despite what sources say has been lukewarm audience engagement. “It probably should have been canceled,” says an insider. “But they made a megadeal and the political capital they would lose with Lisa and Jonah would be too great. And they have other shows coming.” Fallout, the next show from Nolan and Joy, is also “extremely expensive,” says a source.
Nolan and Joy’s deal has been worth at least $20 million a year since they signed on in 2019. One insider calls the Nolan deal the worst example of Salke’s mantra that Amazon is “a home for talent.’” He adds: “We cede decisions to powerful producers. We hold the line on other producers who do great work for us.” Nolan and Joy declined to comment.
Some rich Amazon deals have failed to produce anything at all. In the wake of serving as an executive producer on Them, Lena Waithe got a two-year deal worth $8 million a year that yielded nothing; in November 2021, she moved her banner to HBO Max.
And in September 2019, Amazon announced a deal with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who had just swept up six Emmys for the second season of Fleabag. The plan was for Waller-Bridge to collaborate with Donald Glover on a Mr. and Mrs. Smith series, based on the 2005 film.
But within a few months, Waller-Bridge departed the show due to clashing creative styles. Her three-year deal, at $20 million a year, bore no fruit, yet Amazon recently renewed it, announcing that Waller-Bridge would write (but not star in) a Tomb Raider series. Some Amazon insiders have questioned how much she will contribute to the project, noting that Amazon has been seeking a showrunner to help write and oversee it.
The low-key Sanders bristles a little at the assertion. “Phoebe has not only fully embraced Tomb Raider and I think is feeling very committed to it, but she’s in a writers room right now working on it,” he says. Waller-Bridge is developing other material for the streamer as well, he adds, “She’s a perfectionist, so she absolutely wants to make sure that what she does is great and right, but she’s proven that when she does deliver, she delivers.” Waller-Bridge declined to comment.
But a showrunner with considerable experience at Amazon sees it differently: “They don’t learn from their mistakes. They [say], ‘We can’t do any more deals like that.’ You turn around and they’re right back to — the impolite term is ‘star-fucking.'” For creative executives at the studio, the result has been exasperation. “They say, ‘We don’t want to buy from outside studios,’” says a former Amazon exec. “Then packages come and they buy everything that comes through the door, and our development is thrown out.”
One of Salke’s early hires at Amazon was Sanders, who had worked very closely with her as head of current programming at NBC. At Amazon, Salke initially made him co-head and then sole head of television. Before coming to Amazon, Sanders was overseeing NBC shows that were already up and running rather than developing and launching shows. Some Amazon insiders complain that he doesn’t offer them enough in the way of direction.
“No one knows what he likes,” says a former executive at the streamer. In a similar vein, a producer who’s worked with Amazon says, “Vernon seems so sincere, but when you talk to him about a project, you come away not knowing where you stand. What kind of shows does he really care about making? At the end of the day, that makes it hard for talent to truly trust him.”
Sanders says his job is simply not to program for his own taste, echoing Salke’s point about the importance of international. “We have over 250 million global customers, so our goal is to program for everyone — we have a big, broad and diverse audience,” he says. “We see that as one of our strengths. We can produce global tentpoles as well as inventive, character-driven series, with plenty in between. And our customers welcome it all. That’s why Lord of the Rings and Swarm can co-exist and succeed on our service.”
Another complaint is that Sanders relies heavily on feedback from focus groups, which tend to favor broad and less inclusive programming. Several Amazon insiders say the reliance on testing and data led to a clash late last summer, when an Amazon executive said in a marketing meeting for the series A League of Their Own that data showed audiences found queer stories off-putting and suggested downplaying those themes in materials promoting the show. Series co-creator Will Graham became greatly concerned about bias built into Amazon’s system for evaluating shows, which multiple sources say often ranked broad series featuring straight, white male leads above all others. One executive calls A League of Their Own “a proxy for how diverse and inclusive shows are treated.”
Graham launched into an interrogation of the system, questioning multiple executives about it. Amazon took the issue seriously and dropped the system of ranking shows based on audience scores. Insiders cite this show as one that Sanders did passionately support, but for months after it dropped, there was no word on whether it would be renewed. Ultimately, Amazon agreed to a four-episode second and final season. Still, several Amazon veterans believe the system remains too dependent on those same test scores. “All this perpetuation of white guys with guns — it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says one. And another: “Relying on data is soul crushing … There’s never, ‘I know the testing wasn’t that great, but I believe in this.'” Graham declined to comment.
One executive says it was different when Salke first took charge at Amazon. “She shot from the hip, she went with her gut, and she didn’t let data overrule her,” this person says. “But she hired a staff that was in over their heads in terms of being able to get those shows produced at a number. I think if we had [FX boss] John Landgraf or [HBO’s] Casey Bloys or somebody who had more credibility and direct interaction with the development of shows, it would be so much easier to spend less. But we kind of act like it doesn’t matter if we have deep conversations with talent. A guy like Donald Glover would think, ‘No way in hell I’m doing a deal with these guys unless they overpay me.’ I know we’re third or fourth on their priority list. Agents are direct about it: ‘You guys pay a premium for being Amazon.’ They have clients who would much rather work at other places.”
Salke responds: “If people say my gut’s been tamped down, there’s no evidence for that.”
Even some producers who have successful television projects at Amazon say its executive structure remains confusing to the point of opacity. A recent reorganization — the latest of several — does not seem to have done much to clarify things. An executive at a production company that has done repeat business with Amazon says it’s hard to know “who you should go to if you want to bring [a project] to them.” Says a showrunner who has had success at the streamer: “I couldn’t honestly tell you who reports to whom. It keeps changing.”
Some of the confusion around Amazon may arise from conflicting goals at the top. Mike Hopkins, Amazon’s senior vice president for Prime Video & Amazon Studios, is a seasoned business executive and a veteran of Sony and Hulu but does not come from the creative side. A top industry executive who dealt with him at Hulu calls him “a seemingly egoless, laid-back, efficient manager.” A former Amazon executive says Hopkins is a “very intelligent, very calm and collected leader, but all he seems to care about is the bottom line. He doesn’t understand a lot about production because he doesn’t come from that.” Hopkins declined to comment.
Salke is known as a charismatic leader who has “a great touch around talent,” says an agent. But one long-standing complaint is that she can be hard to reach and unresponsive to texts or emails. “I really like Jen,” says an executive whose company has done repeat business with Amazon. “When you get her, she’s really engaged. She’s obviously spread thin, but if you actually get her, you can get a pretty clear answer.” That issue might only be exacerbated as, in the past year, Salke has taken on responsibility for MGM’s film and television studios, as well as marketing oversight.
On the fundamental issue of money, Hopkins and Salke were destined to clash. “Her strategy is to get whatever seems hot. Mike’s vision was to cut costs on shows and get football,” says a former insider. In 2021, Amazon became the first streamer to make an exclusive deal with the NFL, signing an 11-year pact for exclusive rights to Thursday Night Football at $1 billion per season. Amazon’s sports chief, Jay Marine, told staff in a September note that the launch game produced “the biggest three hours for U.S. Prime sign ups ever in the history of Amazon.” But while the streamer had told advertisers it expected to average 12.5 million viewers per game, at the end of the season Amazon said it had 11.3 million viewers, while Nielsen calculated 9.6 million average viewers. Amazon has said it compensated advertisers for the shortfall but offered no specifics.
In recent months, current and former Amazon executives say, Salke seemed to be in a political battle with Hopkins. “Mike is a lot about budgets and that’s not something she reacts well to,” says one. But a top executive at another entertainment company says his lack of creative experience hampers his ability to limit spending on shows and movies. “That’s why he says yes when Jen says we’ve got to pay Simon Kinberg $8 million for a project,” this person says.
That’s a reference to the spy thriller Red Shirt, written by writer-producer Kinberg with Channing Tatum attached to star. The project, acquired in November based on a treatment and short video heavily featuring Tatum, had several bidders, but Amazon offered the richest overall package. The film calls for Tatum to be paid $25 million, with a staggering $18 million for director David Leitch. Add in Kinberg’s $8 million for writing and producing services and the deal represents one of the highest, if not the highest, payment for an original pitch in Hollywood dealmaking history. Kinberg, Tatum and Leitch declined to comment.
And that’s only one of several pricey film bets that Amazon has made. Salke put in a preemptive bid for Air, the Nike movie with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Affleck says Salke was his point of contact during the making of the film and he found her to be “straightforward, and true to her word.” Salke “always had thoughtful ideas and notes,” he adds. “We took almost all of them.”
But an executive at a competitor calls the deal for Air “crazy,” claiming, “She just bought it off a pitch, went in and bought it for $160 million.” (Industry sources say it cost far less to produce.) “Matt made more money on [Air] than any other movie but Bourne. She just took it off the table,” says the executive. (Affleck and Damon declined to comment on the deal.) Another source involved with the project says he’s certain some competitor would have matched the deal. While it’s uncertain the film, which has garnered critical acclaim, will gross enough at the box office to be profitable, the value of having it to lure subscribers to the streaming service may justify the expense.
Recently, Salke has been perceived as pivoting toward film. Several Amazon sources believe there was a tug-of-war with Hopkins over who would have oversight of the MGM film studio. Initially, Hopkins intended to hire former Fox and Paramount executive Emma Watts and have her report to him. But then Watts — a seasoned but sometimes sharp-elbowed exec — was out of the picture, despite having gone through vetting. Amazon announced in November that Salke, not Hopkins, would have direct oversight of the film studio despite her very limited film experience. Amazon declined to comment on the switch.
Given Salke’s background in television, many in the film community assumed she would need to hire an executive with strong movie experience to oversee MGM films. But some Amazon insiders believe she wanted to give the job to Julie Rapaport, the executive in charge of original movies for the streamer. While Rapaport is well-liked, in the view of several outside movie execs, she lacks the experience to run MGM film.
If Salke indeed wanted Rapaport in the job, there was one big snag. MGM’s crown jewel is the James Bond franchise, which is controlled by Barbara Broccoli. Sources say Broccoli made it clear that she needed an experienced movie executive at the helm of MGM’s film division. The sources also believe that Salke put her foot wrong with Broccoli by mentioning a possible Bond TV project, which Broccoli would not want. And following the acquisition of MGM’s distribution arm, they say, Broccoli was not impressed when weeks passed during which Amazon did not communicate with the longtime marketing and distribution executives who Broccoli sees as vital to handling the Bond films, leaving them in doubt as to whether they would keep their jobs. (A source says one of those executives, the late Erik Lomis, fought to move Creed III out of a crowded November to a March release date, giving Amazon a hit that has grossed $250 million.) Salke says, “We have deep respect for Barbara and Michael” — a reference to Michael G. Wilson, her Bond producing partner. Broccoli did not respond to a request for comment.
Amazon went through a protracted who’s who of potential hires before settling on former Warner Bros. executive Courtenay Valenti. Sources say Salke was chilly to Valenti during the hiring process, which Salke denies. Valenti joins former longtime Warner Bros. executive Sue Kroll, who in October became head of marketing for Amazon Studios and MGM. Even Amazon critics say Salke made an excellent move in hiring Kroll, who brings a much-needed boost to promoting Amazon films and series. Now reunited, both Valenti and Kroll will report to Salke.
Part of what irks some Amazon entertainment executives is that, as part of a supersized tech company, the studio must contend with an idiosyncratic culture that often doesn’t mesh with traditional Hollywood practices. (In a sense, Amazon the parent is as alien to Hollywood as previous outsiders who have come and gone: Coca-Cola, Matsushita, a wave of German investors.) Amazon culture manifests itself in many ways that go beyond the well-known everyone-flies-coach rule. The compensation system caps base cash pay at $350,000 for all employees (exclusive of signing bonuses) plus stock options, which for a high-level executive will make up the bulk of pay. The base pay cash ceiling was $160,000 until last year, when the cap was increased due to the declining stock price. Over the past 12 months, the stock has been down more than 35 percent. (In contrast, at Netflix, executives can decide what percentage of their compensation they will take in stock options.)
“A lot of people there are not that incentivized to stick their necks out,” says an agent. “Everyone’s sort of marking time to get as much stock [to vest] as they can. That’s no way to run it. This is a hit-driven, risk-taking business.”
Another Amazon tradition: Only top executives have offices. Until this year, other high-level execs have worked in assigned cubicles. Since January, however, the vast majority have to contend with “agile seating,” meaning they work at unassigned cubbies in designated “neighborhoods,” and are provided with lockers for their belongings. “These things are coming from so high up [in the company],” says an Amazon Studios insider. “It just contributes to the sense of anonymity — that nobody knows where their own spaces and belongings are.” This arrangement seems to be in favor with some tech types; Jason Kilar was “adamant” about imposing a similar plan at HBO and HBO Max, according to a source, though equivalent top executives at Netflix do get offices.
Meanwhile, the broader company is now facing very public challenges: In January, Amazon announced the biggest workforce cuts in the company’s history, laying off more than 27,000 of its 1.6 million employees. So far, the studio has been spared, though a hiring freeze is in effect.
Industry executives feel it’s imperative to keep as many buyers in the game as possible, and some worry that the NFL deal has shown Amazon a way to sign up subscribers in a way that is not as unpredictable as making scripted entertainment. Says one former insider, “In bringing Mike in, they wanted to keep Jen in check. Then you add sports and in 24 hours make more progress than in eight years of TV. The whole sports launch changed the prism of how they look at the ecosystem and what role film and TV and music plays into it.”
So far, Amazon hasn’t hinted at any unhappiness with the return on its content spend, which was $7 billion on Amazon Originals, live sports and licensed third-party video content in 2022. That’s up 28 percent from the previous year, thanks in part to the cost of football and Lord of the Rings. (In comparison, Netflix spent about $18 billion.) According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, Amazon’s U.S. Prime subscribers stalled last year at 168 million, essentially flat from 2021. (The company last publicly disclosed a Prime subscriber number in 2021, when it said it had “over 200 million” globally.)
During a February earnings call, Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky sounded upbeat. “We regularly evaluate the return on the spend [on content] and continue to be encouraged by what we see, as video has proven to be a strong driver of Prime member engagement and new Prime member acquisition.” Speaking at a New York Times Dealbook summit in November, CEO Andy Jassy said he could see a possible future in which Amazon’s entertainment operations could work as a stand-alone business “with very attractive economics.” He added, “All of that content is a really important ingredient in why people choose to sign up to Prime.” But Amazon watchers might have noted that he mentioned Thursday Night Football in particular. The company will continue to invest in sports, he said, “a unique asset with an unrivaled ability to drive Prime sign-ups.”
Additional reporting by Lesley Goldberg.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day