Amazon's Jennifer Salke Teases New Strategy and Next Steps for 'Lord of the Rings'

Jen Salke - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Amazon

Five months in, Amazon Studios’ new head, Jennifer Salke, got a turn in the hot seat.

Following a flurry of announcements — new projects from Greg Daniels, Lena Waithe and Nicole Kidman — Salke stood before members of the Television Critics Association for the first time Saturday to field questions about the Amazon brand, a forthcoming new user interface and a reimagined, non-democratized pilot process.

At one point early in the session, she caught herself reiterating her enthusiasm: “I hope I don’t say ‘exciting’ too much and somebody makes fun of me,” she laughed, sheepishly adding, “But I’m excited.”

Soon, Salke was joined by her TV co-heads, Albert Cheng and Vernon Sanders, who used the TCA stage to not only promote their platform but also attempt to differentiate Amazon in the increasingly crowded content marketplace. “We’re looking at our new home at Culver Studios as the real home for talent,” said Salke, taking a subtle swipe at Netflix without ever mentioning the rival by name. “We’re going to build a more curated group of talent and artists … you won’t see some giant volume play.”

At multiple points during the half-hour panel, the trio of executives — notably, a woman, an Asian-American and an African-American — stressed the “creative excellence” that they're after, along with their collective desire to serve Amazon’s vast and diverse customer base. Diversity, they added, was very much baked into that proposition. In fact, Salke — who spearheaded an initiative while at NBC to hire first-time female directors and oversaw a 10-person team that included seven diverse execs and six female ones — revealed that Sanders was the only person she spoke to for the role as her No. 2, and his perspective has been been invaluable.

After dismissing the "old-fashioned" notion that embracing diversity is a good business move, Salke noted, “It’s not some strategy or agenda [here], it’s just who we are and how we think as people."

Still, in a town and a business that's never been known for organic inclusion, Sanders acknowledged that the presence of an African-American in an executive suite can be disarming. When talent comes into the room, he said, "they’re caught off-guard that there’s someone who looks like them in a position like this. It just shifts the dynamic. They’re bringing us their true passion projects [and] we can have a conversation about how that project reflects the world."

Here are the other panel highlights:

Transparent’s Farewell

There will be new news on Transparent … just not yet. To the room’s dismay, Salke wasn’t ready to tease much with regard to a final season following Jeffrey Tambor’s ouster. In fact, she wouldn’t even reveal whether the series would wrap with a multi-episode season or simply a single-episode special. What Salke did say is that creator Jill Soloway had been in the Amazon offices this past week and had pitched not only her plan for a finale but also what’s she’s excited about beyond Transparent.  

Lord of the Rings' Next Steps

While Amazon is not out for volume, the studio is after big and noisy. The streamer purchased the global rights to the Lord of the Rings series in November, before Salke’s arrival at Amazon. (Under the pact, the series must be in production in two years.) Expected to be the most expensive TV series ever made at an eye-popping $500 million price tag, Salke revealed that selecting the project’s writers — Star Trek 4 duo JD Payne and Patrick McKay — was a lengthy, thoughtful process that involved her executives hearing many, many takes before landing on one.