Jennifer Salke Details Amazon Plans: Fix Culture, Empower Women, 'Lord of the Rings' by 2021

In her first interview since replacing embattled exec Roy Price, the former NBC Entertainment president talks with THR about her overall deals strategy and how she's changing the corporate culture as she outlines her plans for feature films.
Courtesy of Amazon
Jennifer Salke

Jennifer Salke's plans to spend Amazon Studios' $4.5 billion war chest are coming into focus.

Four months after replacing embattled exec Roy Price, the former NBC Entertainment president turned head of the retailer/streamer has firmed up her executive ranks, started making overall deals and is working to change the culture of the studio that David E. Kelley famously called "a bit of a gong show."

Charged with delivering Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a Game of Thrones-style mega-hit, Salke started the job in February with three main goals. The first was to improve the corporate culture at Amazon after Price and his top two lieutenants were pushed out amid allegations of sexual harassment and conflict of interest. The second is to make Amazon Studios a destination for top filmmakers and showrunners amid a war for talent, as they look to compete with Netflix's nine-figure overall deals. And the third goal? To deliver hit shows — and fast.

To do so, Salke turned to longtime collaborator and former NBC head of current Vernon Sanders to lead creative as co-head of television, working alongside Albert Cheng (who oversees the business side). That followed Salke's decision to restructure her TV department, with Sharon Tal Yguado — who oversaw scripted during the search for Price's replacement — focused on genre. Marc Resteghini heads drama while Nick Hall moved to oversee alternative, YA (now among Salke's top priorities) and specialty series. With her executive ranks now in order, Salke plans to assess the skills of her team before making any additional staffing changes, as her film and TV teams get to work on delivering those broad hits.

On the deal side, Salke recently ordered dramas from Oscar winner Jordan Peele (The Hunt) and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn (Utopia) — and inked first-look TV pacts with both as she signaled Amazon's aggressive push for a curated roster of top writer-producers. Still to come is more female-driven fare, starting with the newly ordered half-hour romantic anthology Modern Love (based on the New York Times column of the same name). Those join an inherited slate that features awards darling The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Carlton Cuse's upcoming Jack Ryan series, both of which scored early renewals under Salke.

On the development front, Amazon's so-called "democratic pilot process" is a thing of the past, replaced with a more traditional pipeline that will also see larger commitments when the deals call for it as Salke also looks to build a global presence.

As for film, a space where Salke admittedly had little experience coming in, the exec has a similar strategy in mind as she hopes to partner with traditional studios for a slate of "wide audience" draws and arthouse fare a la Oscar winner Manchester by the Sea for a slate that includes originals, co-productions, acquisitions, direct-to-platform and theatrical releases.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Salke last week on Amazon's burgeoning Culver City campus to discuss her efforts to transform Amazon Studios and overhaul a corporate culture that was marred by allegations of sexual harassment.

What conversations did you have with Jeff Bezos before you took the job?

I spent about an hour and a half with Jeff Bezos in Seattle. He talked about wanting to take a long view of what this service could provide to our customers. He wants what everyone wants: great, addictive television that people love and can't stop talking about that breaks through culturally and gets people addicted and enhances their prime membership.

Roy Price and two of his top lieutenants Joe Lewis and Conrad Riggs were pushed out last year. What kind of cultural changes are you implementing at Amazon to ensure a safer environment?

Having somebody like me, who celebrates women and diversity, come in is a huge first step. The fact that I'm also an accessible and transparent leader spoke volumes in the first days of being here. I had two or three weeks of executives and people across the company on my sofa, many of them women, talking about their experiences and how they were feeling and wanting to be someone who could listen and be an advocate for them. At the same time, I walked into this company at a time where they were already fully embracing change. Sometimes it takes negative things to get to those places and for Amazon, this was a real moment months ago to step up and make a big change. It has been a welcome change here and it does take intentional outreach, which we're doing a lot of.

In terms of staffing, you've brought in Vernon Sanders to co-run TV with Albert Cheng and have Jason Ropell and Ted Hope overseeing the film. How many big positions are you looking to fill?

I came in with no intention to replace everybody or make any big changes. My goal over the coming year is to spend as much time as possible with everyone, see what everyone's skill sets are and go from there. Jason is doing a great job in a challenged business that's evolving every day that we sit here. And the team in television, I de-structured them to spend more time with all of them — to be in rooms and have projects together where I'm seeing how they work and what their strengths are. I've been encouraged by what I've seen in everyone. I don't have any plans to make any big changes. I want Vernon and Albert to own some of that space and start spending time with those teams. Time will tell where we end up, but I feel optimistic that we have great people here.

With two heads of television in Sanders and Cheng, what is your day-to-day on the TV side now that you're seemingly out of the development trenches?

I am really involved in the development trenches. I have pitches all day long. I am in constant contact. I sent two articles to our drama team to go option, which they are already into. I can't get away from the creative thing. I love it.

There have been a lot of showrunner changes on Amazon programming. David E. Kelley famously called the team "a bit of a gong show." What is your message to the creative community about the culture at Amazon now?

With myself at the helm, there is a team in place now who will be able to have the relationships with talent that will be much more productive and, no disrespect for any one person or group of people on our team, but when you have a lot of people who don't have these deep relationships and experience with that level of talent, you're going to run into problems like that. You need to have the experience, maturity and confidence to be able to have hard conversations with people. It's a perfect storm when you have a frustrated, strong producer who isn't being communicated with clearly — and I'm not talking about David E. Kelley because I haven't analyzed all these situations.

What is your larger mandate?

My drive coming in was three main goals: One was, how do we become the most collaborative culture as a company? How do we become the very best home for talent? There is a huge space to have the best of what traditional partnerships with talent mean, like strategic and creative partners. [We want] more of those kinds of relationships and bringing people into the fold of the company. Then, how do we get some potentially hit shows in the pipeline as quickly as possible. Everything I do is to that end, whether it be how I'm managing, how I'm structuring [things or] the talent that I'm pursuing.

How much is ownership a priority?

I am aware of the race for talent and I do believe that that's real. Everybody is going to try to have as much ownership as possible and he who has the most toys, wins. I want us to be the best home for talent. How do we bring people into the fold and help them build their companies and their visions? I think there's room for the Ryan Murphys and the Jordan Peeles and the Greg Berlantis in that strategy. But there's also a lot of other really talented people here. It's about curating that group and being like-minded about the kinds of things that we want to do.

Amazon, before your arrival, was in the running for Ryan Murphy. And you recently signed Jordan Peele to an overall deal. How much does the Peele deal signal your intent to get into the overall deal business in terms of going after these mega producers?

You can see it as a signal that I'm going to be aggressively pursuing deals. They don't have to be mega-producers but I'm going to be curating a group of people I believe in who I think are hit-makers, potentially, and building what I hope will be a great home for talent here, where they can have a real strategic and creative partner. I'm going to be hands-on with all of those people because I am personally the one going out and trying to get them. You're going to see me aggressively pursuing people. Jordan wasn't out taking meetings; I just wanted to spend time with him and talk to him about The Hunt and then asked him to come do this with me. You'll see more of that. I hope to have more announcements today soon.

How big do you see that overall deal stable being?

We have unlimited resources to build the kind of writer's stable and creator's stable that will lead to success. I don't feel any limits on having to work within a budget. You're going to see an alternative to Netflix's volume. This should be a more manageable actual amount of deals that I can still feel like I'm involved in spending time with all of these people and that my team is being able to be hands on with them. I don't want to go for like a big volume play.

Are those deals for film and TV, comparable to what Rhimes and Murphy scored?

Some of them include feature components. There is no limit on what we can do. We are an ideal home for talent.

If you could poach one showrunner that you don't already have for Amazon, who would it be and why?

I would have loved to have been here as the Ryan Murphy thing was starting, which was a long time ago. Maybe that would have ended up differently

Amazon previously had a "democratic pilot process," which many in the industry said it was largely just for show. What does the Amazon development process look like in the Jen Salke era?

We're not going to do that [let viewers pick]. We'll actually make some pilots. Right now, one of the white spaces — besides this female space that I thought was lacking — is this sophisticated YA space. I have Phoebe Zimmer and Nick Hall diving into that. We picked up two things and perhaps a third one in that space by young female writers that feel very addictive and sophisticated that have a young adult audience that's an older audience as well. Where we can and we have the opportunity to develop scripts and more material before going straight to series, you're going to see that. And then you're going to see some bold, let's just pick up the series moves like I did with The Hunt, which was based on reading the material that they sent me. I met with them the next day and ordered it in the room. It's going to be a real mix. Rachel Brosnahan called with an idea to put together a room of under-represented writers who are inexperienced and who could be led by another writer and break this authentic kind of young ensemble. And we're doing that. You'll see a lot of different ways to do that. Not to mention overseeing the global original business, which is growing. I want to have a big presence as a global home and there are writers and creators who can break out from anywhere. And we're expanding in those efforts.

The scripted narrative about Amazon has been that Jeff Bezos wanted his version of Game of Thrones. Have you spoken with him about that and how you can deliver on that goal?

All of us would love a big, addictive show that is executed at the top of its game. We're really excited about Lord of the Rings. Despite all the chatter about it, the deal just closed a month ago. We've been talking to writers. We have an estate that's very active. I've spent three hours with Simon Tolkien. There's a lot of moving parts with it. We'll have some game plan to move forward with very soon. Then there's great genre stuff and tons of stuff in the pipeline. And we just picked up The Expanse, which Jeff was so excited about. We are going to have lots of big shows. They're not all going to be genre sci-fi. We're also going to have some big addictive female shows. We're looking for our next big show that women also can't stop talking about.

One of the clauses in landing Lord of the Rings is that it must be in production within two years. Will it make that?

It'll be in production in two years; [on the air in] 2021 is the hope. But there are other people who wish it was 2020.

What is Peter Jackson's involvement?

We're in conversations with him that I think are very amicable about how much involvement he wants and what kind. We haven't figured out exactly what that is yet. He may say he is involved or he's not involved. We're still very much in conversation with him about what kind of involvement he would propose.

When and if he signs on, does the search for a showrunner then begin?

No. We are currently talking to writers. I have sat with three or four different groups of writers. Sharon Tal Yguado has met with many more than that. When we announced it, many agents called and with clients and British writers have come calling. There have been a lot of informational meetings about the material and about the scope of what we can do. My hope would be to put together a group of talented people, which will obviously have a leader who can embark on this big ambitious endeavor.

You revived The Expanse. Is Amazon in the "saving shows" business, or was that a one-off strategy because of Bezos' love of the property?

We've talked about saving a bunch of shows. I just spoke to Norman Lear about his comedy [Guess Who Died] that I bought at NBC and he's sending me the director's cut. I certainly don't stick my nose up at saving someone else's show that they're passing on, but it depends on what the show is.

What does the success of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel mean for Amazon's genre strategy? Is there room for more shows like that?

Yes. Before I came in, I felt Amazon was missing shows like that or shows that could be built around a something like Maisel.

We're hearing that the decision to cut ties with Jeffrey Tambor came from you specifically. Walk us through the process.

It didn't come from me. I had just started and that was what was happening.

What's the future of Transparent? Jill Solloway said in THR's cover story that she sees season five as being the end. How do you move forward without Tambor? Will the role be recast?

I don't think the character will be recast. Jill has a great idea about how she wants to close it. We're talking about, is it a full series? Is it a limited special? Is it a movie? What is it? There's a conversation around what form best serves the creative, and she wanted to spend the summer thinking about the creative, and then we're going to get together in September and talk about that.

What's the show you most want to poach that's not already yours?

I tried to buy Little Fires Everywhere. I wasn't even working here but I was like stalking the Hello Sunshine offices and dancing at the best of my ability and it went to Hulu. And Between [stars/executive producers] Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon and the team, it would have been a great piece for us.

You're overseeing all video, which includes film. What role and involvement with you have on the film side?

I'm deeply immersed in the film group. I'm part of all the green light decisions and discussions about things being put up for green light. [Film head] Jason Ropell, [film production head] Ted Hope and I are working closely together and that part of the business is evolving, too. Just like all our businesses evolve, we'll be looking for a balance of ways to fill the movie slate, which will be originals, acquisitions, direct-to-platform, theatrical release and partnerships. I've already had meetings at Sony, Paramount and Legendary. We've been talking to everybody about how we can best serve our customers by trying some partnerships on films.

Will the features group be making the same kind of pivot that the TV group with a shift away from niche to more broad fare?

Yes. I learned that the word "broad" is the F-word back when I went to TCA and had that monkey on my shoulder. You can't go broad in a world where we're all competing for attention. You can't please everybody, so the point is to keep the bar high for creative excellence. You can have a show, like [NBC's] This Is Us that's excellent but also invites a lot of people in and is well executed. We want to make those kinds of movies. I've seen Beautiful Boy and Dan Fogelman's Life Itself and these are movies that are emotionally connective, they invite a lot of people in, and I think they will be movies that have a bit of a wider audience than maybe some of the movies of the past. But Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick, these are all movies we're incredibly proud of. It's about a balance.

If you could undo one programming decision your predecessors made, what would it be?

I might have been more selective about some of the people I was in business with.

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