Jennifer Salke Details Amazon's Global TV "Sweet Spot": "I'm Here to Compete"

The head of Amazon Studios weighed in on reports about Amazon's $4.5 billion budget, streaming "mega-mega deals" and the fate of network television during a lunchtime keynote speech on Saturday at USC.
Jennifer Salke

Jennifer Salke on Saturday revealed that Amazon Studios is still refining its film strategy while focusing on creating “addictive, can’t-miss global television” that will lure Prime subscribers and retain them during a lunchtime conversation with attorney to the stars Bruce Ramer.

“For us, our sweet spot is this addictive, can’t-miss, global television shows. That lives at the center of what we do. That’s going to be the most effective and getting people to come to Prime and stay with Prime,” the Amazon Studios head said during a keynote speech at the USC Gould and Beverly Hills Bar Association's 2018 Institute of Entertainment Law and Business at USC Gould campus. She added, “And then if something comes in and you feel that it’s best suited as a movie or miniseries, you can come [make] that too. It’s harder and more financially challenging to take the big swings than on TV shows, because the financial upside is so clear.”

The longtime television and first-time film exec said that she currently is working to “build on” and “refine” the company’s film program after predecessor Roy Price resigned amid sexual harassment claims last fall at the height of the #MeToo movement. Some details about that in-progress strategy sneaked through in the conversation: Unlike Netflix, which traditionally releases select films in theaters on the day that they release on the streamer service, Salke said that select films will still be considered for a theatrical release before a streaming release, some in wide release and others in limited, while still more will go straight to streaming. The exec said that she sees value in “awards-play” films as well as films that will appeal to a broad audience.

“It’s a tough business,” she added. “We’re taking on what the next version of [the film business] is, and trying to figure out how we can create something that adds to our home for talent and trying to figure out how we can add to giving talent … a full plate of choices.” (The Amazon head has stressed frequently in interviews and public appearances that she primarily intends to make Amazon Studios a "home for creators," to differentiate it from Netflix's "volume.")

During her conversation with Ramer, a partner at Gang, Tyre, Ramer, Brown & Passman and attorney to Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, David O. Russell and Alejandro Innaritu, Salke also addressed Netflix’s mega-deals with producers including Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy; her budget at Amazon; her global strategy; and her opinion on the fate of network television after her long career as an exec for NBC and 20th Century Fox.

When asked about the Netflix’s massive deals with Rhimes, Murphy and the Obamas, Salke admitted that inflated price tags had complicated discussions with talent, but she did not say Amazon was preparing to compete at that financial level. “People are looking at these giant mega deals, and I mean mega-megas, the Shondas and Ryans and Obamas … and then there are people who have created giant hits for companies who wonder, ‘Where do I fall in that?’ There’s this moment of trying to figure out what this middle area is,” Salke said. “You have to constantly ask yourself that exact question, ‘Is this the investment I should be making?’”

For her part, Salke said that she was looking to invest in creatively ambitious talent that wanted to break out “in a socially relevant way.” Since she was named Amazon Studios' leader in February, Salke has signed talent including Jordan Peele and Nicole Kidman, who both landed first-look deals with the studio, and Blake Lively and Gillian Flynn.

Ramer also interrogated Salke about Amazon Studios’ reported budget of $4.5 billion, though she stayed mum about the precise figure. Salke admitted only that she had a global budget for content and acquisitions, and said there was some wiggle room within it to invest in exciting projects. “I just know we have enough money for me to do what I’m here to accomplish,” she said. (Also, Salke said The Hollywood Reporter’s print illustration of her as a Amazon warehouse employee carting boxes of cash had become a friend’s contact picture for her.)

The $4.5 billion figure pales in comparison to Netflix’s $13 billion budget in 2018, but Salke nodded to ways that her Amazon Studios is differentiating itself from its deep-pocketed rival and other competitors. Just one day prior to her keynote at the USC Gould-BHBA Institute, Salke demonstrated Amazon’s global ambitions by promoting James Farrell to head of international originals. Farrell will head original teams in countries where Amazon already has original teams, including Japan and Brazil, and others that Amazon is said to be preparing to establish in order to compete with Netflix.

Salke said Amazon’s global ambition was just one way in which it would be “different” from others in the streaming business. “I want to get my arms around global talent and storytellers in a way that feels like we’re getting out of our own backyard that dovetails with our diversity efforts and things we can do as Amazon,” she said, mentioning simultaneous global releases as one option for the company.

Still, more competition is coming into the streaming-platform field: A little over a week after reports that WarnerMedia is prepping its own streaming service, Ramer also pressed Salke on Amazon’s plans to compete with the WarnerMedia option as well as Disney’s forthcoming streaming competitor.

Salke responded by noting that her quote in a June New York Times interview — “I’m a killer, I’m ambitious and I’m going to compete” — was made in jest and printed as if it were a serious remark. Still: “But yes, I am here to compete,” she said. “Out of the gate, I’m going to compete in the race for talent.” Salke added that she wasn’t going to look over her shoulders at her competitors and would instead focus on making Amazon Studios “the best place to work.”

The exec also expanded on her role in commissioning diverse projects that will appeal to women since she has worked there. Before taking the job, “I loved Amazon but I felt like I hadn’t been invited to Prime Video to view those shows in a way that I felt I should be,” said Salke. She also quoted something Kidman told her during conversations before her deal: “It has to have this entertaining deliciousness” for women to get excited about shows.

Despite the exec’s many nods to the freedom and reach that the Amazon brand offered her during the conversation, she still mounted a spirited defense for the fate of TV networks. When Ramer asked if they were on their “deathbead,” Salke rejected the notion, saying that significant numbers of viewers were still frequenting networks for event television and amid the massive volume of streaming shows.

“There’s still some comfort in that brand association,” she said. "They shouldn’t be underestimated in creating global hits.”