New Amazon Chief Steps Up Talent War With Netflix, Courts A-List Creators

Amazon_Jenga_Illo - THR - H 2018
Illustration by: Laemeur

Over the course of a few days in early June, Netflix invited Hollywood’s major talent agencies to assemble, one by one, on a rented soundstage at Raleigh Studios. For five hours, dozens of reps were given a rare peek behind the curtain of a secretive company. Ostensibly, the panels were about disproving criticism that films and series without major marketing campaigns are getting lost on the service amid its $8 billion-a-year content splurge. But the pitch also served as an admission: Netflix knows it isn’t the only game in town.

If one company has the resources and ambition to compete for the future of streaming content, it’s Amazon. And that future is coming into greater focus under new Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke. After taking the top content post in February, Salke has access to a $4.5 billion war chest to find Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a big, broad hit while also solidifying an executive team after Roy Price and two lieutenants exited following THR reports on claims of sexual harassment and conflicts of interest.

Salke, 53, has to contend not just with Netflix but with competition from other deep-pocketed digital players including Apple, Facebook and YouTube, not to mention studio-owned Hulu and a combined AT&T and Time Warner.

Strong talent relationships are key to her strategy. To start, Salke recently hosted a Q&A for Amazon’s entire staff on its Culver Studios campus with creators Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins and Dan Fogelman, who all have business with the studio. The former NBC Entertainment president wanted employees to understand her vision while also introducing new TV co-head Vernon Sanders. It was a far cry from Price’s cryptic approach, which one source compares to a guessing game. “The fact that I’m also an accessible and transparent leader spoke volumes in the first days of being here,” Salke says in an interview.

“Jen came in and set a tone and tenor of being really supportive of writers and artists realizing their visions,” says Carlton Cuse, an ABC Studios-based producer whose Jack Ryan series scored an early season-two renewal under Salke. “She’s made it a priority to make Amazon a place that showrunners want to go.”

After restructuring her TV department — Salke recruited longtime NBC head of current Sanders to co-run TV alongside business-focused Albert Cheng — Amazon Studios now has a clear executive structure. In film, she says she has no plans to replace top execs Jason Ropell and Ted Hope. The goal is to turn Amazon into not just an outlet willing to make massive bets on shows and movies from top creators (after all, Price made huge deals with Woody Allen and Matthew Weiner, among others), but also a “home” studio for prolific A-listers, much as Netflix has become with nine-figure deals for Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, and Warner Bros. with a similar pact this month for Greg Berlanti.

Salke says she intends to be personally hands-on and aggressive in the recruitment process, just as Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos is in luring talent like Barack Obama or David Letterman. It’s a piece of the job for which Salke has experience. During her stints at NBC and 20th Century Fox TV, she developed close relationships with creators, including Dick Wolf, Fogelman and Murphy. “I would have loved to have been here as the Ryan Murphy thing was starting,” she says. “Maybe that would have ended up differently.” 

Salke already has signed Gillian Flynn (Utopia) and Peele (The Hunt) to first-look pacts as she builds what she calls an “alternative to Netflix’s volume.” While she has yet to convey specific programming goals to agencies, Amazon’s latest swings have been an about-face from Price’s focus on niche awards bait like Transparent.

She hopes Amazon’s $250 million play for a TV version of Lord of the Rings will have the series streaming by 2021, though the involvement of film maestro Peter Jackson is not set. Genre head Sharon Tal Yguado also is near a deal for comic book drama Invincible, which would mark the first project to come from Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, who has an overall deal with the company.

Salke also revived The Expanse, which is based on Bezos’ favorite book and famously sparked his demand for Price to find a Game of Thrones-style hit after the space drama originally landed at Syfy.

Beyond genre, Salke gave an early season three renewal to awards breakout The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and is developing a project with its star Rachel Brosnahan as she courts more female-driven shows. (Amazon’s Prime subscription service, which hosts its Prime Video offerings, is said to skew toward women.)

YA fare also is high on Salke’s list of priorities, with former drama head Nick Hall focused on leading that charge as part of the restructured TV department. Salke also gave Jill Soloway until September to figure out a way to wrap up Transparent without fired star Jeffrey Tambor, be it a movie or a short-order season.

"Jen has given a sense of confidence and direction internally and excitement externally. Clearly there is work to be done, but there seems to be a very positive attitude over at Amazon," says WME’s Head of Television Rick Rosen.

As for film, a space where Salke admits she has little experience, she says she wants a balance of broad, “emotionally connective” movies and hopes to partner with traditional studios for “wide audience” draws and art house fare a la Oscar-winner Manchester by the Sea. The goal, she says, is to create a slate of originals, co-productions, acquisitions, direct-to-platform and theatrical releases — the latter a key differentiator from Netflix, which doesn’t offer filmmakers a meaningful theatrical play.

The significance of a woman taking the company’s reins is not lost on Salke, especially given the upheaval at Amazon Studios in the wake of the Price allegations and the culture he created. She says she expects to deliver on the promise of a more inclusive and empowering workplace, which in turn, she hopes, will translate into compelling content able to stand out in a glutted market.

“I walked into this company at a time where they were already fully embracing change,” Salke says. “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.”

This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.