Amazon Studios Chief Jen Salke Talks Film Strategy, Jamie Tarses' Legacy and Jeff Bezos

THR - Jennifer Salke - David Needleman - H 2019
David Needleman

Three Amazon films break through at the Golden Globes, while Steve McQueen's 'Small Axe' anthology gets love in the TV race.

After generating attention primarily through TV series since its move into original content, Amazon Studios is enjoying some good news on the film front — care of Wednesday’s Golden Globe Awards nominations. Of the streamer’s 10 total nominations, seven come courtesy of feature ventures.

“It’s a real signal that we're going to continue to invest in our film strategy moving forward,” says head of Amazon Studios, Jennifer Salke, “both original movies produced by Amazon, but also in acquiring and creating partnerships with artists.”

Though a best drama mention eluded One Night in Miami, the feature still managed to pull out three significant nominations — for director Regina King, supporting actor Leslie Odom Jr. and for the original song “Speak Now.” With a limited theatrical release, the result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic more than any strategy, the film landed on the streaming service on Jan. 15. And while no numbers were discussed, Salke noted that the film’s viewership has been on par with the buzz around the Venice Film Festival darling. “We knew that the content itself was undeniable and we love it so much, so we felt really confident — although we know it’s a long road to stay relevant through all these conversations,” she said. “It’s obviously tapping into a global cultural conversation. I think the talent involved and the execution speak for themselves.”

Three nominations for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, cementing a particularly good morning for Sacha Baron Cohen, also helped Amazon’s overall haul — as did Steve McQueen's Small Axe. The latter, unique in its execution, could have just as easily competed in the film categories. “It’s pretty singular in terms of the specificity, not to say that I haven't had filmmakers come and say they want to create a collection of thematically-linked films,” said Salke, who says the amorphous project speaks to the evolving definition of content. “The global audience doesn't have to be in a certain category. They're used to watching limited series and they love to watch movies. The idea that you would have these standalone films, that could live on their own but also be enjoyed as a chapter-by-chapter experience, pushes outside the boundaries of the traditional lanes of presenting content.”

Amazon Studios’ solid performance during the first major announcement of the 2021 film awards season comes less than 24 hours after news that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, a huge part of the company’s entertainment strategy, is stepping down later in the year for a smaller role as executive chair. His replacement, Andy Jassy, will be a newcomer to the content side of the business.

“[Jeff] is going to be around for a long time,” said Salke. “He’s a huge fan of our business and I'm genuinely really excited for him. Andy Jassy is an executive with such deep roots within Amazon. We feel nothing but like excitement and confidence about the future.”

Given Salke’s long tenure in the industry, and her multiple collaborations, the executive also spoke affectionally about the late Jamie Tarses. The pioneering network chief turned producer died Monday at just 56. One of her final projects was serving as executive producer on Amazon Studios’ popular December launch The Wilds. Already renewed for a second season, The Wilds was a last passion project for a woman whose passion was well-known in Hollywood.

“When I was coming up as an executive, I remember walking down the halls and seeing that Jamie Tarses’ office,” Salke says of the first female network chief, who ran ABC Entertainment from 1996 to 1999. “She was someone to aspire and look up to. In her producorial role, the line between her and the writers she worked with were so blurred. I’d watch her during a pitch, and she could practically recite everything the writers were saying. She was just so tapped into the specificity around the creative vision. Whenever she had some thing she was excited about, we knew it was going to be incredibly thoughtful, really well developed and special.”