David E. Kelley Calls Amazon Studios "A Bit of a Gong Show"

David E. Kelley attends the 2017 Creative Arts Emmy Awards - Getty-H 2017
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

A Wall Street Journal report says the streamer is struggling to find a new content strategy.

Prolific TV creator David E. Kelley has likened Amazon to being a "bit of a gong show" in a new piece from The Wall Street Journal.

The Friday report, titled "Where Amazon Is Failing to Dominate: Hollywood," assessed the streamer's ability to compete with rivals Netflix and Hulu, both of which took home Emmys this year while Amazon Studios left the night empty-handed, and details ways in which the company is struggling to find a new content strategy.

Kelley, who created HBO's Emmy-winning Big Little Lies, a big winner of 2017 Emmys night, also created Amazon's Goliath, but left the drama after the first season due to creative differences, according to WSJ sources, with both Amazon and star Billy Bob Thornton. (An Amazon insider tells The Hollywood Reporter those differences were solely with Thornton.)

“I’m a huge fan of the company overall, but their entertainment division is a bit of a gong show,” said Kelley, a multiple-Emmy winner who also created long-running broadcast series The Practice and Ally McBeal. “They are in way over their heads.” The story details the online retailer’s shift to video and content being hindered by lackluster releases and strained relationships with producers amid its search for shows with both awards and audience buzz.

"We're very proud and impressed with the progress we've made on originals thus far," Craig Berman, vp global communications at Amazon, told THR of the report. "We're also super-excited with what's coming for prime members, including Grand Tour season two, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and The Tick, which did great. The Wall Street Journal is just wrong. These creators wouldn't be working with us if things were a 'gong show.'"

THR recently reported that Amazon Studios is searching for an all-audience hit and is locking up talent, including The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman from AMC and Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, among others.

"The Hollywood arm of the online giant is pivoting away from dramas for adults but is struggling to define a new strategy, say people close to the company," reads the Friday piece, written by Ben Fritz and Joe Flint. "It has alienated high-profile content creators, who say executives have proven incapable — or unwilling — to smooth out conflicts that inevitably crop up during the shooting of a television show."

Shawn Ryan, who created The Shield, said Amazon's approach while he was producing the now-canceled drama Mad Dogs put “everything in chaos” and wasn’t “artist-friendly." 

But Kate Robin, showrunner of Tig Notaro's One Mississippi, had more positive things to say about the creative process, noting, “Ultimately we got to make the show we wanted to make.” Ben Edlund, creator of the streamer's new superhero comedy The Tick, also called Amazon’s creative support “liberating.”

The report cites anonymous staffers claiming Joe Lewis, Amazon’s head of comedy and drama, pressured The Tick into casting his girlfriend, actress Yara Martinez, and that studio chief Roy Price pushed through a 12 Parties pilot from his fiancee, Lila Feinberg. The studio declined to buy the script, citing a conflict of interest, and Edlund told the Journal he didn't feel pressured when casting Martinez, now a series regular, for the part.

The story also said Price has interviewed at least two Hollywood veterans to potentially take over Amazon’s motion-picture unit, but Berman told THR, "Roy hasn't interviewed anybody, nor will be making any leadership changes."

Lewis and Price did not respond to the Journal's request for comment on its story. 

The report comes after several big cancellations and other creative troubles at the company. As first reported by THR, Amazon reversed course on the Christina Ricci drama Z: The Beginning of Everything and opted to cancel the period drama after previously renewing it for a second season. Days later, the streamer canceled another F. Scott Fitzgerald drama, the pricey Matt Bomer-Kelsey Grammer series The Last Tycoon.

Kelley's Goliath also saw season two showrunner Clyde Phillips exit over creative differences with Thornton. He was subsequently replaced by Lawrence Trilling. (Speaking with THR in August, Kelley acknowledged "there was a lot of learning and growing pains that we experienced with Amazon" during the first season of Goliath.)

In addition to the turnover at Goliath, Amazon has also seen showrunner changes on several other original series. Man in the High Castle creator and famed X-Files grad Frank Spotnitz stepped down as showrunner midway through production on season two. Graham Yost replaced David Shore as showrunner ahead of the first season of Sneaky Pete.

Stories of tension between Amazon Studios and creatives stem back to late 2016, when the streamer abruptly canceled the 1960s-set series Good Girls Revolt shortly after its debut, despite positive reviews. "The Amazon corporate culture that everyone knows is a tough one, and it's not a great place for creatives," creator Dana Calvo told THR at the time. "They run some people out."

The series marked one of the first cancellations at Amazon, following Ryan's Mad Dogs adaptation. The veteran showrunner revealed the cancellation himself in a lengthy thread of tweets in February 2016. "[Creator] Cris [Cole] and I laid out a story for Season 2 we believed in," Ryan wrote at the time. "Ultimately, Amazon didn't want to make that story and we didn't want to make the kind of story they wanted us to make."

The company is still in business with several other top talent, including with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner on his pricey anthology The Romanoffs and with Silver Linings Playbook filmmaker David O. Russell on his first series, which will star Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore.

Oct. 6, 1:50 p.m. Updated with statement from Amazon's spokesman.