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The appointment fills one of the industry’s most high-profile posts, which has been vacant since Roy Price’s ignominious resignation in October amid sexual harassment claims. In the interim, Amazon chief operating officer Albert Cheng took on Price’s duties as the company set out on a months-long search for a new, preferably female leader. Ultimately, multiple sources say that that process came down to Salke and A+E Networks chairman and CEO Nancy Dubuc, both of whom traveled to Seattle in January for a day’s worth of top-level interviews. Dubuc ultimately withdrew from the prolonged search process on Thursday and is expected to re-up at longtime home A+E.
“What stood out about Jen was the deep relationships she has nurtured with creators and talent over her career, spanning NBCU, 20th Century Fox and Aaron Spelling Productions,” said Jeff Blackburn, senior vp business development and entertainment at Amazon. “She’s built an impeccable reputation as a big leader who emphasizes creativity, collaboration and teamwork.”
Cheng, Amazon Studios’ worldwide film head Jason Ropell and worldwide television acquisition vp Brad Beale will all report to Salke. The quartet will work together to figure out a new reporting structure.
“I’m incredibly excited about the future at Amazon Studios,” Salke said. “In the studio’s relatively short existence they have innovated, disrupted and created characters that are already an indelible part of pop culture. I am both honored and emboldened by the opportunity to lead this extraordinary business. Of course, this is also bittersweet for me. NBC has been an amazing home — creatively, professionally and personally — and I leave there knowing that the work we did had groundbreaking impact. It’s an exciting time to be a content creator, and I look forward to being on the front lines of an innovative business with storytelling at its heart.”
As for NBC, the network found out about the Salke news late Thursday and does not have an immediate successor in line yet. Sources note that the network expects to have news of a successor by next week. It’s too early to say whether the network will promote from within NBCUniversal or look for an outside candidate. Salke will remain at NBC for an undetermined period of transition. Her pending exit comes as the network, firmly in first place thanks in part to This Is Us and the Super Bowl, has largely wrapped up all of its pilot orders for the 2018-19 broadcast season.
“Jennifer Salke is a world-class entertainment executive and deserves enormous credit for helping put NBC back on top,” NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt said. “This opportunity is the logical next step in her phenomenal career and we wish her only the best. While we will all miss her enormously, we will hopefully find many new ways to be in business with her at Amazon.”
It’s worth noting that Dubuc and Salke offered dramatically different résumés, styles and skill sets, which left many in the industry wondering if the tech company had a strong enough handle on what it was looking for in its new entertainment industry boss. Salke is a gregarious Hollywood insider, who comes with strong creative relationships and perspective, as evidenced by a roster that has included scripted mega-hits (This Is Us, Glee) and the support of several top TV agents throughout the process. New York-based Dubuc, who paled in both her scripted experience and rolodex, offered the only thing Salke didn’t have on her CV: boardroom and P&L experience, having run a global brand with $4 billion in annual revenue.
Salke has been at NBC since 2011, when she joined her longtime friend-turned-boss Bob Greenblatt. At that time, the network was foundering in fourth place. Six-and-a-half years later, NBC is trouncing much of its competition as the No. 1 network in the all-important 18-49 demo, with a portfolio that includes The Good Place, The Voice and a collection of popular Dick Wolf series. But few shows have helped solidify NBC’s top status like the commercial and critical juggernaut This Is Us, for which Salke has remained extremely hands-on. During her time at the network, the married mother of three teens has maintained a reputation for being friendly to creatives while also heavily invested in her own philanthropic pursuits on the side.
Looking ahead, she will have her work cut out for her at Amazon, which has historically lagged behind its streaming competitors in awards and critical hits. To date, the small cadre of exceptions has been led by Transparent — though that, too, has been engulfed in the #MeToo movement with star and Emmy winner Jeffrey Tambor the subject of misconduct claims. (His status with the long-running series remains murky.) More recently, Amazon, which has also parted ways in the last few months with its top scripted lieutenant Joe Lewis and head of unscripted Conrad Riggs, has shifted focus from niche indies to big-budget swings in its bid to land a Game of Thrones-style breakout. Already, the streamer has shelled out an estimated $250 million for global rights to a Lord of the Rings TV series. (To make room, Amazon pulled the plug on lower-profile fare from Price’s tenure, including One Mississippi and I Love Dick, and passed on three of its five comedy pilots.)
Amazon isn’t devoid of prospects, however. Salke joins mere months after the service dropped period dramedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which quickly garnered strong reviews and cleaned up at the Golden Globes in early January. She will have the freedom to set her own team, too, a process made easier by the fact that several top roles already are open. In addition to Lewis and Riggs’ positions, international programming head Morgan Wandell and kids programming topper Tara Sorensen left for rival Apple in recent months. (Sharon Tal Yguado, previously brought in to oversee genre programming, will continue to report to Cheng until a new overall structure can be determined.) The streamer also has forthcoming projects from high-profile creators — including an anthology from Mad Men creator Matt Weiner (The Romanoffs) and Jack Ryan from Lost’s Carlton Cuse — and a growing roster of overall deals in place with The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, Maisel creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and Catastrophe creator Sharon Horgan.
On the film side, Amazon has distinguished itself from rival Netflix by giving its acquisitions theatrical releases before making them available on the streaming service, a tactic that has attracted filmmakers who want to see their pics in movie theaters before they hit the service. And at last year’s Oscars, it took home three trophies — a best actor award for Casey Affleck for his performance in Manchester by the Sea and the original screenplay prize for that film’s Kenneth Lonergan as well as the best foreign-language film award for the Iranian film The Salesman. This year, though, Amazon’s big awards hopeful The Big Sick scored just one nomination for original screenplay.
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Amazon, which has been making more prebuys and moving into original productions, stepped back from the acquisition market. Instead, it screened its own productions, such as Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.
One pending issue that Salke will be forced to deal with: Amazon has been in business with Woody Allen, producing his since-canceled TV series Crisis in Six Scenes, distributing 2016’s Café Society and then inking a five-picture deal with the filmmaker that included his most recent movie Wonder Wheel, which opened in theaters Dec. 1. But, because of renewed attention to claims from Dylan Farrow that Allen molested her when she was a child — claims he has denied — a number of actors have said they regret working with him and would not work with him in the future. Amazon has a stake in Allen’s next film, A Rainy Day in New York, starring Timothee Chalet and Elle Fanning, and now will have to decide how to handle what could become a problematic movie.
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