How Jennifer Salke Could Spend Amazon's $4.5 Billion a Year

Amazon Shipment - Illustration - H 2018
Illustration by Læmur

The newly anointed studio chief aims to hire new lieutenants and find big broad hits (hello, 'Lord of the Rings') with a war chest built for a post-Netflix world.

On the morning of Feb. 9, Jeff Bezos' top lieutenant Jeff Blackburn told Amazon Studios staff that NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke was taking over the top post left vacant when Roy Price exited Oct. 17, hours after a producer went public in The Hollywood Reporter with a sexual harassment claim. Blackburn sent the companywide email just 10 minutes before the news broke, and, according to insiders, there had been zero prior discussion with top film staff of the move and what it will mean for the behemoth's evolution in the content space, particularly in film, where Salke, 53, has no prior experience.

As the dust now settles, the question looms: Is Amazon Studios going all-in on big commercial fare?

Given Salke's track record as a champion of such TV juggernauts as This Is Us, Glee and ABC's Modern Family, some industry observers predict that art house fare like Transparent and Manchester by the Sea may fall by the wayside in the new paradigm. After all, Salke's broadcast roots don't exactly dovetail with Amazon's slate in film or TV over the past few years, when the streaming giant made splashy deals for a Woody Allen series and indie hits such as The Big Sick (up for a best original screenplay Oscar) and 2017 foreign-language Oscar winner The Salesman. Though buzzy, Amazon's film output was the very definition of a studio "single." The top box-office earner is Manchester, with a $78 million global haul, and there isn't a Stranger Things (Netflix) or Game of Thrones (HBO) on its TV slate.

"They were already moving out of that business, and [hiring Salke] signals that they won't be coming back," says a top film executive at a rival distributor, noting that Amazon bought nothing at Sundance in January. "They'll be chasing properties that serve the parent company and brand better but don't rock the boat, like the next Spider-Man and Star Wars."

In fact, the shift from niche films to the multiplex began under Price, as evidenced by films on the tarmac like the David Oyelowo-Charlize Theron dark comedy Gringo, which STX will open wide for Amazon on March 9. And in September, Amazon was considering making a play for rights to the James Bond franchise, seen as one of the last underexploited megabrands that also would be an attractive enticement for Amazon Prime subscribers if the library could be acquired for streaming VOD.

The go-broad mandate became more pressing in the wake of Price’s exit in October. With little oversight from Seattle, Price had inked a series of economically questionable deals like a five-film pact with a then-80-year-old Woody Allen in 2016 that will continue for three films after the upcoming A Rainy Day in New York. Allen's first TV series, Crisis in Six Scenes, has since been canceled.

"When you look at Amazon as a buyer and content creator and a dominant industry player, it's a critical moment in its evolution," says Rena Ronson, partner and head of UTA Independent Group. "Many of us are especially looking forward to the fresh perspective and voice this new leadership will likely bring."

Insiders say they are operating under the assumption that all is status quo (for now). In 2017, Bob Berney hired several executives to build out Amazon's film distribution ranks so that it could operate as a full-fledged studio instead of partnering with distributors. The first release, Allen's Wonder Wheel, earned just $1.4 million domestically. And this year, Amazon is sending a similar-sized contingent to the Berlin Film Festival and Market.

"The film business for these streamers isn't interesting," says a top-tier agent. "What's the difference of two hours of Bright and eight hours of some fantasy series? The concept of film and TV doesn't make sense for the SVOD model outlets in a post-Netflix world. Why does Bright have to be two hours? Why not do it three to four hours? What's the difference?"

In the TV world, the choice has allowed many to breathe a sigh of relief. Unlike New York-based A+E CEO Nancy Dubuc — the other finalist after a months-long search process that focused exclusively on women — L.A.-based Salke is a known quantity. She brings long-standing relationships with the community of representatives, many of whom went to bat for her, as well as the industry's top scripted creators, including Ryan Murphy, Jason Katims and Dick Wolf.

That the search ultimately came down to Dubuc and Salke, who offer dramatically different résumés, styles and skill sets, left many wondering if the tech company had a strong enough handle on what it was looking for in its new entertainment industry boss.

Among Salke's first tasks will be to ingratiate herself with the film community and to work with COO Albert Cheng, worldwide film head Jason Ropell and worldwide television acquisition vp Brad Beale — who all now report to Salke — to determine a new reporting structure. She also will need to hire her own top lieutenants, including heads of comedy/drama, unscripted, international and kids programming to replace Joe Lewis, Conrad Riggs, Morgan Wandell and Tara Sorensen, respectively. (Lewis and Riggs were forced out after Price, while Wandell and Sorensen departed for Apple.) Sharon Tal Yguado has been serving as head of comedy and drama after initially being brought in to head up genre programming under Price.

With projected 2018 spending of $4.5 billion on originals, Amazon has been under marching orders from CEO Bezos to launch a global hit a la Thrones. Toward that goal, Amazon in late 2017 spent $250 million to acquire worldwide rights to Lord of the Rings for one or more TV series. To make room, Amazon has been cleaning house of its niche programming, including Tig Notaro's One Mississippi and the Jill Soloway-produced I Love Dick. Salke also will have to make a decision on the company's so-called democratic pilot process that many insiders have said was largely for show.

Salke also inherits the Transparent dilemma. The one-time crown jewel of Amazon's scripted roster has had an uncertain future with its Emmy-winning star Jeffrey Tambor the subject of misconduct claims. (Tambor's status with the Soloway-produced comedy is unclear.)

While Netflix has found success with its something- for-everyone approach to programming, the tough task for Salke will be to generate big broad hits and a unified slate for Amazon. Dubuc noted Feb. 13 that the stakes are high: "We need to see a woman as a head of a studio be wildly successful."

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.