- The dust has been settling at Amazon Studios after a big reorg in the fall that solidified Jen Salke’s power.
- Amazon is a big, reliable content buyer, but many Hollywood insiders are uncertain about the vision.
- Some question Salke’s ability to make the studio succeed inside the tech behemoth.
When Jennifer Salke arrived at Amazon Studios in 2018, the tech giant’s film and TV division was reeling from the ouster of her predecessor, Roy Price, who was forced out amid allegations of sexual harassment. By bringing on Salke — who’d spent seven years as president of entertainment at NBC — as well as Sony, Hulu, and Fox veteran Mike Hopkins two years later, Amazon signaled it was serious about establishing itself as a force in entertainment.
Today, Amazon seems like a bastion of stability amid a broader Hollywood spending slowdown. It just revealed its content spending soared 28% to $16.6 billion in 2022, including outlays on NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” and music as well as original video. It has found large audiences for shows like “Jack Ryan” and “The Boys” and has scored prestige points and awards with series like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
And while it’s hard to know whether Amazon’s pricey “Lord of the Rings” prequel, “The Rings of Power,” met internal expectations, the company says it drew 100 million viewers and drove more Prime sign-ups worldwide than any previous Prime Video content.
With the addition last year of MGM — the storied film and TV studio behind the Rocky and James Bond franchises, which Amazon acquired for $8.45 billion — the tech giant’s content ambitions are expanding. And leadership was bullish on Prime Video on Amazon’s February 2 earnings call.
Yet Amazon Studios faces major challenges. Inside and outside the company, there are concerns about a lack of clear creative direction and large cost overruns on projects, while a big fall reorganization also created conflicts about the greenlight process for new content and who’s in charge.
Insider spoke to 21 current and recently departed Amazon Studios executives, Hollywood agents, and other industry insiders to get a sense of the opportunities and challenges ahead for Salke and Hopkins; most sources requested anonymity to protect jobs and relationships at the company.
Amazon Studios is just one source of content for Prime Video, which in turn is one of a bundle of services that drive Amazon Prime memberships ($139 per year or $15 per month in the US). Prime Video also makes money by selling subscriptions to other companies’ apps like HBO Max and Starz, along with series and films for rental or purchase, and has streaming rights to “Thursday Night Football” (sports is led by 20-year Amazon veteran Jay Marine, who alongside Salke reports to Hopkins).
As part of a company with a trillion dollar-plus market cap, Amazon Studios isn’t facing any existential threat and is insulated from the pressures that have roiled entertainment conglomerates like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery in recent years. The studio was unscathed by the 18,000 layoffs Amazon just enacted, part of a wave of tech industry cuts. And Salke has kept Hollywood happy by spreading money around — like “Rings of Power,” forthcoming spy series “Citadel” will premiere as one of the most expensive series ever made.
But “Rings of Power” didn’t have the zeitgeisty impact that Amazon’s big spend and splashy launch promised, and “Citadel” has been dogged by a ballooning budget and creative frictions. Even as Salke has shored up her power at Amazon with oversight of MGM, the fall reorg, and a high-profile marketing hire, insiders said, both the creative direction at Amazon Studios and its place within the tech giant’s greater ecosystem remain murky.
Confusion over creative direction amid a push for global relevance
Salke in 2018 entered a streaming arena that was dominated by Netflix and about to get more crowded with Disney, WarnerMedia, and Comcast soon to launch their own direct-to-consumer services. With deep pockets and a mandate to spend, she doubled down on TV and films, spending more than $40 million at Sundance in 2019 on four titles including Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night.” “It’s a curated approach in both (film and TV), and we’re not going extremely broad,” Salke told Variety at the time. She also pledged to recruit projects with diverse talent.
But according to agents and insiders, what Amazon is ordering now is more shows similar to its top performers, which are mostly high-voltage thrillers and action series like “The Boys,” “Reacher,” and “The Terminal List,” per Nielsen.
“It’s popcorn fare,” sniffed one top talent agent. “It really just feels like all they want is right-down-the-middle shows with big stars.” To be fair, other studios are no stranger to this approach: Netflix in recent years has shifted to seeking shows for broader audiences, and Apple TV+ is known to prize A-list talent for every project. But a widespread concern expressed within and outside Amazon is that the content direction isn’t explicit or frequently changes, sometimes from one meeting or phone call to the next.
Amazon Studios’ Head of Global Television Vernon Sanders told Insider that the goal is to deliver content with global cultural relevance. “We’re in over 200 countries. Our job is to entertain them all. I understand from outside that as we look at what will resonate around the globe, that may seem somewhat hard to know. The hardest part of doing this job is, we can’t do everything.”
As an example, Sanders pointed to shows that share what the company calls “authored DNA,” a nod to Amazon’s bookseller roots, like “Fleabag,” “Reacher,” and “Lord of the Rings.” He also said there’s an effort to produce more content aimed at women, citing upcoming projects including “Swarm,” “The Power,” and “Dead Ringers.” “We want to make sure we’re giving them enough of this kind of content to think of us as a first stop,” he said.
Salke and Hopkins in the fall announced a reorg that reinforced a more mainstream direction, with network TV vets Nick Pepper, Laura Lancaster, and Lauren Anderson taking on new responsibility under Sanders. Amazon has also slashed budgets for local-language content, according to three insiders; a separate source familiar with the company’s thinking said the international budget is flat but spending may have shifted from some locales to emerging countries.
While Salke has bought a lot of films and series, she has yet to produce a huge, original Amazon hit on her own. The top 10 original streaming hits worldwide for the fourth quarter of 2022, per Parrot Analytics, which measures consumer demand, included two Amazon shows — “Rings of Power” and “The Boys,” both greenlit by the previous regime.
High stakes for the Russo brothers’ ‘Citadel’ after huge cost overruns
“Citadel,” executive produced by Joe and Anthony Russo of “Avengers” and “Gray Man” fame, is the kind of programming Salke hopes will set Amazon apart — tentpole entertainment that can attract a global audience.
Pitched as “Mission Impossible”-meets-“This Is Us,” “Citadel” is an ambitious spy series that attempts to replicate the universe-storytelling pioneered by Marvel, with local language spinoffs in places like India and Italy.
But “Citadel” has been plagued by cost overruns, partly due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, and showrunner firings over creative differences. Costs have ballooned from an estimated $165 million for 10 30-minute episodes to $300 million for six, a person with knowledge of the production said, though the source familiar with company thinking said the total was under $200 million.
“‘Citadel’ never should’ve been made when it was made — it’s a $300 million spy show based on zero IP when the tail that’s wagging every dog in Hollywood right now is IP,” said a second knowledgeable source.
Sanders said “Citadel” is new territory for Amazon Studios. “We’ve made big series before, but what we haven’t done is create a universe that spans multiple series and multiple countries with different creators,” he said. “It is ambitious on another scale. We are so grateful to everyone that has contributed to the vision that has grown and evolved over time, and yes, we needed to course-correct a bit but that’s to be expected for something this significant.” He added that Studios’ biggest swings tend to be the titles that bring the most people to the service, so it wouldn’t back away from ambitious projects.
‘The whitewashing of the slate’
While spending on such big swings has soared, some insiders see far less budgetary support for underrepresented casts. “There’s been a noticeable trend where tentpole shows have a disproportionate white male representation” and large budgets, a current staffer said, “and you have shows for emerging audiences that are $6 million or $4 million an episode, and the marketing on those shows is very limited.” This person called it “the whitewashing of the slate.”
And for all its spending, most notably on “The Rings of Power,” Amazon failed to crack Nielsen’s list of top 15 streaming programs in the US for 2022, which was dominated by Netflix and Disney+. Amazon has its own internal metrics for success on Prime Video, such as the share of all its streams that a particular title represents, and whether people subscribe to Prime to watch a particular title.
But like most streamers, Amazon shares very little data, even with its own creators and internal teams, and a lack of clear metrics connecting viewership to subscriptions makes it hard to know what constitutes a win. Amazon has highlighted the international success of “Rings of Power,” saying that 90% of new sign-ups for the series came from outside the US; the company also told Insider that in the 100 days after the season finale streamed, it was the most binged series on Prime Video.
Several Amazon and industry insiders said “Rings of Power” was celebrated internally, but a former Studios exec attributed this in part to the company’s booster ethos. “They need to create a flywheel of positive energy” around big projects, this person said. In and around Amazon, it’s widely believed the series barely delivered on its goals. The top talent agent was told by an Amazon exec that internal figures disappointed. “It definitely hit them,” the agent said.
Salke is talent-friendly and has made big overall deals, but results have been uneven
Salke brought a major vibe shift — two insiders called her “a breath of fresh air” — when she stepped into her role at Amazon. Brought on by Jeff Blackburn, then Amazon’s SVP worldwide business development, she came from a successful run at NBC that included hits like “The Blacklist,” “This Is Us,” and “The Good Place.” She’d previously led development at 20th Century Fox TV, where she brought popular shows like “Modern Family,” “Glee,” and “Prison Break” to the screen.
Amazon insiders described Salke as charming and a hard worker who makes herself visible at meetings and smaller dinners with execs she hosts at her home. “She was a huge cheerleader,” the former Amazon exec said, and all-hands gatherings for Studios staff went from dry affairs to forums for celebration, sometimes featuring stars like Michael B. Jordan.
In the race to court stars and creators, she’s inked a lot of overall deals. Amazon had upwards of 100 deals with talent as of last summer — more than Netflix, but while producing far less original content — without necessarily having the staff or budget to actually fund all their content.
“It’s hard to make a deal with them because they have so many current deals they’re trying to service,” a producer said. The knock is that some of these deals haven’t produced much — see Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michael B. Jordan. Salke inked a major pact in 2019 with “Westworld” creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, but their first show for the streamer, “The Peripheral,” didn’t click with audiences or critics and has not yet been renewed. (Their second Amazon project, “Fallout,” based on the long-running video game, is expected to premiere this year or next.)
According to the top agent and another industry insider, Pepper has killed many deals with talent. Some stars and creators have left on their own, including Barry Jenkins and Viola Davis. Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment — which produced Jenkins’ Amazon limited series, “The Underground Railroad” — didn’t renew its overall TV deal with Amazon after receiving a big investment stake from French company Mediawan. But Waller-Bridge recently renewed and has a “Tomb Raider” series in the works as well as a show based on the book “Sign Here” by Claudia Lux.
Salke in November scored a big win when it was announced that she’d take charge of MGM film and TV (other than unscripted content). Amazon is reportedly close to hiring Warner Bros. veteran Courtenay Valenti to lead MGM film efforts under Salke, whose own movie experience is limited.
Salke also gained oversight of marketing with the hiring of Sue Kroll, a Warner Bros. veteran who had consulted on the high-stakes “LOTR” (the previous head of marketing, Ukonwa Ojo, reported to Hopkins). Kroll has a high profile in Hollywood and strong ties to talent, but while she controls the marketing budget for content, the marketing budget for the Prime Video brand is controlled by Albert Cheng, VP of Prime Video US, who reports to Hopkins.
Making Amazon a ‘home for talent’ with pressure to land big audiences and make MGM movie hits
Making Amazon a “home for talent” has been Salke’s catchphrase. But now she faces the pressure of keeping that talent happy while producing big hits at a time when Hopkins has brought new financial scrutiny to Studios, insiders say.
Studios under her leadership has ballooned by more than 50%, to 1,500 staffers, which two insiders said has left her less visible and accessible to execs other than her direct reports. The fall reorg has bred infighting, with Pepper’s team now overseeing deals with talent and, according to two insiders, limiting them from working across different parts of Studios. Some saw it as a sign of instability when two top comedy execs, Ryan Andolina and Amanda Greenblatt, left just weeks after being promoted.
“A lot of executives there are kind of unhappy, but a lot of executives everywhere are kind of unhappy” right now, a second agent told Insider.
There’s huge pressure for both “Citadel” and the second season of “Rings of Power” to perform.
Now that Salke’s overseeing MGM, she and whoever’s hired to lead its film arm will also be under pressure to justify Amazon’s purchase of the studio. MGM has big plans for theatrical releases, Bloomberg reported, but it’s relatively new territory for Amazon. And much of MGM’s value comes from James Bond, a franchise that’s tightly controlled by the Broccoli family.
Pepper will be a key person in seeing that Amazon takes advantage of MGM’s IP in TV: He is set to oversee one to two dozen top titles from MGM’s library, according to the second agent, while Lancaster will handle the rest.
Studios has to find its place in Amazon’s big tech bureaucracy
Salke also has to navigate running an entertainment business that’s part of a tech giant, with the inherent cultural tension — a challenge that puts her and Hopkins “in the same boat,” the former Amazon exec said. “There’s us and there’s Seattle.”
The tech giant’s extensive bureaucracy makes it slow to greenlight projects, which risks putting off talent. One current insider said it’s taken as much as three times as long to greenlight a project as it does at other studios where they’ve worked. “Everyone at Amazon seems to tell me the environment is always process over product,” said the producer. “They’re just obsessed with process, and that can get in the way of the product. You can’t just go to a meeting. It’s like being in a cult where it’s more important to do the rituals than create great content. Amazon is extraordinarily bureaucratic.”
Amazon’s practice of moving managers around across departments has resulted in people from non-entertainment backgrounds running Studios functions, which also has caused internal friction.
And along with Prime Video, Amazon has Freevee, its answer to the rise of free, ad-supported streaming video, which gives viewers another option but (as the company has conceded) causes some market confusion. Amazon has ramped up original content at Freevee, which like a lot of FASTs, leans lowbrow, leading some to wonder how it fits and competes for resources with the more elevated Prime Video.
Selling rival streamers also lets Amazon deliver on its “Everything Store” promise and make money in lots of ways. But to some working on original content, the cafeteria approach undermines Studios’ ability to build a strong entertainment brand.
Studios employees are subject to the same brutal personnel evaluations and stringent expense policy as the rest of Amazon. “That’s not the Hollywood way,” a third agent said. Insiders gripe about how hard it is to get a promotion and the stock-based compensation — 15% of comp comes in the form of stock, which has fallen by some 29% in the past year.
Even with a soft job market and threat of a writers’ strike, staff believe an exodus is coming. For some, the final straw could be the return-to-office requirement in February, when staffers had to start reserving a desk and store their belongings in a locker.
One current executive expressed frustration that Amazon’s resources and ability to make great content are being wasted. And as unlikely as it seems, some still harbor notions that Amazon could one day just give up on its entertainment business. “I do think people wonder what’s the commitment to Amazon Studios,” the current insider said. “The question we get is, how long is Amazon going to support a studio where everything takes three times as long to operate?”