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Amazon Studios: Before Taking the Top Job, Here’s What the Leading Candidates Should Ask First

For rumored frontrunners like Jennifer Salke and Nancy Dubuc, a list of burning questions to consider as Amazon scouts for a new studio chief.

Jeff Bezos and Jill SolowayAmazon Golden Globes After Party, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 08 Jan 2017

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway

Walker/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

As Amazon continues its search to replace Roy Price, the Amazon Studios exec who exited last fall in a sea of controversy, several burning questions remain for whomever gets the job. According to insiders, the vacuum left by Price’s departure has led to a bit of uncertainty inside the company, as departments that formerly reported to Price are now shoring up their own oversight — and that could cause headaches for the new boss.

Most reported speculation in recent weeks has focused on A+E Networks president and CEO Nancy Dubuc and NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke as the two leading contenders for the job. Both have different skillsets and experience, leading some to wonder if it might make more sense to hire both.

Other names that have been rumored for the position include former Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman, YouTube global head of original content Susanne Daniels, Annapurna TV topper Sue Naegle and former Sony film exec Amy Pascal.

Currently, Albert Cheng, who joined Amazon Studios as chief operating officer in June 2015, has been serving as interim head. But under Cheng, insiders say his oversight is already much more narrow than Price, who launched the division and, as a result, had overseen both television and film. Amazon Studios vice president Jason Ropell now oversees film, having declined to report to Cheng, and both execs report directly to Seattle-based Amazon senior vice president Jeff Blackburn.

It’s a bit unclear what Amazon is looking for, given the variety of executives in line for the job. The main similarity: Amazon is clearly looking for a woman to run the division, particularly given the circumstances that led to Price’s departure. (Price exited in October after “The Man in the High Castle” producer Isa Hackett said the executive made inappropriate and lewd sexual advances toward her.)

The television background of most candidates also make it clear that TV remains a priority at the studio. But beyond that, Dubuc has more of a broad background in business and distribution as a CEO; Salke is known more for her development and programming skills; and Berman is first and foremost a producer, but has both TV and film executive background.

Whomever Amazon chooses will say a lot about its studio priorities. But no matter who gets the job, here are a few things candidates should ask their Amazon Echo before signing on.

Jennifer Salke, Nancy Dubuc

Shutterstock

Alexa, do I get full greenlight power?

Price benefited from being at Amazon from the beginning of its original programming ambitions, launching Amazon Video in 2008 and Amazon Studios in 2010. That gave him more free rein and partly explains why Amazon came out of the gate with more indie-minded, and less commercial, fare.

But with Price gone, so is that immediate greenlight. It’s believed that Sharon Tal Yguado, who replaced Joe Lewis as head of scripted programming, can only make tentative deals subject to corporate approval.

“No show is getting greenlighted unless finance, marketing, and others, including people not responsible for creative, all think it’s going to be a hit,” said one insider.

Some of the voices in the mix have little TV and media experience outside of Amazon. And some are relying heavily on data to try and predict what might be a hit. “Everyone is a programmer and everyone has an opinion,” one source said.

This may be the toughest fight for a new Amazon Studios chief, and it perhaps comes down to how much power and credibility they have walking in the door to push for that greenlight power. But such a move may be key to making it clear who has the final say. The new chief will also need that kind of leeway in order to lure more talent to the service and fully implement Amazon’s new programming direction.

Alexa, what departments will report to me?

It’s standard practice at most entertainment networks and studios: Business affairs/finance, legal, marketing, and programming all report to the president. Right now, however, those departments don’t go directly to Yguado or Cheng.

Each department, of course, has its own opinions and needs. But if those debates aren’t held under the eye of the studio head, it could become tricky — and if there’s a power struggle, the new studio head risks being undermined. “You can’t have 20 opinions in the room,” a source said. “I don’t think [some of these candidates] would stand for it.”

There are always exceptions, of course. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos helped champion the company’s rich deal for rights to a “Lord of the Rings” TV universe, which could ultimately come with a $1 billion price tag. “But that’s fine, he’s the CEO,” says an insider. “That’s the way it should be.”

Alexa, does the job oversee both film and TV?

Price oversaw both large and small screen, but with Rappell now reporting directly to Blackburn, it’s unclear whether the film boss would be happy with reverting to another layer above him — particularly if that new person doesn’t have much of a film background.

But if this job really is just TV oversight, then it’s not actually Price’s old job. Would it still be called the head of Amazon Studios? Or will there be a more specific delineation between TV and film — say, an Amazon Studios for film and a Prime Studios for TV?

It’s also unclear whether the new studio chief would oversee kids programming — or if Amazon will even continue in that category.

Alexa, what percentage of Amazon’s approximately $6 billion content budget will be used for originals?

Flexibility is key here: If another “Lord of the Rings”-style deal comes in, can that programming budget be moved around? Perhaps licensing fewer shows in exchange for funds to pay for one big franchise, for example.

Rachel Brosnahan, "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"

Rachel Brosnahan, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Amazon Studios/Sarah Shatz

Alexa, what is Amazon’s content strategy, moving forward?

A lot has been made of the fact that Bezos would like to move Amazon away from smaller fare into more blockbuster programming a la HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

A recent Reuters article stirred the pot, suggesting that “Amazon expects to go after films with budgets in the $50 million range at the expense of indie projects costing around $5 million.” That seems to be in line with the general sense among streaming services that, as they become mature businesses, viewership and audience numbers matter more.

But some people have interpreted that to mean that Amazon is turning its back on independent-minded entertainment, and that’s not quite true. The success of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on the TV side, and “The Big Sick” in film, is a reminder that there’s room for both. But Prime’s biggest successes have been populist shows like reality series “The Grand Tour,” and the streamer’s international expansion makes a move toward bigger, broader shows necessary.

Amazon keeps its moves close to the vest, so it’s unclear when, or how, the new studios chief will be chosen and announced. But almost everyone agrees: Amazon is its own unique culture, and the entertainment business veteran who takes over will have to be prepared to adjust to its non-Hollywood ways.

“There’s also the fear of making too quick of a replacement,” an insider told IndieWire last month. “That person has to fit into the Amazon culture, and it’s way different than being at HBO or Netflix.”

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