Amazon Prime Video wants to be the Amazon of streaming services. As a retailer, Amazon is a giant. But as a TV programmer, Amazon has lagged in buzz and attention — which is why it’s in the midst of a programming overhaul, particularly on the scripted side.
That means moving out of the art house business and into the big tent — focusing on more big-budget, buzzy series that might better capture the attention of viewers, giving them a reason to keep their Prime membership, beyond that infamously free two-day shipping.
Shows like “Transparent” and “Mozart in the Jungle” gave Amazon critical acclaim and credibility inside Hollywood. Yet Amazon hasn’t yet morphed into a true competitor to streaming leader Netflix, as ratings for those shows and others have lagged. Like Netflix and Hulu, Amazon’s ratings aren’t readily available to the public — but anecdotal evidence, including reports by third-party measurement agencies, hint that Amazon programs aren’t as widely seen as Netflix’s and Hulu’s top shows.
Amazon’s most-watched show is still “The Grand Tour,” a brash reality show meant to appeal to wide audiences. “‘The Grand Tour” showed how powerful Amazon’s platform could be,” one insider said.
IndieWire is spending the first week of 2018 by examining how the top premium and streaming services fared over the past year, as well as taking a look at what the coming year holds. And this will indeed be a transitional year for Amazon, as its new programming strategy begins to take hold. But even more key, the service is expected to eventually find a permanent replacement for former boss Roy Price, who exited last year in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. Price’s replacement will be tasked with fully implementing Amazon’s new programming direction while also luring more new talent to the service.
This should have been a celebratory year for Amazon Prime Video — which became a global behemoth in 2017, expanding to more than 240 territories around the world. Instead, faced with a programming existential crisis and then multiple harassment scandals, Prime wound up being a company in transition by the late fall.
“They’re looking to clean house and basically restart the whole company,” said one insider in the wake of Price’s exit. The Amazon Studios head, who first joined the company to launch its video-on-demand product in 2004, was the architect of Amazon’s programming strategy and had already been plotting its pivot toward more commercial fare when he was forced to leave over the harassment allegations. Price was accused of making crude and inappropriate sexual remarks to “The Man in the High Castle” producer Isa Hackett (whose father was Phillip K. Dick, the author of the novel that inspired the series).
As for Price’s replacement, COO Albert Cheng is running things in the interim, but he is seen as an executive with a tech background who doesn’t have many relationships with Hollywood talent brokers. “Everyone recognizes that Albert does not know what he’s doing,” said one insider. “The company will be compelled to hire a woman [permanently]. There’s also the fear of making too quick of a replacement. That person has to fit into the Amazon culture, and it’s way different than being at HBO or Netflix.”
Among the names floating around to take the top job: 20th Century Fox film exec Stacy Snider, Fox Television Group chairman Dana Walden, former HBO Entertainment president (and current Annapurna TV head) Sue Naegle, and others.
Following Price’s exit, Amazon Prime’s executive ranks were mostly cleared out. International productions head Morgan Wandell had already left to join Apple in a similar role, while scripted head Joe Lewis left in the wake of Price’s departure. That was followed by unscripted head Conrad Riggs, who was also shown the door. More recently, kids programming head Tara Sorensen, international development exec Carina Walker and business affairs head Tara Pietri also jumped from Amazon to Apple.
Former Fox International exec Sharon Tal Yguado, who had joined Amazon in January as head of event series, replaced Lewis as Amazon’s top scripted exec, while Heather Schuester replaced Riggs.
Tal Yguado’s elevation actually resolved a growing confusion over who was overseeing what at Amazon, as its programming focus shifted more to big event programs, the kind Yguado was developing. The decision in November to buy the global TV rights to “The Lord of the Rings,” for a reported $250 million, sent the message that Amazon was willing to fork over serious amounts of cash to secure new major TV franchises.
“It has rich stories in it ready to be mined for more television series,” Cheng told Variety of the rich deal. “It has a great number of fans.”
Given the power of the Amazon brand, even with the Prime Video missteps, no one in Hollywood discounts the opportunities ahead. David Alpert, who runs Skybound Entertainment with “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, said they moved the company’s production deal from AMC to Amazon this year because they know Amazon will find a way to properly mine their properties.
“Amazon delivers everything,” he said. “There’s seven packages from Amazon at my house every day. They have the opportunity to touch viewers in ways that are just beginning to scratch the surface.”
Alpert was also drawn to Amazon by Tal Yguado, who worked on “The Walking Dead” and Skybound’s Cinemax series “Outcast” while at Fox International.
“Going to Amazon without Sharon, I wasn’t interested,” he said. “In a weird way, it worked out great for me. I believe in Amazon because you have to.
“But Sharon being there is the big impetus for us feeling comfortable.”
Overall Hits and Misses
Amazon confirms that “The Grand Tour,” which stars former “Top Gear” hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, remains its No. 1 program, along with “Sneaky Pete,” “The Man in the High Castle” and “The Tick.”
As widely reported, it was believed that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was behind the mandate for Amazon to focus its efforts away from prestige projects with narrow appeal and more toward big “Game of Thrones”-like series. That led to several cancellations, including the controversial decision not to continue with “Good Girls Revolt” after one season (Sony is now looking to revive the show, given its timely storyline of women breaking the glass ceiling in a male-dominated field).
More recently, Amazon rescinded a previous second season renewal for “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” a period drama about the life of Zelda Fitzgerald (played by Christina Ricci). Amazon also canceled another period drama, the Hollywood Golden Age series “The Last Tycoon” (starring Kelsey Grammer and Matt Bomer) after one season, and the thriller “Hand of God,” starring Ron Perlman, ended after two seasons. Amazon also wisely dumped Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes” after one season; the show was a critical dud and gave the streamer a P.R. headache. And 1980s comedy “Red Oaks” ended its run after three seasons.
Shows returning include signature series “Transparent” (with or without Jeffrey Tambor — more on that in a moment), “The Man in the High Castle,” “Mozart in the Jungle,” and “Sneaky Pete.” The second half of “The Tick’s” freshman season returns in February. Also coming back: The drama “Patriot.”
Still awaiting word of renewal include the anthology drama “Lore,” and the comedies “One Mississippi,” “I Love Dick,” “Comrade Detective” and “Jean-Claude Van Johnson.”
The late December buzz surrounding Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which is up for two Golden Globe Awards, also brought a little momentum back to the streamer. It’s no surprise that the period comedy, from Amy Sherman-Palladino and starring Rachel Brosnahan, was renewed.
On the unscripted side, following the success of “The Grand Tour,” and Amazon’s international expansion, the streamer began developing more series with international appeal. That included motorsport show “LeMans: Racing is Everything,” and a McLaren Formula One docuseries. Other sports-themed Amazon unscripted projects include a documentary about top tennis player Novak Djokovic; a series about Manchester City soccer team; another about the University of Michigan football team; and the Tour de France project that follows chef Hannah Grant at the cycling race. Also, in the vein of Amazon’s NFL series “All or Nothing,” which chronicles a season inside a different team each season, the service ordered “All Blacks,” which follows New Zealand’s national rugby team — known as having the best winning record of any team sport in history.
Amazon Studios is producing the mystery “The Widow,” starring Kate Beckinsale, with ITV, which is also behind the projects “White Dragon” and “Vanity Fair”; the epic period drama “Britannia” with Sky; Neil Gaiman’s “Good Omens” with BBC Worldwide; Anthony Hopkins as “King Lear” and Hugh Grant in “A Very English Scandal,” both of which also come through the BBC; it has also acquired the U.S. rights to Australian mystery “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” based on the novel about the disappearance of schoolgirls and their teacher in 1990; and the AXN drama “Absentia,” starring Stana Katic and Patrick Heusinger.
The Awards Factor
In this year’s final Emmy tally, Netflix’s 20 wins were second only to HBO’s 29 total. But Hulu stole the show, thanks to its Outstanding Drama Series win for “The Handmaid’s Tale” — the first streaming series to receive one of the top programming Emmy Awards. At ten total wins, Hulu was also a major contender. That left Amazon mostly shut out, with just two. (“Transparent” had won multiple Emmys for Amazon in 2015 and 2016, but none in 2017.) While Netflix and Hulu grew their nominations in 2017, Amazon was also flat at 16, the same number as in 2016.
Early on, Amazon was more of an awards darling, especially at the Golden Globes, where “Mozart in the Jungle” won for best comedy/musical series in 2016, and “Transparent” won in 2015.
The shrinking number of kudos comes just as Amazon moves away from those awards bait programs. “If we happen to get an award that’s nice, but this company doesn’t care about awards anymore,” said an insider.
Key Programming for 2018
“Picnic at Hanging Rock,” “A Very English Scandal,” “White Dragon,” “Absentia,” “Vanity Fair” and “King Lear” are all on tap for 2018. Other shows scheduled to premiere this year:
“Britannia” (Jan. 18): A period drama, set in A.D. 43, about Rome’s conquest of the Celts in the British Isles, starring David Morrissey, Kelly Reilly, and Zoe Wanamaker.
“Homecoming”: Creator Sam Esmail’s psychological thriller starring Julia Roberts as a caseworker at a secret government facility.
“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”: John Krasinski take n the role as the CIA analyst, in this adaptation from Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland. Abbie Cornish, Wendell Pierce, Peter Fonda, Mena Massoud, and Timothy Hutton also star.
“The Romanoffs”: Matthew Weiner’s anthology series features different stories connected by the fact that the characters are all descendants of the Russian royal family. Actors participating include Christina Hendricks, Isabelle Huppert, Diane Lane, Janet Montgomery, Amanda Peet, Andrew Rannells, John Slattery, and Corey Stoll.
An untitled comedy starring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, from creators Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard.
Jennifer Clasen / Amazon
The Aftermath of 2017 Scandals
Beyond the Price exit, Amazon was also hit by allegations that “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor had acted inappropriately toward his assistant and also co-star Trace Lysette. When other allegations also emerged, Tambor said that “given the politicized atmosphere that seems to have afflicted our set, I don’t see how I can return to ‘Transparent.’” Most took that to mean Tambor was quitting, but his publicist later clarified to the New York Times that “no final decision for next year has been made, either by Jeffrey or by Amazon.”
Amazon did cancel its expensive untitled David O. Russell series (starring Julianne Moore and Robert De Niro) because it came from Weinstein Co., just as Harvey Weinstein was disgraced. Another Weinstein show, “The Romanoffs,” is now fully covered by Amazon and will continue, but also had to face allegations against creator Matt Weiner.
A lot will continue to remain unknown about Amazon’s direction in the coming year, until Price’s replacement is finally named. But already, there are signs that the streaming service is becoming more flexible in how shows are developed, ordered and presented to audiences.
Amazon’s famed pilot season process, in which pilots are uploaded for audiences before being picked up to series, has already been tweaked a bit. Some shows are directly ordered to series, and Amazon didn’t pick up any of its three Fall 2017 pilots. (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” was the only pilot out of five to be picked up from its spring roster.)
As for the all-episodes-at-once binge model, something that Hulu has shown the most willingness to play with, Amazon may also now be more flexible. “In this revolution of Amazon, as they’re thinking about things, they’re really open to a variety of binge releasing vs. non-binge releasing,” Alpert said. “Maybe you do three episodes and then a weekly cadence. They’re having this openness and flexibility.”
Meanwhile, while “Mrs. Maisel” has given Amazon a real shot in the arm, the real evolution of Amazon’s output might not be evident until next year (shows on tap include “Tong Wars,” directed by Kar Wai Wong), and when “The Lord of the Rings” begins to make a splash.
2017 Primetime Ratings: Unknown
2017 Subscribers: Estimates vary widely: Between 60 million (Cowen analyst John Blackledge) and 90 million (Consumer Intelligence Research Partners) subscribers in the U.S. alone.
2017 Emmys: 16 nominations, 2 wins