New series from Wong Kar-wai, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph reflect focus on buzzy shows with global appeal
The mandate from Jeff Bezos is clear: Bring me “Game of Thrones.”
That’s the word that has the creative community buzzing this week about a major strategy shift underway for Amazon Studios’ original series efforts.
The CEO of the e-commerce giant is said to have tasked Amazon Studios chief Roy Price with honing the focus on high-end drama series with global appeal. Amazon’s decision this week to scrap plans for a second season of period drama “Z: The Beginning of Everything” reflects the new marching orders.
On Friday, Amazon confirmed five new projects — series greenlights for a period drama from Paul Attanasio and Wong Kar-wai and a comedy starring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph; two comedy pilots; and a Seth Rogen-produced comic book adaptation eyed as a straight-to-series order — that reflect the drive to find shows that deliver sizzle in the water-cooler environs of social media and can travel around the world.
In an interview on Friday, Price told Variety that there is a new focus on finding “big shows that can make the biggest difference around the world” in growing Amazon Video’s reach and Amazon Prime subscribers. “Tong Wars,” the drama penned by Paul Attanasio and directed by Wong, is a prime example of a period piece that blends the epic history of Chinese immigration to the U.S. with a crime potboiler. “It’s a very compelling show,” he said.
Price said the strategic course has been informed by the wealth of data available to Amazon and is the consensus of senior management, including Bezos.
“It comes out of analysis of the data and conversations among the leadership team,” Price said. “We’ve been looking at the data for some time, and as a team we’re increasingly focused on the impact of the biggest shows. It’s pretty evident that it takes big shows to move the needle.”
Price cited Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle,” the unscripted “Grand Tour,” and the new comedy “The Tick” as examples of existing shows that fit the bill of having global appeal. And he doesn’t mince words about his interest in finding a show that packs the wallop of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
“I do think ‘Game of Thrones’ is to TV as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars’ was to the movies of the 1970s,” Price said. “It’ll inspire a lot of people. Everybody wants a big hit and certainly that’s the show of the moment in terms of being a model for a hit.”
Price pointed to the move Amazon made in January to recruit former Fox International Channels exec Sharon Tal Yguado to lead a new event series development unit focused specifically on sci-fi, fantasy and genre series. Price pointed to AMC’s “Preacher” and Starz’s “American Gods,” shows that Amazon carries in multiple markets outside the U.S.
“The biggest shows make the biggest difference around the world,” Price said. “If you have one of the top five or 10 shows in the marketplace, it means your show is more valuable because it drives conversations and it drive subscriptions. … We’re a mass-market brand. We have a lot of video customers and we need shows that move the needle at a high level.”
With this focus, Amazon could not justify moving ahead with season 2 of “Z.” Industry sources said Karl Gajdusek, the showrunner recruited to steer season 2 of “Z,” was plainly told of the shift in strategy when the surprise call came down on Thursday that the show was being shuttered. Gajdusek and his team of writers had been working for several weeks on getting the 10-episode order ready for production. “Z” starred Christina Ricci as Zelda Fitzgerald, the socialite wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and a legendary figure from 1920s Jazz Age lore.
Price said the decision on “Z” came down to a simple matter of priorities. He notes that Amazon has an ongoing development pact on the film side with Killer Films, one of the show’s producers.
“We’re glad we did ‘Z.’ We’re proud of the work done on it and the team we had on it,” Price said. “At the end of the day you only have so many slots. With those slots you have to drive viewership and drive subscriptions. Sometimes there are shows that are a little bit on the bubble in terms of their viewership. We went down the road with it but ultimately decided in light of the full spectrum of opportunities we were looking at we would not be able to proceed with the show.”
Amazon is also expected to cut a significant number of current development prospects off of its plate. The service already has several big-ticket series orders in the works for 2018, including the two-season order for Amy Sherman-Palladino’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the John Krasinski-led adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” from Carlton Cuse, Matthew Weiner’s “The Romanoffs” anthology series, and David O. Russell’s untitled crime drama starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore.
Multiple industry sources who work with Amazon say it is clear there is pressure on Price and his team to deliver. There has been speculation about the prospect of major management changes at Amazon Studios given the number of industry insiders who have complained about what they see has a difficult working environment at the streaming giant.
“It’s not a good sign when Seattle overrules your decision,” said one prominent producer of Amazon’s reversal on “Z.”
The overhaul of priorities comes amid what sources said is some frustration with the fruits of its foray into original TV content during the past few years. Amazon Studios made an early splash with comedy “Transparent” in 2014, which helped propel the national conversation about transgender issues and has collected high-profile Emmy wins for star Jeffrey Tambor and creator Jill Soloway.
But Amazon hasn’t had much traction in pop culture with many other original series, even after comedy “Mozart in the Jungle” was an underdog winner for comedy series at the 2016 Golden Globe Awards. For all of Amazon’s investment in original series, it’s been eclipsed this season by its smaller rival Hulu with the critically praised “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
There’s been speculation about Amazon reining in its development expenditures — something that Price flatly denies. Amazon’s aggregate spending on original content will be up in 2018 versus this year, he said, although he would not cite specific dollar figures. He also noted that Amazon is shelling out big bucks this season for a marquee sports franchise, “Thursday Night Football.”
“We’re very interested in getting those top shows — something that is broadly popular and admired,” he said. “We want to allocate a lot of our attention and resources going forward to that kind of thing.”
There have already been signals of Amazon’s heightened focus on event and spectacle series. Tal Yguado has been given ample resources to go after big-name talent. In August, she secured an overall deal with “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, luring him away from his longtime home AMC. At Fox, Tal Yguado made the savvy decision to help finance and license “The Walking Dead” for the more than 200 Fox-branded international channels. She also worked with Kirkman in developing “Outcast,” which airs across the Fox international channels group and on Cinemax in the U.S. She is said to be targeting other “Walking Dead” talent to make the jump to Amazon.
Tal Yguado came to the streaming service three months after the development team under Price had been reorganized, with comedy head Joe Lewis taking oversight of half-hour and drama series development. The move has caused some confusion among TV literary agents, who see no clear lines between Lewis’ team and Tal Yguado’s event focus.
Amazon faced another black eye in the creative community this week when reports of strife behind the scenes on another drama series, “Goliath,” emerged along with the news of the show’s third showrunner in two seasons. Clyde Phillips, who took over from creator David E. Kelley for season two, departed the show of his own volition after creative conflicts with star Billy Bob Thornton.
“Goliath” was in production in Los Angeles on its episode five of the 10-episode order at the point when Phillips left last month, according to sources. Lawrence Trilling, a producer on the first season of “Goliath,” has taken over.
Price said he spoke with Thornton on Thursday and was feeling “very hopeful” about the future of the show. He also asserted that Amazon has not had a higher incidence of behind-the-scenes changes on shows than other networks doing comparable volume.
“The reality is it can be a complicated task to create a show. and sometimes it goes smoothly and other times it does not,” Price said.
As for the big-picture of Amazon’s programming focus, Price said there are more deals to be unveiled in the coming weeks that will make the company’s priorities very clear to the creative community. “There are a lot more big, exciting announcements to come, and you’ll see where it’s all going,” he said.