Jeff Bezos Mandates Programming Shift at Amazon Studios (EXCLUSIVE)

Amazon series orders
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

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.

Related

Amazon Orders Fred Armisen-Maya Rudolph Comedy, Wong Kar-wai Drama, 3 Other Projects (EXCLUSIVE)

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.

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  1. Cooper Nelson says:

    Should definitely make Dune, agreed on that.
    And agree that empowering creators is the most important thing any of the players can do. Especially if they’re aiming toward global local markets – how are you going to make huge shows in Saudi Arabia? Find the most talented filmmakers in Saudi Arabia and fund them. Watch an industry grow.
    Trust the intention! Cynical people. Price talks about Jaws’ creation of the blockbuster in the 70s—when the theaters were empty and lawyers were greenlighting scripts. Jaws and Star Wars saved the film industry. A company saying they want to make huge and high quality tv shows to keep the ~magic~ of GOT alive… I’m down. Pretty easy to hate on a company that’s pumping millions into a creative industry, when you’re the creative getting paid…
    The streaming services are the future of media and Netflix is trying to murder exhibition… is that good for artists? Is that good for anyone? Hopefully they’re as big a sinking ship as they seem. Amazon’s got the money to set course for bigger and better waters, and lol at all the salty people calling for Price’s removal…. he’s been captaining this thing from the start, and have a little more gratitude that Transparent exists. Really do hope they make Dune, though

  2. Jim says:

    I mean lets all be honest – Roy Price is a guy who failed through a bunch of jobs and landed at Amazon as a consolation prize when they weren’t actually making anything. He’s just lucky he was able to hang around when Amazon decided to pump millions into programming and found himself in charge of it by accident. If they were making a list of who to run a ship with the budget of Amazon today – his name wouldn’t be anywhere near it.

  3. B real says:

    Quite funny reading all of the well meaning advice given here to Amazon. They are, having worked with them, a seriously dysfunctional collection of network, prod co and studio exec cast offs. No one running the ship there and from Price’s ridiculous comments regarding what is next for Amazon I would expect to see him there much longer. They are notoriously disliked by not only creatives but agents and managers as impossible to deal with and more so, untrustworthy as far as sticking to agreements. Sure we’ll all take their money, but as soon as it’s gone, and that may be sooner than you think, we’ll move in to the next buyer. If it wasn’t for Catastrophe, I wouldn’t make the effort to find out where or how to watch Amazon.

  4. All I can say is DUNE. Its Game of thrones in space. Do a 10 episode series for every book. Think Sean Bean as Duke Leto

  5. Joey says:

    Don’t chase trends. Start them.

    HBO didn’t copy everyone else’s sword-and-sorcery TV series in Game of Thrones. They just made their own show because they wanted to.

    Transparent is the only current Amazon show that will be remembered in 10+ years. That’s because Amazon made something different that they wanted to see instead of trying to come up with their version of Big Bang Theory or whatever.

  6. Jerald Arthur Brewer says:

    BOSCH is Amazon Prime’s best show & my favorite drama on TV (along with Better Call Saul). As long Bezos & Co. keep greenlighting that show I’ll keep shelling out my green to them. I liked Z & The Last Tycoon.

  7. Mark S says:

    DUNE!!!!

  8. Dale Sullivan says:

    What about #The Last Tycoon”? That’s the only thing that I will watch on Amazon. I sure as hell am not going to watch a bunch of comedies, and Thursday Night Football, really? All the”comedy” baloney is why I quit watching regular TV

  9. S says:

    With Game of Thrones coming to an end, I certainly hope someone – HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon –
    are able to create something as unique and special as that series. Amazon’s problem is this: for some reason, they cannot produce compelling dramas. It’s like they do the roughest, least-rehearsed cut of the pilot and release it to the public hoping something will stick. I enjoy The Man in the High Castle, but that first season had some really bad acting and writing.

    If they want the next Game of Thrones then they might want to consider adapting a well-loved high fantasy or science fiction series. But that’s not enough. They need to spend the time and money on making it the best product possible show because without the ability to suspend belief and feel invested in the characters and world, the shows will fail. Game of Thrones succeeded because it pushed the boundaries of story-telling and world-building – it feels realistic.

    Amazon thinks that if they hire the flashiest actors and directors that will be enough. It’s won’t as their recent failures have shown. Aside from Sean Bean, Game of Thrones was cast with mostly unknown actors.

    I’m not sure what series I would recommend. Dune has yet to get a proper series adaption but I think I’d rather see it end up on HBO or Netflix. Hyperion deserves a great TV adaptation.

  10. nerdrage says:

    Amazon’s pilot season voting is fun, but I can’t help but notice how much better Netflix is doing on choosing shows that appeal to me (and I guess I’m not alone) without asking me to vote on anything. Mostly, Amazon pilot season is Meh, Meh and Geeze No. The Man in the High Castle is still their only show I’ve seen that I’d really miss if they cancelled it.

    If Bezos wants to have his very own GoT, he should commission a bad-ass military space sci fi series, basically Starship Troopers with some horrific gross terrifying alien threat that lays eggs in your brain or some damn thing like that.

    • Bill Clay says:

      The Man in the High Castle is the ONLY Amazon series that I’ve found interesting enough to watch. I’m puzzled as to how Amazon hit it out of the park with that series, but the rest of their shows are not compelling enough to bother with.

  11. mla28ny says:

    So basically they want something that will appeal to Chinese IT workers watching on their iPhones, that is loud, busy and makes no sense starring a bunch of British actors?

  12. Nicole says:

    As an era buff I loved Z really enjoyed the Last Tycoon such a disappointment the focus is trash celebrities like Seth. I use Amazon video mostly for my kiddos but I was nice to find a nice show once in a while.

  13. Jeff says:

    Isn’t it convenient for bezos that he uses the roads for free to make money w his delivery trucks o operate his business.
    Just as uber uses the roads for free to operate their business.

  14. I have had a Prime membership for a few years and I never watch Amazon’s original stuff. It’s dry and boring as all hell.

  15. Bravo says:

    I came to comment on how Amazon has it all wrong but everyone already beat me to it. Yes, Amazon has weird taste. (I call it no taste.) Yes, they think money equals quality. Yes, they want to be number one now–not a decade from now. Yes, they want to use data to create shows, which would only make sense if people used data to decide what to watch. Clearly they don’t. (Or perhaps viewers use a formula no one’s yet elucidated, likely due to a mutable selection process.)

    Instead what’s troubling about their flawed plan is that Amazon doesn’t appear to nurture talent. From whatever that script submission thing is for new writers through showrunners and up to creative executives. Does Amazon foster relationships with young writers? Do they nurture relationships with midlevel writers? What about showrunners? Or other creatives? Do creative execs have a point of view? HBO has a point of view and a strong sense of style. Their work relies on high quality writing and a hands-off approach. Like an elite publishing house, it’s curated by editors that support creatives. (Netflix, Hulu, and FX don’t do badly either.)

    Simply put Amazon does not nurture talent because their business model lacks the ability to even recognize it. And their faith in analytics subordinates its supposed value to an algorithm.

    Want to throw $ around? Hire new writers to long WGA contracts (fostering–call it a fellowship. Use your submission site to recruit), have them mentored by producers/showrunners you admire but don’t currently have relationships with (relationship building), let them write what they want (hands off), and then screen projects making sure they align with what an “Amazon show” is (curating. It requires a POV. Get one).

    You’re welcome Bezos.

    • nerdrage says:

      Amazon seems overly focused on Win An Emmy Win An Emmy Win An Emmy…with fancy ass serious prestige dramas that just turn out dull.

      Netflix has the right idea. Start by being compellingly entertaining for some focused segment of the population (don’t try to appeal to everyone). Then the quality will emerge on its own and maybe you’ll win a few statues.

  16. mud40 says:

    How about giving Agent Carter a new home? It was a good but short lived series with lots of potential. I am sure it could do great on Amazon.

    • loco73 says:

      Ohhhh hell yeah!!! If there is any justice, that should definitely happen! If only one more season and a proper conclusion to the open ended way in which the second season ended. Hayley Atwell was fantastic in the role, one which completely fits her.

      I doubt it will happen…but will keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best…

  17. James says:

    A new “Game of Thrones” – but without dragons and fantasy stuff – would be a fairly accurate telling of the the life and times of Vlad the Impaler. Just read the Wikipedia entry and you get enough material for a TV series with endless medieval warfare between different noble men, houses & cultures & religions. And it’s mostly against the invading Muslims, so that’s probably something in the zeitgeist.

    A read years ago, that Brad Pitt wanted to produce a straight movie on Vlad – without the vampire schtick – using a screenplay Charlie Hunnam researched and wrote, while he acted in “Cold Mountain”, which was shot in Romania at the time. They came very close to production, so his script is still available.

    But I’m afraid is too dark and cruel material for large crowds? Do they need their witches, dragons and crazy wizards ;-)

  18. John says:

    Wong Kar Wai shoots with no film script, on his movie set nobody understands what he’s filming. But it may just play out well for online audience.

    • James says:

      Yes, the Wong-Kar-Wai-is-doing-TV news is kind of strange.
      When was the last time he delivered a movie in a short time frame according to a script ?
      Never?

      Paul Attanasio wrote the classic “Quiz Show”, but his last TV-show project about the Vatican was not picked up – in spite of major talent involved like Ridley Scott directing.
      I read somewhere, that the show was cancelled after the pilot, because Attanasio didn’t want to compromise his vision & didn’t allow any changes or something.
      Too bad, I would have loved to see Bruno Ganz as the Pope and Kyle Chandler as a cardinal.
      I hope they’ll finish the pilot as a TV movie and show it one day.

      “Tong Wars” sounds original, but it’s not as compelling as his Vatican show to me.

      • JNN says:

        Tong wars sounds interesting, but it could easily be REVENGE OF THE GREEN DRAGONS with a period setting and a higher pedigree, and therefore still suck. And honestly, THAT’S what Amazon thinks “the world” wants to see. How little they must think of global viewers who are actually smart, educated and would actually watch something like Z or THE LAST TYCOON despite those shows not being set in their countries or about their culture. The history of Chinese immigration to America and, I’m assuming, the attendant crime (and corruption?) within that community can make for facsinating storytelling, but it’s hardly something the world is clamouring for. I predict another plug-pull from Amazon on that one after a season.

  19. Colin MacNaughton says:

    If Amazon wants more viewership perhaps they should start supporting things like Chromecast. It can’t be helping them to lock out people who don’t own a Roku.

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  21. Johnny says:

    Ah, Amazon. Still the RC Cola of TV producers.

    As long as you keep chasing yesterday’s trends, you will continue to fail.

  22. loco73 says:

    I hope they don’t cancel “Bosch” one of the few series worth watching from Amazon.

    Saying “bring me Game Of Thrones” won’t make is so. You can’t force something like that to happen. You need to build your portofolio, attract talented people, have a creative vision, and allow space for those people to come up with content that might eventually lead to something in the epic nature of “Game Of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead”.

    There is plenty of material out there and stories waiting to be told. Hell, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Martian Trilogy”, Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Kingkiller Chronicle” is an amazing story, or Robert Jordan’s massive “The Wheel Of Time” series (that one could be quite the seller, since the Aes Sedai order of warrior priestesses is quite in tune with wanting to have more female characters)…but for that you need those who understand, love and care for material like this and can develop it for you if you give them the freedom and support to do so.

    Also, sometimes people think that “Game Of Thrones” happened in a vacuum. But it didn’t. HBO produced series and miniseries which changed the face of television in terms of quality and scale years before “Game Of Thrones” ever came to the screen. From “Band Of Brothers” and “The Pacific” to “Generation Kill”, “Elizabeth I” and “John Adams”. Stuff like “Deadwood”, “Carnivale” and especially “ROME” played an important role into the lead-up to “Game Of Thrones” arrival.

    Good luck to those guys at Amazon, but for now they are starting under the wrong premise and on the wrong foot. Just throwing money around and hoping something sticks is not really a great way to go about this.

    Why not focus on your current series like I said “Bosch” and “The Man In the High Castle”?

    • loco73 says:

      Just as a side note. If Amazon wants something “epic”, why not actually get “Star Wars” and go lobby Lucasfilm to produce and bring to the screen a live-action series or miniseries?! Fans have been clamoring for years for more adult oriented “Star Wars” material, especially on the small screen so to speak. In the wake of “Rogue One”, I think that that is possible now. There is plenty of material in the “Star Wars” universe to fit that bill. Just of the top of my head I can think of Alex Freed’s novel “Star Wars Battlefront: Twilight Company”. Imagine a “Band Of Brothers” type of gritty 8-10 episode war miniseries set in the Star Wars Universe…

      • nerdrage says:

        We’ll get a live action Star Wars series on streaming all right. Since Disney has now thrown their hat in the ring, they would be insane not to make that. But for their own service, they won’t give it to a competitor.

        However, who the heck says that Amazon can’t make their own Star Warsy show? Before there was the Jedi or Starfleet or the Green Lanterns or Nova Corps, there were the Lensmen. Amazing that the original “space cops” has never been adapted. Go for it Amazon!

      • loco73 says:

        @Bs

        You are of course right. It was more like wishful thinking on my part…but I’d still love to see live-action Star Wars series or miniseries, something darker, grittier and more adult oriented. Something along the lines of the Marvel-Nerflix collaborations…

      • Bs says:

        All Star Wars shows are contracted to appear only on the Disney streaming service. That goes with marvel films and shows too.

        Amazon has seen what happened to Netflix this week and has realised they need to start producing their own shows and stop being the money grabbing middle men. Did not realise American gods and preacher were not made by amazon! Stupid of me really, like realising bake off wasn’t made by BBC, that haven’t got the talent to make a show that good.

  23. Rey says:

    Dang. Ricci can’t catch a break on TV.

  24. IT--////--IT says:

    USURY–INTEL Hollywood’s
    —————————- – – franchise slum ‘latest’ ???

    BULLLLLEH – – –

  25. BobbyB says:

    Scoop up Sense8 and let them finish their run. You’ll have a worldwide impact, then and there.

  26. The Prisoner says:

    This is the most moronic pronouncement ever. “Bring me Star Wars!!! Bring me Game of Thrones” is what every brand, everywhere is saying. I suspect Amazon will buy some fantasy or Sci fi IP that they will convince themselves will be “big!” And it won’t be. They have odd taste.

    Here’s a clue for you, Price, you hipster. The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones had no other drama series out there like them when they premiered, their unexpected nature, their filmic aesthetic and world building, and their great characters are part of the DNA that made them break out.

    The truth is Amazon has a largely uninspired TV slate. Netflix is miles ahead, as are HBO, Showtime, AMC, and FX. Hell, I’m more excited about what the History Channel and the Audience Network are doing and have coming up moreso than anything on Amazon.

    • MKL Los Angeles says:

      Completely agree, The Prisoner. It’s preposterous. HBO started developing Game of Thrones in 2008. So would Amazon like Game of Thrones 9 years ago? Or they want to start building a new show now so that in 2026 they have a show as big as Game of Thrones is today? Or do they really think they’ll have a show magically appear overnight to numbers like Game of Thrones? Amazon is completely discounting the years that HBO network has spent nurturing the show, and the quality development and marketing teams HBO possesses. (I DO NOT WORK FOR HBO BY THE WAY.) They’re also completely forgetting that one of the reasons Game of Thrones has the big numbers it has, is because people need to wait a week to see each episode, they can’t just binge it all in one day. It becomes appointment viewing, hits the zeitgeist, and the numbers have slowly grown over 9 YEARS!. You can’t just throw money at something to make it good.

      • loco73 says:

        You know what.? Actually you are right about the History Channel…those guys have a new TV series about the Templars coming out later this year, “Knightfall”, which doesn’t look bad at all. And over on TNT…I can’t wait to see “The Alienist”, with Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning, based on Caleb Carr’s excellent novel by the same title.

        This new mandate Amazon is embarking upon seems quite wrong headed and misguided…

      • Del Mar says:

        MKL and The Prisoner have it exactly right.

    • Frank says:

      Does goT even make money it s so expensive to make each episode,
      As much as a movie.

      • Bill says:

        Especially considering how pirated the series is; among Millennials the number that actually watch on HBO is pretty minuscule, depending largely upon whether their parents subscribe. (Not a Millennial bash but rather a reflection of how widely pirated GoT is.)

      • Andy says:

        Yah….. how much does it make exactly or they’re waiting for rerun revenue. Ten yrs from now.

      • Littlefinger says:

        Try 10-12 million an episode. More for Battle of the Bastards episodes. 6-8??? HBO wishes! The key cast alone is over 3 million an episode!!!

        Yes it makes money. It’s a global hit.

      • Andy says:

        Cost, 6-8 m per episode.

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