Inside Jennifer Salke’s Amazon Film Shakeup

Jennifer Salke Amazon Studios
Chris Frawley/Amazon

Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke made it clear on Wednesday that big changes are coming to the company’s struggling film business.

Less than a week after Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself” flopped, the executive moved quickly to stabilize her film team and to encourage the faltering division to start developing more commercial fare. As part of that push, Salke promoted Julie Rapaport to co-head of the film division and tasked her with producing bigger-budget films that will appeal to broader tastes. The restructure puts a band-aid on the “Life Itself” debacle and echoes the same marching orders given to the TV division last year from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos himself: Deliver hits.

Indeed, the pressure is on for a division that’s been operating in limbo for the better part of a year. The ouster of Salke’s predecessor Roy Price, an eccentric executive who was fired after being accused of sexual harassment, has been destabilizing. Price’s exit was followed almost a year later by the resignation of Worldwide Head of Motion Pictures Jason Ropell, an Amazon vet who Salke still needs to replace. Salke joined Amazon from NBC, where as entertainment president she developed watercooler favorites such as “This Is Us” and “The Blacklist.”

While Salke focused most of her attention on reinvigorating the television operation, Amazon’s film unit was stuck in a holding pattern, saddled with a series of duds left over from the Price regime, but wary of lining up too many new projects until clearer marching orders arrived from on high. As Toronto Film Festival buyers met in hotel rooms and fielded late-night phone calls, Amazon was not an active bidder. The company was not even been mentioned as a contender for sales titles in the days following, one competing buyer said on the condition of anonymity.

Salke’s challenges are formidable. In recent months, the competition has only intensified. Netflix has grown more capable with its own in-house productions, releasing crowd-pleasers such as “The Kissing Booth” and Oscar contenders like “Roma.” At the same time, Apple has begun to ramp up its own film efforts and was an active bidder at the recent Toronto Film Fest. And Disney has made it clear that it has designs on cornering the streaming market. The company will unveil its own direct-to-consumer offering next year and has already started to line up high-profile projects such as a live-action “Lady & the Tramp.”

Many in Hollywood operate under the assumption that, given Amazon’s trillion-dollar market cap, money is not an object. But the returns for “Life Itself” were sobering, multiple individuals familiar with the company told Variety. The project fetched $10 million at auction last December, where Amazon beat out Paramount and Universal for domestic rights. Last weekend, it made $2.1 million on roughly 2600 screens, a disastrous result, particularly when marketing and distribution costs are taken into account. Fogelman isn’t blaming Amazon for the result (in fact, he’s expressed concern that executives will be on the firing line over the failure). Instead, his camp and the studio are pointing to the bruising reviews from critics as the source of the film’s troubles, multiple insiders said. But the “Life Itself” failure came at a bad time for the division, following closely on the heels of flops such as “Gringo,” “Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” and Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel.”

“They’re not feeling any love over there right now,” said the insider of the film division and their Amazon overlords. “They’re nervous. But if you’re a film distributor who isn’t nervous these days, you’re lying.”

So far, Salke doesn’t appear to be blowing things up. She’s retaining much of the executive team, including the well-liked marketing guru Bob Berney, interim co-head Matt Newman, and Ted Hope, who will focus on auteur fare while Rapaport tries to identify moneymakers. However, the team is being forced to reexamine its business model. They also have to clean up some messes — namely deciding how to bury Allen’s “A Rainy Day in New York.”

The Allen film has become toxic because the #MeToo movement has brought renewed attention to the sexual molestation allegations leveled at the filmmaker by his daughter Dylan Farrow. There’s no release date for “A Rainy Day in New York” and Amazon is exploring legal avenues to get out of its contract to distribute the picture.

A spokesperson for Amazon declined to comment for this article.

“Big Amazon doesn’t care much between an arthouse film they’re releasing and whatever barbeque sauce it’s selling on Prime that day, so the movies need to work,” the insider said.

Salke still has one big hire to make. She is currently looking for a replacement for Ropell. She is not expected to tap someone at the level of a Stacey Snider, the Fox film chief who is not expected to make the move to Disney when the studio gets absorbed, but she does want a proven hitmaker in the position. She’s also made some noise about launching a team to focus on finding lower-watt content to release directly on Amazon Prime. These movies would forgo a theatrical release.

Salke’s moves on the television front may provide clues about what she would like to institute on the film side of the business. A key priority will be establishing relationships with talent, something Salke did at NBC. Although she has only been in the kitchen since February, she personally signed Jordan Peele and Nicole Kidman to overall production deals. She also gave a series order to “Tales From the Loop,” a science fiction drama from “Legion” writer Nathaniel Halpern, and lured Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn away from “Project Runway” in order to develop a new fashion-oriented reality show.

The knock on Amazon’s television choices had been that with projects like “Transparent,” it had done too much “programming to Silver Lake,” a reference to the hipster L.A. neighborhood and a diss that could also apply to the film side of the business. Even before Salke’s arrival, Amazon was moving away from that kind of fare, spending big on a TV adaptation of “Lord of the Rings” and backing “Jack Ryan” with John Krasinski as a well-toned CIA analyst.

Salke is known as a team builder, but she has her work cut out for her on the film side. Price’s management style was frequently chaotic and the film team started facing “tremendous pressure” last October, a second insider said, after two consecutive bombs in Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” starring Julianne Moore and Richard Linklater’s war vet drama “Last Flag Flying” with Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. “Wonderstruck” sputtered out, earning just over $1 million over nearly three months in limited release. “Last Flag” was punted to Lionsgate (their partner on the Oscar-nominated “The Big Sick”) three months before Amazon was set to roll it out. The film never played more than 110 theaters in seven weeks of release, and earned around $965,000 total in the U.S.

Marching orders changed under then-leader Price. The division was told to look outside the development slate for a product that would deliver mid-seven-figure returns and establish Amazon as a theatrical contender, the insider said. “Life, Itself” felt awfully close to “This Is Us” tonally, said the individual, and the plan was to convert the average ten million weekly viewers of Fogelman’s hit TV show into ticket buyers.

As Amazon pivots to pricier commercial fare it will need to decide what form those movies will take. The company still wants to make elevated material, not just broad comedies or action films, and it will continue to release some Oscar contenders. Still to come this year are Timothee Chalamet starrer “Beautiful Boy,” Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria,” Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” and Polish foreign language Oscar entry “Cold War.” But Amazon seems less interested in using Bezos’ money to serve as the Medici’s of the arthouse set, giving lavish budgets to indie directors such as Haynes or James Gray who don’t have many big hits on their resumes.

One recent acquisition may be evidence of the kind of projects that a Salke regime will embrace. Amazon and Nicole Kidman teamed to land the rights to Meg Wolitizer’s “The Female Persuasion.” The novel scored raves for its look at feminism in the aughts, but there was something that was even more enticing to an increasingly hit-focused Amazon. It also enjoyed a run on the best-seller list. Art’s all well and good, but it can’t come at the expense of commerce.