On Jennifer Salke’s first official day as head of Amazon Studios, she spent time wandering the company’s Santa Monica offices, introducing herself. She could see that people were surprised by the move.
“They were like ‘What are you doing? We’ve never seen that before,’ ” Salke said. “So I think very quickly I was able to establish that this is a very different kind of leadership style and communication style.”
Salke was named head of Amazon Studios in February, after spending the past six years as entertainment president at NBC. In an interview in her office at the Culver Studios campus that Amazon is converting into its Southern California base of operation, Salke spoke for the first time about the changes she has begun to implement to the entertainment division’s management structure and its programming strategy. She also provided new information on high-profile projects such as the planned series adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” and asserted that Amazon will be a forceful player in the burgeoning TV talent wars.
Salke’s appointment as Amazon’s entertainment chief followed an exhaustive and lengthy search for a successor to Roy Price, who was forced out last year amid sexual harassment allegations. Even prior to his ouster, Price’s creative decisions, management style, and creative track record had been sources of consternation in the creative community and his division’s rank and file.
“The most important thing for me is that people are ready to move on to a new chapter in a positive way and put the past behind,” Salke said. “People had a lot of different kinds of experiences here, and not all of them were positive. So it was nice to be able to encourage them, listen to them, talk to them, get to know them, and then say ‘Let’s move on.’”
A big part of moving on has been the reorganization of Amazon’s series programming team. In a new structure, the top television executive will report to unit co-heads Albert Cheng, who had been interim leader of Amazon Studios following Price’s departure, and Vernon Sanders, a former NBC executive who will come aboard next month. Salke said that she has been “really impressed with everyone” on the programming team, but indicated that she is not done making changes.
“My plan is over the course of the next three, six, seven, eight months, nine months, now that I have Vernon and Albert overseeing television, to really let them get in and go the deeper lengths into those teams and how they need to be structured,” Salke said. “And we’ll reassess at that point.” But, she added, “I don’t think anyone’s out to do anything disruptive or rash with the teams that are here. They’ve done great work.”
As Variety reported last year, the entertainment division’s strategy had become a source of concern for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who instructed that focus be shifted away from niche hour and half-hour series to broader entertainment offerings with global appeal. But Salke said she is under no marching orders from Seattle regarding programming.
“My interview with Jeff Bezos was really about people,” Salke said. “Nobody said, ‘This is a mandate.’”
She noted that both Bezos and Amazon’s business-development chief Jeff Blackburn, to whom she reports, are astute creative thinkers. And she said that one of her first orders of business was to dispel notions that Amazon was looking to dumb down its entertainment product to attract customers.
“I really wanted to correct early on in the community that the mandate isn’t ‘go broad,’” she said, adding that she had learned from her time at NBC, where the network struggled for years in comedy after declaring its intent to broaden its half-hour offerings — before eventually finding success with a diverse array of shows in the genre such as “Will & Grace,” “Superstore,” and “The Good Place.”
The cancellations earlier this year of a number of series championed by Price, including “Mozart in the Jungle,” “One Mississippi,” and “I Love Dick,” took place prior to Salke’s arrival.
“I was listening to the chatter too, and of course everybody’s assumptions about, ‘Oh, the network person’s coming and that falls in with the kind of criticism of these other shows,’” Salke said. “But the truth is we want to keep the bar for creative excellence at the highest level.”
Salke inherited a number of projects in the works, none bigger than a forthcoming series adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” the subject of a massive deal last year that Bezos involved himself personally in. According to Salke, that deal only officially closed last month. But Amazon has been meeting with writers. Salke herself spent three hours with Tolkien’s grandson Simon Tolkien, and the next step is for representatives of the Tolkien estate to meet with writers.
“It’s a partnership,” she said of Amazon’s deal with the estate. “They have some lines in the play on this on strategy and on vision. The great news about that is that they’re actually really thoughtful and smart, as you would expect.”
The Tolkien deal covers most, but not all of the material connected to the author’s Middle Earth saga. Salke said that it is still too early to say what shape, exactly, the series will take. But, she added, “It’s not a remaking of the movies, and it’s not a whole new thing. It’s something in between. It’s not, ‘Oh, it’s “Lord of the Rings” but you don’t recognize anything in it,’ but it’s not totally familiar to you either. So it’s original.”
Another key project, Matthew Weiner’s “The Romanoffs,” is tentatively slated for an October premiere. But that may change. “There are some discussions of timing that are underway right now,” Salke said. “But I’m hopeful for this year.”
During her interviews for the Amazon job, Salke said she raised what she saw as a shortcoming in Amazon’s programming slate — series aimed at women. She pointed to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” as a standout exception.
“I feel like the programming before wasn’t really geared toward shows that women would become addicted to and want to talk about and get excited about,” she said. “I kind of wondered, where’s our ‘Big Little Lies’? Where’s our ‘Handmaid’s Tale’?”
Salke indicated that there will be programming announcements forthcoming with high-profile female talent attached. She has moved quickly to begin bulking up Amazon’s creative bullpen, signing deals this month with a pair of Oscar winners — with Barry Jenkins to direct all episodes of his limited series adaptation of “Underground Railroad” and with Jordan Peele for a first-look TV agreement after picking up his project “The Hunt” to series.
On Monday, Amazon gave a series order to “Modern Love,” a series from filmmaker John Carney based on the New York Times column about love and human connection. The eight standalone episodes will be produced by Storied Media Group and the New York Times.
Amazon, Salke said, will not be afraid to invest in the escalating war for top-tier television creators that has seen uber-showrunners like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, and Greg Berlanti land nine-figure deals in recent months.
“I do feel pressure to go and build a stable of talented people here,” she said. “And I’m going to be aggressive about doing that. I don’t think this company is shy about partaking in one of those big bidding situations.” She warned, however, “there not that many of them that are at that level” when it comes to showrunners worth breaking the bank for. “It’s more about what can I personally and this company provide that can fill in the blanks,” she said.
As for Amazon’s film strategy under executives Jason Ropell and Ted Hope, who Salke now oversees, changes are also afoot.
“I think you’ll be seeing expansion over there,” Salke said. “I think we might not necessarily be making a ton more movies, but I think the way we make movies might evolve a little bit.”