Amazon’s Mike Hopkins Hire Signals Company’s Enhanced Commitment to Entertainment

Mike Hopkins, Chairman, Sony Pictures Television, photographed at the PMC offices in Los Angeles, March 3, 2019 - photographed by Dan Doperalski
Dan Doperalski for Variety

In a sign that Amazon is enmeshing itself even further into the entertainment industry, Jeff Bezos is adding one of Hollywood’s own to his inner circle.

Mike Hopkins, Sony Pictures Television’s chairman of the past two and a half years, is decamping from the studio to become senior vice president of Prime Video and Amazon Studios on Feb. 24, reporting directly to Bezos, the chairman and CEO of the tech behemoth. Hopkins will effectively be the highest-ranked industry player at the company.

In hiring Hopkins, Amazon is telegraphing “that we are serious about this, we are investing in it — and we want the best players to come work with us,” says Peter Csathy, founder of consulting and investment firm Creatv Media. Hopkins is “a brand name in the streaming business, and that alone brings credibility.”

With a long career that includes four years as CEO of Hulu along with time spent as president of distribution for Fox Networks, Hopkins is well equipped with industry knowledge of entertainment distribution and streaming platforms. It’s understood that Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke will continue to lead all creative operations in the same capacity as before, reporting to Hopkins, while Hopkins is expected to focus on the business end, exploring opportunities for the global expansion of Prime Video Channels and other forms of distribution.

The new role also means that Hopkins is now on Bezos’ elite S-team, the exclusive group of 20 or so senior executives who lead Amazon’s multitude of divisions.

Hopkins is stepping into the role previously occupied by top Amazon exec Jeff Blackburn, the company’s senior vice president of business development who oversees all streaming efforts, though it’s understood that he will take up only Blackburn’s entertainment and streaming-related responsibilities. The non-entertainment parts of Blackburn’s vast portfolio have already been shifted to other execs, per a source familiar with the situation.

Blackburn had previously announced plans to embark on a yearlong sabbatical early in 2020, with the intent to return in 2021, though it’s unclear whether those plans have changed. If he does return to the fold, he’s likely to occupy a different role.

Bezos, who attended this year’s Oscars and good-naturedly chuckled at Chris Rock’s barbed jokes about his divorce, for years has appeared to relish rubbing elbows with entertainment types. Now he’s looking to crank up the heat on Amazon’s bid to take an even bigger bite of the home-entertainment pie.

“In the streaming arms race, especially with Apple aggressively looking to hire talent, we would characterize Amazon’s Hopkins hire as a home run addition,” says Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives.

In announcing fourth-quarter earnings, Bezos touted that Amazon Studios originals received 88 nominations and 26 wins in major awards competitions (it came up empty at the Oscars this year, after scoring only one nomination, for “Les Misérables” in the international film category).

Hopkins will have a global purview at Amazon, which last month said it had surpassed 150 million Prime members, though it’s unknown (outside of Amazon itself) how many of those actually watch Prime Video’s streaming content.

Some analysts estimate 90 million of those Prime subscribers are in the U.S. — theoretically giving it a broader reach in the streaming space than Netflix, which has 61 million U.S. subscribers. (Netflix still outpaces Amazon in total global subscribers, however, with 167 million.)

When he ran Hulu, Hopkins oversaw the launch of the streamer’s live TV service. Disney, which now controls Hulu, says Hulu had 3.2 million linear TV subscribers at the end of 2019, nearly doubling from the year before. (Hulu has 30.4 million total subscribers.) Given Hopkins’ background in creating an over-the-top TV product from scratch, his coming to Amazon may signal that the Seattle giant is hoping to muscle its way into competing in pay TV in a bigger and bolder way.

Amazon’s Prime Video business has always been engineered to drive up paying Prime members, who buy more products and services than non-members.

Now, with Hopkins’ hire signaling that Amazon is upping the ante in entertainment, observers speculatethat it might look to buy its way into the theater business, pointing to its $13.7 billion deal in 2017 to buy Whole Foods and some 500 stores.

“It seems logical that Amazon could get into the theater business, because it’s all about a 360-degree strategy with them — they want to touch consumers everywhere,” says Csathy. Moreover, he points out, “getting into theatrical will also endear them to the creative community.”

Hopkins’ hire “appears to further underscore Amazon’s commitment as an increasingly bona fide player within the higher echelons of the entertainment universe — perhaps not coincidentally coming at a time of intensifying streaming wars,” says CFRA Research media and entertainment analyst Tuna Amobi. It also shows that the war for talent “is playing out not just within the creative trenches but across the C-suites as well.”