Amazon’s Prime Video is going big with fall TV, launching the most expensive TV series in history, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” and taking full control of NFL’s “Thursday Night Football.” But on the film side, things are a little less groundbreaking and more in flux as the industry waits to see what the e-commerce giant plans to do with MGM and which top movie-studio exec Amazon will select to run its film business.
Among those whom Variety hears Amazon has spoken with in recent weeks are Netflix film chief Scott Stuber, Paramount Pictures alum Emma Watts and Warner Bros. vet Toby Emmerich. But according to multiple sources familiar with the matter, though Amazon “loved” Watts and doesn’t see Stuber as being interested in this type of role, deliberations are far from over and Amazon still has distance to go before the top film exec is chosen. Word of Stuber and Watts’ discussions with Amazon was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
“There’s been so much bloodletting in the streaming wars that it’s really a question of how much appetite and financial power a company has,” Peter Newman, head of NYU’s MBA/MFA dual degree program, says. “In the case of Amazon, obviously, they have financial might. They haven’t had a cogent plan for what they are doing with it.”
He says Amazon’s streaming has always been seen as an addendum to the rest of its business plan — and it “could at any point in time decide to step on the accelerator,” noting the company is considering high-profile film industry execs at a time when competitors are scaling back. “It’s anyone’s guess, but if they were to hire a high-profile executive that is well known and has access to talent in the feature film area, that’s what would signal that they’re ready to take a shot at it.”
Insiders at Amazon say that although it’s yet to be determined whether this new exec would report to Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke or to Mike Hopkins, senior vice president of Prime Video and Amazon Studios, the most likely scenario is that the incoming hire would report to NBC vet Salke rather than to her boss, a Sony alum.
“It takes a unique personality and a unique executive to be able to cross over and to play the media game in the Amazon world,” one source tells Variety. “Jen did it beautifully and Mike has done it beautifully. I don’t think certain industry people can do it.”
In April, MGM film chiefs Mike De Luca and Pam Abdy placed themselves in the “can’t do it” group by exiting the studio upon the close of transaction of Amazon’s $8.5 billion purchase of MGM.
“It was so far off they had no idea what the structure was going to look like,” the insider observes. “I believe they departed because they believed Amazon is really strict with its due diligence and modeling, and one would have to ask about a lot of those movies that they made then. Would they have been greenlit in the Amazon world? Probably not.”
Salke is working with a budget of $8 billion to $10 billion for all of Amazon Studios, sources point out, while the former MGM execs were used to having $300 million to $400 million at their disposal as the leaders at the “James Bond” studio. However, they have since joined Warner Bros. Discovery as the heads of its film department, where they are working with a much bigger budget.
Right now, Amazon has “the luxury of time” when it comes to picking its film chief because the rest of the 2022 slate is set, and some things are even “locked and loaded” for next year, sources tell Variety, adding that head of Prime Video movies Julie Rapaport is working very closely with the MGM team to keep things on track.
“They’re not moving slowly — they’re moving smartly,” one source says. “First you figure out what you need, and then you figure out who you need.”
Meanwhile, Amazon’s investments in producing and marketing both “Rings of Power” and “Thursday Night Football,” not to mention its acquisition of MGM, “come at a time when peers are moderating con- tent spend growth, with Disney indicating largely flat cash content spend over the next couple of years and Netflix indicating it intends to moderate growth in content expense,” Morgan Stanley equity analyst Brian Nowak wrote in an Aug. 14 research note.
And Prime Video is a wise place for Amazon to keep investing. “With 175 million Prime Members using Prime Video, it has become an integral part of the Prime offering, driving both customer retention and acquisition,” Nowak wrote, adding that, per AlphaWise U.S. surveys, Amazon’s streamer is the No. 2 “most important” reason that consumers subscribe to Prime, with the top being free two-day shipping.
Is there a film exec who could come in and help push Prime Video into that No. 1 slot, above offering the ability to get almost anything shipped to you in a speedy manner? Maybe not, but it doesn’t have to decide overnight.