Where Amazon Is Failing to Dominate: Hollywood

10/06/17 05:44 AM EDT
By Ben Fritz and Joe Flint 

On the Monday morning after Amazon.com Inc. failed to win a single prize at the Primetime Emmy Awards, one of its senior television executives gathered his dejected staff at their Los Angeles-area office for a pep talk.

While Amazon Studios went home empty-handed, its streaming rivals Hulu and Netflix Inc. won multiple awards. Additionally, Amazon had earlier passed on opportunities to bid on "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Big Little Lies," which won top awards that night, said people with knowledge of the sales process.

"Things are going to get better," said Joe Lewis, Amazon's head of comedy and drama, according to a person who was present at the meeting. He pledged he and other senior executives would "try and turn this ship around."

It was an acknowledgment that Amazon Studios has been stumbling when it comes to producing content that attracts audiences and buzz. The Hollywood arm of the online giant is pivoting away from dramas for adults but is struggling to define a new strategy, say people close to the company. It has alienated high-profile content creators, who say executives have proven incapable -- or unwilling -- to smooth out conflicts that inevitably crop up during the shooting of a television show. And questions about potential conflicts of interest on the part of Mr. Lewis and studio chief Roy Price have contributed to low employee morale, people at the company say.

Amazon Studios is taking steps to get back on track, such as developing shows intended to be more globally popular, cutting back children's programming and considering new leadership in its film unit, say people with knowledge of the matter.

Mr. Lewis and a lawyer for Mr. Price, Lisa Bloom, didn't respond to requests for comment.

When it started producing original video in a bid to attract and retain subscribers for its Prime service four years ago, Amazon boasted it wouldn't follow typical Hollywood practices such as relying on executives' creative instincts and would base programming decisions on data. But staffers say it has largely abandoned that approach.

"We were supposed to bring the best practices of one of the most successful companies in America to Hollywood," said an Amazon Studios executive. "Instead, we're getting chewed up."

Despite annual spending of about $4.5 billion to produce or acquire programming, Amazon Studios has had no hits on the scale of HBO's "Game of Thrones" or Netflix's "Stranger Things," said people at the company.

Even its most acclaimed shows draw relatively small audiences. Fewer than one million people have watched recent seasons of "Transparent," which won Emmys in 2015 and 2016, said an Amazon Studios employee.

Mr. Price recently admitted at a meeting with agents he had done too much "programming to Silver Lake," a hipster neighborhood in Los Angeles, said a person present.

Producers who have made shows for Amazon describe a chaotic environment.

"I'm a huge fan of the company overall, but their entertainment division is a bit of a gong show," said David E. Kelley, creator of "Goliath" and hit shows including "Big Little Lies," "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal." "They are in way over their heads."

Mr. Kelley left "Goliath," a drama about a hard-living lawyer, after the first season due to conflicts with Amazon and star Billy Bob Thornton over creative direction, according to people familiar with the matter. These people said Amazon wasn't supportive of the multi-Emmy winning Mr. Kelley, who would say only that he wouldn't work with Amazon again "until their entertainment house is put in order. Clyde Phillips, who succeeded Mr. Kelley as the show's top writer-producer, left for similar reasons, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

Shawn Ryan, who earlier created the award-winning police drama "The Shield," described his time at Amazon producing the canceled drama "Mad Dogs" as frustrating and confusing. Mr. Ryan said it was standard practice at other networks to receive one set of notes from executives a day after a cut of an episode was submitted. At Amazon, that process would often take more than a week and was followed by multiple requests for changes, he said, resulting in higher costs and delays.

Amazon's approach put "everything in chaos" and wasn't "artist friendly, " Mr. Ryan said.

Others have had more positive experiences. Kate Robin, the top writer-producer on the quirky comedy "One Mississippi," said that while there was more creative input from Amazon than she had expected, "ultimately we got to make the show we wanted to make." Ben Edlund, creator of superhero comedy "The Tick," called Amazon's support "liberating."

Messrs. Price and Lewis have played outsize roles in creative decisions, staffers say. On "The Tick," Mr. Lewis pressured people working on the show to cast his girlfriend, actress Yara Martinez, in the pilot and then to expand her role, said people close to the program.

Mr. Edlund said he didn't feel any pressure when casting Ms. Martinez or making her a series regular and didn't recall who brought the actress to his attention. A spokesman for Ms. Martinez, who previously appeared in Amazon's "Alphas" and "I Love Dick" as well as the CW Network's "Jane the Virgin," didn't respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Price last year encouraged subordinates to buy an idea for a series called "12 Parties" from his fiancée, Lila Feinberg, said Amazon Studios employees. Some at the company said they were uncomfortable because of the apparent conflict of interest and because they believed a character in the series resembled Mr. Price.

Like Mr. Price, the character Richard Forman is a middle-aged Harvard graduate who wears leather jackets and has a Black Flag tattoo, according to a series proposal viewed by The Wall Street Journal. His younger girlfriend, who like Ms. Feinberg is a writer from New York, is named "Lita."

Ms. Feinberg didn't respond to requests for comment.

After a conflict-of-interest review by Amazon's legal department, the studio declined to buy the script, people at the company said.

Amazon's motion-picture unit released the two biggest indie hits of the past year, Oscar winner "Manchester by the Sea" and "The Big Sick." However, it also released several movies that grossed less than $1 million before moving to Amazon's streaming service, including "Landline" and "The Only Living Boy in New York."

Mr. Price has interviewed at least two Hollywood veterans to potentially take over Amazon's motion-picture unit and broaden the types of films it makes beyond dramas, said people with knowledge of the discussions.

Amazon is looking to broaden its TV programming as well. It has a series based on the Jack Ryan spy novels and is developing shows based on books by science-fiction writers Neal Stephenson and Larry Niven. To help free up money for such programs, Amazon recently decided to stop producing new live-action shows for children, said people informed of the decision.

Finding massive global hits like "Game of Thrones" is a priority, Mr. Price's boss, Amazon Senior Vice President Jeffrey Blackburn, said at a conference on Monday. "We're increasing our investment in that type of original content," Mr. Blackburn said. "It's early days and we're learning."

Write to Ben Fritz at ben.fritz@wsj.com and Joe Flint at joe.flint@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 06, 2017 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)

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