Spring 2014

Original Thinking

By monitoring what his vast viewership wants to see, Amazon Studios head Roy Price is creating original series for the Internet Age.

Roy Price1. Amazon Studios ventured into original programming last year with two series, Betas and Alpha House, and you’ve announced 10 more pilots. How does your development process work?

We have sort of a hybrid process. We do development in the traditional way—meaning we interact with writers, producers, agents, managers and so on. But also, anyone who wants to can upload a pilot script to our website, and we will read those as well. We’ve launched 24 pilots and two of those came from the website, which is about eight percent. So we’re happy that we have that source as well.

2. How do you decide which projects to move from pitch to pilot?

We look at a couple of things. One is the kind of shows our Amazon customers are responding to; we develop projects with that in mind. Some of them already come in script form, some we develop from scratch. Then, using our audience as the guide, we develop pilot scripts and produce pilots. We put the pilots up on Amazon.com, and on Lovefilm in the UK, so they have a public, international launch. We take into account the feedback of our audience, and pick some shows [to go on Amazon Prime]. Traditional networks do research and have input from focus groups, so in a way our method is similar. It just takes place in public and our feedback is somewhat larger scale, but the goal is the same.

3. Netflix has made all episodes of their original series available on the same day. How does your distribution model differ from that?

That’s an interesting issue. There’s a period of time when the studio is getting episodes from the producers— let’s say that’s nine weeks. The question is what should you do during that time? You can release the episodes one by one like regular TV, or you can withhold the episodes so no one can watch them until they view every single episode. There’s also a middle route: once you have three or four episodes you release those, then wait until you have a few more and release those as quickly as you can. That’s what we did last season. We thought we might as well get the show out to customers—the sooner the better. I think that worked pretty well, but we’re not religious about it. We might try other ways. We could launch with one, or three, or five, or all of them—but there is no scenario in which we would have all 10 episodes ready to go and eke them out once a week. That’s not how it works.

4. What’s the attraction of Amazon shows to the creative community and directors in particular?

We don’t have a huge bureaucracy, and I think people appreciate being able to go make the show they want. I think that’s probably what the directors would cite as being part of the appeal. We have a smaller staff, so we don’t have a lot of time for instruction. It’s best for people to show up knowing what they want to do and having a vision for a great show. We’re kind of matchmaking between talented people and an audience that really wants to see what they’re doing. Our job is more putting them together rather than telling somebody how to make a TV show.

5. What about the budget and shooting schedule? Is that similar to more traditionally produced shows?

I think what people find is that the budgets are good and the schedules are permissive. We’re a little more flexible on schedules in terms of when we need the show. You want to shoot in March, or April? We could probably work that out. It’s not that we have a particular day that we absolutely have to have a show. Our shooting schedule is definitely not faster; you won’t have fewer days. I’m not saying we’re only going to shoot two pages a day, but I think it would be comparable to a premium cable show.

6. You seem to be working with established directors as well as newcomers. Are any of your projects director driven?

Well, Michael Lehmann was in on the beginning of Betas. Chris Carter directed his pilot for The After, and Jill Soloway directed her recent pilot, Afternoon Delight. We really are looking for a vision, so we probably do have more director-writer projects than a typical network. For example, I would say that Lehmann on Betas and Paul Weitz on Mozart in the Jungle have made tremendous contributions to their shows. They may not have originated the show, but they played a very significant role.

7. Do you see director-producers flourishing in this format?

I think people appreciate a cinematic feel, a distinctive look, and texture for a particular show. It’s partly about the characters, partly about the script, but it’s also about the direction—bringing it to life and making it a show. With these cinematic serials, if you have a director who’s also a producer and remains involved with the show after the pilot in a significant way, then that is especially helpful in this context. You really are trying to put something together that has a unique feeling and keeps its tone from week to week.

8. Is there an afterlife or a secondary market for the Amazon programming beyond what you do with it?

I hope so—that’s our intent. Obviously, we want first run, that’s why we’re doing this. We want the shows to help make Amazon Prime special, but after a period of time, we want the shows to be broadly known and we’d love to have the economics work well and defray the investment in the show. So if there are second-run U.S. opportunities, we’ll definitely be pursuing those, as well as foreign and, of course, DVD and electronic sell-through.

9. Do you see what Amazon and other Internet companies are doing in creating original digital programming as complementary or competitive with traditional television?

There’s a lot of TV out there and we’re just one provider of original content. I don’t see it as something that is particularly competitive or disconcerting for traditional networks. This isn’t 1967 when there are two shows on TV at the same time and viewers either watch my show or they watch your show. In this contemporary world, the dynamics are not the same. I think people can actually watch both shows and in a lot of cases, they will. So making the pie bigger.

10. Where do you see this whole arena of original Internet programming going?

I think it’s really liberating; there aren’t a lot of rules in this environment. There’s really only one rule: create programming that customers love and respond to. That opens up all kinds of opportunities in terms of format, and tone, and what shows should be about. To some extent that has been going on for a little while, but it has sharpened now in an on-demand environment. There’s a call for worlds that are distinctive, specific, and compelling. There is a somewhat different dynamic and I’m sure it will bring some really new and interesting things to television and the entertainment world. I just don’t know yet exactly what they will be. I think this is just the beginning—it’s going to be a very interesting ride that is just getting started.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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