Valued at nearly $1 trillion, Amazon is one of the most powerful companies in the world. The Seattle-based retail giant employs over 600,000 people and operates 100 sortation and fulfillment centers in North America, sometimes sending out as many as 1 million items per day to customers. But Amazon does more than just retail. Amazon publishes its own books and comics, finances TV shows and movies, operates a Texas wind farm, builds robots, streams music, delivers prescription medications, and operates web services for everyone from Medium to the CIA. And that’s not even counting its high-profile acquisitions, which include Twitch, IMDB, Zappos, and Whole Foods, among countless others.
Nearly all of us use Amazon, one way or another. But what is it like working inside the beast? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing you stories from workers at every level of the Amazon empire to find out.
Welcome to The Amazon Diaries.
In 2010, Amazon launched Amazon Studios, a film and television company to churn out content targeted at Amazon Prime members—one of a growing list of incentives to keep subscribers in the Amazon ecosystem. “It’s servicing not the audience as much as the Prime member, who is there to buy all their products on Amazon,” said a director on an early Amazon Prime show, who recently spoke to OneZero on the condition of anonymity. “It’s meant to sell more Prime memberships.”
Or, as Jeff Bezos put it in 2016, “When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes.”
In 2018, Amazon’s content budget was reportedly somewhere between $5-6 billion, up from $4.5 billion the previous year. According to data from Ampere Analysis, Amazon has produced 80 original television shows with 97 more coming down the pike—just one of many signs that the company is going all in on film and TV. In 2017, Amazon began moving its entire Los Angeles operation, including Amazon Studios, IMDb, Amazon Video, and World Wide Advertising, into Hollywood’s historic Culver Studios—where Citizen Kane was filmed—and in the past two years, it has signed first-look contracts with Nicole Kidman, Jordan Peele, Robert Kirkman, Jill Soloway, and Barry Jenkins, among others. Those A-list partnerships are paying off: Amazon won Oscars for Manchester by the Sea and The Salesman in 2017 and received 15 nominations and won in eight categories at last year’s Emmys.
For the last seven years, Amazon has set its sights on top-tier content—and is still looking for its Game of Thrones moment. In 2018, the company hired NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke to replace the ousted studio head Roy Price. Salke’s been retooling Amazon Studios to better compete with Netflix, spending a record $46 million acquiring the distribution rights for four different movies at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. “Coming from traditional TV, I was very clear what my report card was. It was ratings. It was advertising dollars, and then whatever we could sell to Netflix,” Salke said recently. “Here, it’s basically, how are you enhancing Prime membership, and how are you bringing new subscribers to Prime?”
It had been a few years since the director I spoke to worked for Amazon. Previously, she’d directed on a handful of short films and television shows overseas, but Amazon gave her her first director’s credits in Hollywood—in fact, they made her eligible to join the Directors Guild of America, a film industry union. She remembered the experience of working for Amazon, even if she was ambivalent about the company’s growing hegemony: “I’m terrified that they bought Whole Foods.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell me how you came to direct on an Amazon show?
It’s funny, at the start [in 2014], when I was telling people I was directing for an Amazon show, no one knew they were doing television, and it was a little bit embarrassing. I was like, “No, they’re doing something exciting!” That was funny to have that experience. I’m certainly very proud, given what they’ve gone on to build. They came out swinging in terms of building a prestigious brand, and they have the money to back that.
I think it’s important that they actually went out of their way to break in a bunch of first-time directors. It wasn’t just me. I wasn’t just the token female director. They were giving a lot of us breaks, and we were doing really great work. We delivered.
If Amazon is throwing money around taking chances on up-and-coming folks, is that pushing aside indie production companies or more niche production companies?
No, I don’t think that’s the case. They gave us [the interviewee and another first-time director] our first breaks in television, but we were surrounded by a bunch of guys who had done a lot of TV. That was just the head of the department at the time being even-minded and looking at breaking new people in while also bolstering shows with experienced people who could deliver.
In fact, when we went and worked on indie things [after the Amazon show], we helped bolster those projects—other web series, shorts, digital content. It just made us stronger. It didn’t take us out of the indie market.
Honestly, I think Amazon’s been really good for that ecosystem, for the entertainment industry. That might just be down to the personalities in charge, making those choices. It could have gone another way. It could have become like a weird, fast food company and really lowered, dumbed down what they were making, but they chose to make really thoughtful, smart, beautiful content like Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is an incredible show. One Mississippi is beautiful. But it could have gone another way. [Amazon canceled One Mississippi in 2018.]
Was directing an Amazon show different from if it had been produced elsewhere?
Each network and studio is always going to be different. I noticed at Amazon more than other studios that it was much more collaborative. There seemed to be a process. I could tell the studio executives evaluated each other on their work, which kind of led to accountability. They’re very willing to disagree, which is a fantastic culture when you’re creating something. Sometimes in television and movies, there is a tendency just to agree and everybody to jump on the bandwagon.
I noticed that with the Amazon execs, it was healthy disagreement. It was respectful, which actually led to really great work. I was much more excited working with Amazon executives than I have been on other shows with other studio people who didn’t seem to care. The Amazon people seemed to care, and they were very smart. I noticed that Amazon hired brilliant executives from all over the place. They were building something prestigious. I think it comes across in their work.
Are different streaming production companies interested in different kinds of content?
Amazon is considered to have the premium shows. You would group Amazon, HBO, and AMC together. They win awards; they’re highly accoladed. It’s not about genre; it’s about the budget, the quality of the script, the writer, the team. They’re going for tastemakers; they’re going for award-winning things. They’re going for critically acclaimed work that isn’t necessarily broad in its appeal, but is actually quite specific. Have you seen Patriot? Patriot’s fucking incredible, and it’s really weird. They can be edgier and bolder, and we see that in the content they’re making.
In what sense?
The more cautious model is network television, [which is] not in service to the audience, [but rather] in service to the advertisers. They’re trying to sell shows that a juice company will want to advertise [with] or a soft drink company, that other brands will want to be associated with that show. [On network TV], you see broader comedy—they want to appeal to the masses, they want to create shows that more eyes will watch because they’re making more for their commercial spots.
How has competition between the different streaming studios played out for people who actually work in the industry?
I think it’s to creators’ advantage at the moment. It’s a content-hungry environment, so content creators have more of a choice for what to do. It’s a really productive time.
We are seeing younger showrunners, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Say, someone creates a show and then they get to helm it, but they don’t necessarily have runs on the board; they haven’t been in a writers room very much. There are so many shows, and there are only so many experienced people who have the proper chops to run a show.
One early instance of Amazon using its platform to diverge from traditional film and television studios was allowing audiences to vote on pilot episodes. As a creative, how did that make you feel?
Well, I’ve always made work that has a broad appeal to audiences. I like the model, given that the alternative is a network trying to pick who’s gonna get the most ads.
There is something that irked me about it initially, but then sometimes there would be an exception. Transparent actually was an exception—it did not win its vote. Amazon did have the right to overrule it and go, “Well, we know this is special, and we’re onto something here, so we’re going to green-light this.” It’s like there seems to be some good checks and balances in place to make sure that good content was coming up through the ranks. If it weren’t for that Transparent story, I’d be a little worried about the model.
Amazon has certain capacities that a conventional studio does not. They control an enormous amount of data nobody else has. Do you worry they might use that data to just show us more of what they’ve decided we want to watch?
To be honest, talking just purely as a creative and not thinking about how else they might use that information, I’m very cool with it. Because what I really don’t like is network television, which is all about catering not to the audience but to the advertiser. That’s scarier to me. HBO is so successful because it never had to cater to advertisers. It only had to cater to its audience, who was paying them directly to not have ads. Amazon is more audience-focused than advertiser-focused.
I think we have a really toxic network television system—all that content is suffocating. It’s really hard to direct, it’s really hard to work on and to work with studios. Shows have to go to all of the advertisers and do a song-and-dance for them at the beginning of every year so these people buy ad space on their shows. That’s scarier.
So, no, I’m not scared of Amazon looking at what audiences want. At all.