Amazon Studios’ Reimagined Hollywood
A few years ago, no one was streaming new content from Amazon. But Roy Price is changing that, and in the process, Amazon Studios is racking up attention—and awards
By Tim Appelo
February 6, 2017
When the 89th Academy Awards gets underway on February 26, Roy Price is sure to be in the audience. And if early predictions are accurate, he will be anticipating a few awards for Manchester by the Sea, a film that’s been the smash hit at all four major North American film festivals this season. The film marks a huge comeback for auteur Kenneth Lonergan and stars Casey Affleck as a lost soul forced to face adopting his reluctant teenage nephew. (Academy Award nominations hadn’t been announced when this issue went to press.)
Price, 49, who until Amazon got hot in Hollywood resided in Laurelhurst, is chief of Amazon Studios—the arm of Jeff Bezos’ empire committed to revolutionizing entertainment, based partly in Seattle, but now mostly in its 85,000-square-foot Santa Monica production facility. Price’s team of renowned Hollywood execs, veterans responsible for more than 100 conventional prestige movies and blockbuster shows, makes and acquires original movies and TV shows, which are streamed on the company’s on-demand video service. Amazon Prime has an estimated 63 million subscribers; since it just expanded to 242 countries (up from five), it could exceed Netflix’s 75 million before you finish this sentence. And Manchester by the Sea is the first big Oscar contender for Price and Amazon Studios film chief Jason Ropell.
Even if Oscar snubs Amazon, its Hollywood profile is at an all-time high. Back in 1998, when Amazon first began selling DVDs, Hollywood studios literally refused to sell DVDs on the Internet. Now, Hollywood returns Amazon’s calls, and Price hires talents like directors Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Manchester producer Matt Damon.
Images, above and below, by Claire Folger/Amazon Studios
Above, Oscar-buzzed Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea‘s most emotionally intense scene; below, Affleck and Lucas Hedges
That’s a coup for Price, who started planning this Hollywood invasion in 2000, when he quit Disney after six years as VP of its animated series to be a digital media consultant. He then joined Amazon in 2004, and launched its video-on-demand service in 2008 and Amazon Studios in 2010. When archrival Netflix started making its own shows, such as 2013’s House of Cards, Price got the green light to launch Amazon Studios’ original programming. Netflix spends about $6 billion a year on more than 1,000 hours of original programming; Amazon’s production is ramping up sharply, but its attitude toward releasing numbers on its business is like the secretary who defies nosy killer Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men: “Did you not hear me? We can’t give out no information!”
Price is happily gobsmacked at how fast Amazon Studios has taken off. “Our first show [Garry Trudeau’s Alpha House] came out three years ago,” says Price, who has a mind as sharp as a bear trap beneath his jaunty, jolly, quirky personal manner.
Alpha House earned some applause, though no Emmys—something that changed in Amazon Studios’ second year, when it nabbed five awards in 2015 to Netflix’s four. Amazon Studios also won six Emmy Awards in 2016. Amazon’s first hits—Transparent, an excellent, noble, exquisitely trendy comedy-drama about a transsexual dad (Jeffrey Tambor), and Mozart in the Jungle, about a madcap orchestra conductor (Gael García Bernal)—won four Golden Globes in 2015 and 2016, plus an abundance of the industry’s other most prestigious prizes. At the 2017 Golden Globes, Amazon Studios also took home two awards: Billy Bob Thornton for his role in the Amazon Original drama, Goliath, and Casey Affleck for his role in Manchester by the Sea.
Price plays everything close to the vest, but these days, he doesn’t conceal his glee. His first time at bat in the Oscar race and he’s hit what could be a homer with Manchester by the Sea. “We only came out with one movie last year—we’ll have 15 this year,” says Price. And while he’s all smiles about Amazon’s entry into the movie world, his ambitions for television are only growing. He spent a reported $70 million for an eight-episode series from Mad Men creator Matt Weiner and $160 million for 16 episodes of a David O. Russell drama starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore. Amazon won’t say when those series will air.
Image by Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Prime Video
Jeffrey Tambor (center) in Transparent: “We are the little engine that could. We are Amazon,” he told The Wrap magazine
Amazon’s successes are catching the attention of many media watchers in Hollywood.
“As soon as Amazon entered the awards race, that scrappy media player zoomed to the front of the pack,” says Tom O’Neil, editor of the awards-prediction website Gold Derby. “Transparent won Best Comedy Actor for Jeffrey Tambor at the Emmys, the first time that a streaming service won a top Emmy category. Amazon not only proved that it was a serious player, but it’s playing for the long haul ahead.”
Amazon is betting big money—O’Neil estimates it’s over $2 million—on the Emmy and Oscar races, with a party that was thrown by Matt Damon and Jeff Bezos under a big tent at Bezos’ Beverly Hills mansion. Along with the best Scotch and shrimp on earth, the event was stocked with lots of stars: Bernal, Affleck, Joel Coen, Diane Keaton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julie Delpy and Transparent costar Jay Duplass (whose filmmaker brother, Mark Duplass, is close with Seattle’s top filmmaker, Lynn Shelton, and starred in her locally shot 2010 My Sister’s Sister).
Bezos spoke to Anne Thompson of the independent-film website IndieWire, who reports, “[Bezos] wants to build a brand that means taste and class, and the person he leans on for advice is pal Harvey Weinstein.” Weinstein is a legendary Hollywood mogul whose films have earned more than 300 Oscar nominations. The Hollywood Reporter notes that not since Weinstein’s 1999 battle for Shakespeare in Love against Saving Private Ryan has there been a dramatic Oscar contest like Amazon’s Manchester versus Netflix’s documentary 13th, by Selma director Ava DuVernay, another sizzling awards contender that could become Netflix’s fourth Oscar nominee.
“Amazon is following the same strategy that HBO pursued at the Emmys back when it was the new media kid in town,” explains O’Neil. “In the 1980s, HBO craved the approval of its peers and so campaigned aggressively to win Emmys…. Now HBO is the establishment and it’s facing hungry new foes like Amazon.” HBO, which dominated the Oscars and Emmys for two decades, didn’t make the Oscar documentary semifinalist list of 15 contenders this year; Netflix and Amazon did. Clearly, back in 2000, Price guessed right about the future of Internet entertainment.
Amazon’s digital video sales back in 2008 generated revenues comparable to that of a neighborhood Blockbuster store. How on earth did Roy Price and his team turn this sinking digital store into a rocket ship streaking to Emmy and Oscar glory?
It helped that he is Hollywood royalty. His mom was an actress, Katherine Crawford, who appeared on the 1970s Seattle-set show Here Come the Brides; his dad, Frank Price, ran Columbia and Universal studios; and his grandpa, Roy Huggins, created and produced breakthrough shows such as The Fugitive, The Rockford Files and Maverick.
Forever clad in jeans and a black leather jacket, Price can swim with Hollywood sharks, speak their upbeat lingo and also talk digital business jargon with the nerdiest of nerds. His parents tried to steer him away from too much showbiz, but after graduating from Harvard, Price attended the University of Southern California’s law school, worked as an assistant for an agent who wound up running Hollywood’s top talent shop, Creative Artists Agency, and went into the family business.
Image by Gianluca Pulcini/Amazon Prime Video
Gael García Bernal (right) in a scene from Mozart in the Jungle, which won an Emmy and Golden Globes for Best Performance and Best Comedy or Musical
Image by Todd Williamson/Getty Images
From left: Chloe Sevigny, Roy Price and Kate Beckinsale, of Love & Friendship, nominated in 2016 for SIFF, Gotham and Critics’ Choice awards
Price is irreverent, puckish and infinitely bolder than most Hollywood execs, who live in fear of making a mistake and getting fired. He takes entertainment seriously—he knows the art side as well as the business—but he isn’t self-important. The Disney film The Barefoot Executive, about a chimp who’s a genius at picking TV hits, is one of his favorites. “That is an awesome, awesome movie,” says Price, who loves to monkey with Hollywood tradition. “You’re not going to find the most interesting new show on TV by being easily put off by risk,” he says. “You have to be sort of bold. In today’s competitive environment, the conservative path is the riskiest path.”
Price evidently doesn’t need a chimp to pick hits. Like his forebears, he is a maverick with an analytical streak. His grandpa’s show The Fugitive, which became a $369 million movie, broke all the rules of its day. “Every network passed on The Fugitive at least once—you couldn’t have a guy wanted for murder as your protagonist! The whole concept was offensive! But it was a huge hit, and the offbeat protagonist has become very popular.”
Offbeat protagonists are the foundation of Price’s empire: trans dads, madcap orchestra conductors in the jungle, Nazis running half of America in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, the Vietnam-era writer who sells out his talent in Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes. Transparent is as daring in our day as The Fugitive was in the ‘60s.
Price doesn’t fret about industry headlines, which note that shows by Netflix, FX, HBO and Hulu often get more viewers than Amazon. Although he’s in competition with traditional studios for viewers in theaters, on TV and on devices, he’s in a different position, because Amazon’s business model is unique. He needs to grow viewership, but he doesn’t make money from ads whose prices are based on ratings, which (natch!) Amazon won’t disclose.
Instead, he must grow membership in Amazon Prime, a service that costs Amazon customers $99 a year, for which they get free two-day shipping on Amazon purchases, unlimited photo storage and streaming of all the Amazon shows they can watch. Analysts say Price drove much of Amazon’s 53 percent growth in Prime membership in 2015. Prime members effectively subsidize all the shows Price is busy creating, whether or not those members watch the shows.
More important than ratings is converting casual customers into Amazon Prime members (who buy three times as much from Amazon as non-Prime customers), and breaking through the noise of the vast landscape of entertainment options. “You’ve got to make it interesting and worthwhile and buzzworthy to stand out in a crowded market,” says Price.
“What you’re really looking for,” he continues, “is that really ambitious, completely addictive, binge-worthy show that’s in the top 20 or 10—or one—that people are talking about. In 1977, you could get a lot out of a show that simply retained the audience of a previous show. But today it’s on demand—they have to demand it. So you’ve got to earn that.”
Audience habits are changing at warp speed, something Price and boss Bezos, who devotes serious time to Amazon Studios, are obviously factoring into their plans. Most Hollywood programming lives or dies by ratings and first-weekend grosses, but Bezos and Price play a longer game. Their goal is to retain audiences for years, not weekends, and they have the benefit of the world’s largest database of customer behavior.
Instead of relying on Nielsen polls of viewers (who can lie about what they watch and are increasingly hard to reach as people ditch their landlines), Amazon and its tech rivals can tell exactly what their customers are watching, and algorithms tell an informative story about particular products those customers might like. Netflix mined data showing its customers loved the original British House of Cards and actor Kevin Spacey before shelling out $100 million for the U.S. version; nonetheless, Amazon has even more customers and data (though maybe not more streaming customers—yet). These game changers are making Hollywood nimbler, less irrationally traditional, more customer-driven. Cable companies give you channels you don’t want; Amazon, ever more cleverly, gives you what you do want.
“The key question is whether the ability of Amazon and Netflix to observe individual customer behavior gives them an advantage over broadcasters’ Nielsen survey data,” says Michael D. Smith, a Carnegie Mellon University professor and author of Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment, “and so far, the answer seems to be ‘yes.’ As Amazon and Netflix emerge as competitors, it will be interesting to see whether Amazon’s ability to observe both retail purchase data and video views gives them an advantage over Netflix’s video-only data—and the jury is still out on that one.”
There is also no telling what else Bezos will take over now. But we do know the best-selling bio about him is titled The Everything Store, and his original name for Amazon was “Relentless.com.”
An Oscar could provide a different type of boost in visibility. Guests at last December’s Manchester by the Sea Oscar campaign party say that Price and Bezos’ hunger for the gold doll—startlingly heavy, if you’ve never held one before—is absolutely palpable. Many, maybe most, people have no idea that Amazon is in the movie and TV business. If a $2 million Oscar campaign can catch the eye of 300 Academy members, it could produce a nomination for a movie that might then be watched by 1 billion people. Even for the famously frugal Bezos, whose execs fly coach, that’s worth $2 million.
But Oscars aside, Price will only confess to one unfulfilled ambition: “I wish I could find that monkey from The Barefoot Executive.”