Four months after former NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke was named Amazon Studios head in one of the most scrutinized and public executive searches ever conducted, she is settling into her new office in the famous Gone with the Wind mansion at Culver Studios.
It’s been a time of profound changes at Amazon Studios, which was rocked by a scandal last fall when original head Roy Price exited amid allegations of sexual harassment, followed by his top TV lieutenant, Joe Lewis. The company’s TV division had just signaled a major programming shift away from smaller shows with narrow appeal in favor of big, global genre hits of the size of Game Of Thrones, a directive reportedly coming directly from Amazon topper Jeff Bezos. The bulk of the platform’s series were canceled, leaving only the biggest ones, led by dramas Man In the High Castle and Bosch and award-winning comedies Transparent, which was hit by its own controversy that led to the exit of star Jeffrey Tambor over sexual harassment allegations, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. At the same time, Amazon flexed its financial muscle by landing a Lord Of the Rings TV series in a blockbuster rights deal believed to be close to $250 million.
Now Amazon Studios is entering a new phase with an almost clean slate, new leadership in Salke, the first woman to lead a major SVOD platform, and new co-heads of television, Vernon Sanders and Albert Cheng, as well as new Culver Studios digs, which Amazon Studios rented for the next decade. Salke already has started putting her stamp, signing a first-look TV deal with Get Out‘s Jordan Peele and greenlighting his series The Hunt, along with Underground Railroad, with Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins directing all 11 episodes.
In an interview with Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva and Mike Fleming Jr., Salke discusses her programming strategy and the escalating arm race for talent that has led to a slew of eight-figure overall deals over the last few months, for Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes at Netflix and for Greg Berlanti at Warner Bros. TV. She also talks about Amazon’s The Lord Of the Rings series and a possible Peter Jackson involvement, the plans of how to end Transparent, and the status of freshman series The Dangerous Book For Boys and projects in development The Wheel of Time and The Dark Tower. She also addresses the prospects of Amazon’s pilot model and multi-cam comedy and unveils a shift from tween to young adult programming.
DEADLINE: Just before the regime change, there was an indication of a change in programming direction towards big-budget, genre drama seres. Is this still the course, is comedy still a priority, and what kind of shows do you want to do at Amazon?
SALKE: It’s funny. Coming in and through all my interviews, nobody told me there was a mandate or this is what it had to be. I do think everybody wants to be more successful, to have more eyes on our shows, to create a more addictive kind of stories and be able to serve the customers of Amazon Prime to the best ability. You definitely had Jeff Bezos say something about Game of Thrones, and we’ve definitely made the Lord of the Rings deal, and there were definitely some shows that were smaller that were cancelled. So, I see how that narrative all came together, but the truth is, like what I’ve always done, we’re going to create a home for talent, we’re going to curate deals and talent here, and we want to be across all platforms of genre.
We have a strong pipeline for genre, including Lord of the Rings and sci-fi material, a lot of that is in the works. We have comedy slate, yes. I think we’re a little bit missing on addictive female (dramas). I would say instead of where’s our Game of Thrones, where’s our Big Little Lies, where’s our new Handmaid’s Tale, what are those shows that can culturally break through but feel original and are very addictive. So, you’re going to see a lot of that coming through the pipeline. I have a couple more big announcements beyond Jordan Peele and Barry Jenkins to make in the coming days. I think you’ll see a variety, and I think the common denominator will be original, high-execution, entertaining; those kind of qualities that I’ve always been associated with, the things I love most. You can still have a show that’s original and award-worthy and also invite a lot of people in, like This is Us, Glee, Modern Family, or even shows like The Blacklist (all series Salke worked on while she was at NBC and before that at 20th TV) and breakout performances of someone like James Spader. So, I don’t think there’s any one sort of rule.
But I do think we’ll have a bigger slate, that will be more attention-getting.
DEADLINE: You said a bigger slate. Will Amazon’s volume go up to get closer to Netflix’s?
SALKE: No. I think we’re not going to be in that kind of volume game. I think it’s just about widening and bringing in as many kind of passionate core viewers as we can, and I don’t think you can please everybody. We all know in the creative community that “broad” is sort of a bad word, and that’s not what we’re doing. Thinking back to the comedy strategy at NBC and the like, you’re going to go broad on all those shows, like that comedy with the monkey (Animal Practice). I think that was a helpful lesson to talk about here with the company, and we’re not going broad.
I think we have to keep the bar excellent. You can’t go big and go irrelevant. You need to do something that’s exciting and relevant to a core audience, and that’s the best way to capture success, I think. So, that’s what we’re doing. Volume-wise, I think we’re going to provide something different than what our competitors or at least what Netflix is doing. I appreciate them, and I’m a fan, but we’re going to try to create a more of what’s best of the traditional home for talent where you have all these opportunities across film, digital, series, alternative, limited series, and everything in between to be able to explore here.
But you’ll also be able to have a creative and strategic partner with people and emotional connection to people, and if you know two things about me is, I’m known for my management style, which is very inclusive and nurturing and has been, I think, successful and helped lead to success, but also the idea that I build close relationships with creators, where you can really roll up your sleeves and be involved, creatively, in all of the best supportive ways and none of the over-involved, negative ways, but build real relationships where the creator actually trusts you to be someone to help them as they build their shows.
DEADLINE: The Lord of the Rings series. Have you locked in writers for that yet?
SALKE: Despite all the noise around Lord of the Rings, the deal only closed like a month ago. But in the meantime, I’ve sat with Simon Tolkien for a couple of hours, and (Amazon TV executive) Sharon (Tal Yguado) has spent tons of time with them. She had spent the last couple of months meeting anyone who had said, I’m really passionate about it and I want to get in and talk about the show and what’s possible. I think you’ll see us honing in on a strategy in the next month, which might involve a group of writers. Clearly, there’ll be someone in charge, but it involves the estate and Peter Jackson, and there’s a lot of conversations.
DEADLINE: Is Peter Jackson involved in the series?
SALKE: The Peter Jackson conversations, right now we’re right in the middle of them. It’s like, how much do you want to be involved, how little? I know there’s been some discussion, and he’s even said some things, but as far as I’m aware, the latest is that we’re just in a conversation with him about how much or how little he would be involved.
DEADLINE: Are you working on one Lord of the Rings series or multiple ones?
SALKE: One. At the moment, one big series.
DEADLINE: With the same characters as the movies?
SALKE: I think you can know that we’re not remaking the movies, but we’re also not starting from scratch. So, it’ll be characters you love.
DEADLINE: For example?
SALKE: I can’t give that out, I don’t have anything for it.
DEADLINE: Where will you shoot the series? Peter Jackson has got his whole Middle Earth built in New Zealand.
SALKE: I think we might be in New Zealand. I don’t know, but we’re going to have to go somewhere interesting that could provide those locations in a really authentic way, because we want it to look incredible. There’s no shortage of ambition for the project. We’ll go where we need to go to make it happen.
DEADLINE: What is the status of other high-profile genre projects that have been in early development at Amazon or stuck in deal-making limbo for a long time, The Wheel of Time (based on the fantasy books), and The Dark Tower, (based on the book and the movie)?
SALKE: Those are scripts that I haven’t gotten yet. I’ll be seeing those, that material, in the coming weeks. None of those things are dead. They’re very much alive.
DEADLINE: Dealing with the Jeffrey Tambor controversy on Transparent was one of the first orders of business for you at Amazon. How was it handling that and is this going to be the series’ final season?
SALKE: Within days of my new job being announced, I spent hours with (Transparent creator) Jill (Soloway), who I knew, and we talked a lot about what she wanted to do and where everybody was creatively with the season. Right now we’re in a place where she’s taking a little bit of time, figuring out what she thinks that final season will be, and then we’re going to talk in September about what the plan will be. I do think there’ll be some version of a season five, but that’s not decided, and what form it takes is also undecided. Is it a full series? Is it four episodes? Is it a movie? Those conversations are literally all going on and have been set aside for a month, because she and I decided that. She’s got a full slate of other things she’s focused on.
DEADLINE: And definitely no Jeffrey Tambor, correct?
SALKE: I’ve never heard anything about it. No, no Tambor.
DEADLINE: Amazon has several major overall/first-look deals but the race for talent has gone to stratospheric heights money-wise in the past nine months. Is Amazon ready to compete? Would you make a $100 million-dollar overall deal?
SALKE: Absolutely. Before I came here, they were competing in well over that for Ryan (Murphy)’s deal. So, for sure, no question. If Jordan Peele was available (in features) and could’ve had an exclusive all-over deal, we would’ve stood up and paid for that. So, I don’t think there’s any shortage of resources to support talent deals here, at all. I think it’s about being strategic and selective about who those people are, and you’ll see that anyone that I make a deal with, for the most part, has one thing in common. They all want to break out and be original. They want a cultural impact, and they want to be entertaining. They’re not looking to do something small. They want a lot of eyeballs on it. So, there’s a certain amount of ambition but also original voice and purity of vision and voice that these deals have.
There’s not that many people like that, the Ryans and the Jordans. They’re not everywhere, and then I think there’s a whole level of talent in-between that would benefit from the kind of partnership that we can offer that would be much more traditional, like the ones I know, where you sit and actually strategize – what do we want to do, what are you interested in, and you help them build what can become a hit show. Many things I’ve been involved with that became very successful came out of that process.
Now that all these huge mega deals are out there, it’s that tier underneath that’s like, well, what about me, where’s mine, and then everyone else starts to feel really small. It’s a time right now where I feel like there’s a lot of really talented people feeling kind of dwarfed, and I want to offer a partnership and a home to them because we don’t know where the next hit’s coming from; it can come from anywhere. There’s a lot of musical chairs going on right now with a lot of the television talent in the community and over the coming year. So, there’s going to be a lot of shifting around.
DEADLINE: In your opinion, are overall deals overpriced now because of the pressure put on by Netflix?
SALKE: If someone’s going to overpay for someone, that sets the price. And if you can get someone to compete against that, that’s the price for that person. There’s not that many original tentpole creators who have ambition to reach a lot of eyeballs. There’s not that many of them, and I think these companies, including ours, are all willing to invest in those people.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the Amazon TV development model, which started as pilot-based and has evolved as mostly straight-to series. There have been very few pilots produced recently, will you continue to do pilots or go script-to-series?
SALKE: I actually picked up two pilots in the YA space. I feel like that’s a white space that we’re not in, in addition to some of these addictive female-driven shows. I think we have a huge opportunity with young adults, who will view up, and I think it extends up into audiences of women in their 30s as well if we do more. We have a couple of ideas there, and I wanted to make a couple of pilots so that I could see the execution before we decided. I think we have two that we’ve ordered a pilot, and there may be one more, so three in total, probably. Those are things you can control the cost on because they’re a younger cast, and at the same time they’re original and high quality.
There’s another pilot that we picked up called Modern Love that’s based on the New York Times column, from John Carney. It’s telling heightened kind of stories about love and romance, not necessarily all romantic. (for more on the project, click here).
I think you’ll see us pursue all kinds of paths from development to pilots, to picking up things direct-to-series like I did with Jordan Peele’s The Hunt. I think it just depends on the project.
DEADLINE: What about Amazon’s existing pilots. There was one with Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, Making Friends.
SALKE: We passed on that.
DEADLINE: What about Greg Daniels’ pilot, Upload?
SALKE: It is still in very much active conversations about the budget and other things. So, that’s a possibility.
DEADLINE: Making Friends was Amazon’s first greenlighted multi-camera comedy. Are you planning to try multi-cams again?
SALKE: Those are hard, as you know, and that is part of, at NBC, trying to make multi-cams, and can you get people really passionate and excited about it? Can you capture the kind of magic of those? And it’s hard. That one didn’t quite work for us, but I’m still open to them.
DEADLINE: The new series The Dangerous Book For Boys released its first season in March. Have you made a renewal decision?
SALKE: We’re still talking to them, but I would say it’s looking very tough for the cost of the show. It’s really difficult, coming from the genre where it exists and the kind of audience it’s drawing. The math doesn’t quite work.
DEADLINE: Any changes in your kids programming strategy? Will you focus more on young adults versus kids?
SALKE: No, I think we’ll focus less on tweens. We’ll stay in our sweet spot of young kids and preschool. It’s what’s working really well for us, those kids are watching those shows, so we want to keep delivering that for them, but the tween area was tough, it was a little of a challenge. So, that’s why I moved into YA. I want it to come through a different mechanism. It’s more challenging and sophisticated material.
DEADLINE: And unscripted?
SALKE: No changes in unscripted. it’s status quo. We’re hearing two pitches this week. So, everyone’s moving forward.
DEADLINE: To wrap things up, what is your message to the TV creative community?
SALKE: I think you can say that we’re really excited about this chapter over here, we want to curate and be the best home for talent, and create real, true strategic and creative partnerships with writers, who might be looking for a place with less volume. We want to be very prolific, and we’re going to be aggressive, and we have the full support of this company.