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How Amazon plans to conquer Hollywood

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It’s been a game-changing month for Amazon Studios.

The online superstore announced plans last week to start producing original movies—not just a few, either, but 12 titles a year, each with a respectable indie budget ranging from $5 million to $25 million. The move came on the heels of Amazon solidifying its reputation as a major force in the TV industry by convincing Woody Allen to make a TV series and picking up two Golden Globes for its transgender dramedy Transparent—including the first-ever win by a streaming company in the best series category. And at least one of Amazon’s new crop of TV pilots is winning raves (an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi thriller The Man in the High Castle from producer Ridley Scott and The X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz)

Amazon expects to disrupt Hollywood further by pushing cinema owners for a super-short distribution window since the company wants their films to be available for Prime Instant Video subscribers a mere four to eight weeks after exiting theaters.

Below, Amazon Studios vice president Roy Price talks to EW about his strategy for tackling Hollywood tradition on the film and TV side.

EW: Let’s start with TV. What did the Globes win mean for Amazon? 

ROY PRICE: It’s great to get that kind of acknowledgment. I think it’s gratifying and exciting. We hope it’ll bring more people to the show and to the service. It supports our philosophy of looking for creators who really have a distinctive voice and are passionate about doing something new. We’re going to keep on pursuing that.

What can fans can expect from Transparent’s second season?

[Creator Jill Soloway] and the team are working on that now. They’ve had a writers’ retreat and we’re looking forward to talking about where season two is going to go exactly. We’re excited but it’s in Jill’s hands. I think the key is to keep the show doing what it’s great at doing.

What are your goals on the TV side for the next five years?

To produce great shows that customers care about in the great wide world of television. Stand out and meaningfully contribute to the options that people have. The goal is to have a lot of great shows and original creators who find a place where they can really do that show that they’re passionate about and do it the way they want to do it.

Is there anything that you can share about what we can expect from the Woody Allen series?

No, nothing I can share, but we’re looking forward to it. We’re excited.

Other streaming companies have made waves by rescuing cancelled titles, where you have focused mostly on originals. Are you interested in taking any cast-off titles, and are there any specific ones that you’re kicking the tires on?

We’d be open to it for the right show, but we haven’t seen it yet. Our only goal is to get the greatest shows that we can for Amazon customers and we’re very open minded as to how that can happen.

Is there anything specific you have learned so far in terms of what viewers want from Amazon’s democratization of the TV pilot selection process?

I think people are very interested when a creator is really trying to do something new and do it with integrity and honesty, when it gives them something they can connect with and has an emotional core. That was our theory going in, but I think as we do more pilot seasons, we’re definitely observing that people want to connect with the show. They want something that is taking a chance, and not trying to be too conventional, but still delivering something very interesting. I don’t think you have to have the universally relatable generic characters. You can be very specific. We’ve never tried to make everything relatable to everybody. I think if it’s a story well told and interesting and honest that people can relate to the situation whoever the lead character is. That’s where we’ve been and the way we’re going to be.

Have you ever overridden a less popular or low-voted title because you had faith it could improve and that the voters might be wrong in their opinion?

There are too many factors to express it in that way because there are a lot of different ways that we get feedback. There’s public surveys, there are reviews, there are [the number of] views, there’s a private online panel that we have called Amazon Preview. We get a lot of feedback and there’s no individual metric that is the ultimate vote. It’s not like American Idol. And then we have information about the [producing] team, about the show, and where it’s going to go. We take it all into account. So there’s no one metric that we would have to overrule. Definitely there are examples where a show got more views, but we didn’t order that one. Every metric probably has an example where we didn’t strictly go by that particular metric.

On the movie side, can you explain why it’s important to you to shrink the distribution window? And how you will approach theater owners who will be resistant to that?

We want to support a strong theatrical run, as strong of a theatrical run as each movie could support. That’s obviously a great way to see movies. The reality is there are a lot of movies people can’t see—particularly in the independent [space], as they’re not as broadly distributed. It really expands the audience and improves the economics to be able to reach out to all the people who want to see a movie. We’re trying to set the windows so the movie will come to a subscription service when you still remember it and you still remember the reviews, or the commercial, or the billboard — the movie feels fresh and like something you want to see. The common practice is having movies not come into a subscription [service] until nine-to-12 months after the theater.That’s a substantial delay. By then, if you have not seen that movie, you probably don’t want to see the movie. I think that’s the part that can be improved upon because people do really want to see movies on demand. I’m highly confident we can work these windows [with theater owners] because it’s our goal to do so in such a way that each movie can get the theatrical run that it deserves to get. We are not trying to step on the theatrical run.

Are there any changes to the traditional ways that movies are selected, produced, and distributed that you’re considering?

We’ll always try to learn from the extensive data that we have about what people are watching and so on — just have it inform how we’re thinking about putting together a slate. But we don’t have any formalized testing process for a movie. We want great movies from filmmakers who really want to do something interesting and new.

What are some movie titles made over the last few years that you think would exemplify some movies that you hope to do?

I think Whiplash, Birdman, Boyhood, Her, Mud, and also King’s Speech, and going back in time to Shakespeare in Love. That’s a great ballpark for us.

Part of what you’ve done on the TV side is give content producers more leeway to execute their creative vision. On the movie side, you’re often going to be dealing with bigger budgets for fewer hours so it’s a bit more of a gamble. How loose will your leash be? 

In the movies, you typically do get to see the script beforehand. TV is different because there are a lot of scripts in the future that you haven’t seen. You commit to a show and you have to believe in the showrunner and their team and the stories they’re going to tell. I’m not saying it’s less risky in movies, but if you have a filmmaker who is great and you have an idea of what they’re trying to do, then I think you have a fair amount of information. In a way, you could argue that movies are less unpredictable.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said broadcast TV is dead in 15 years. Do you have a prediction for the future of linear TV?

I do not have a prediction about that.

Amazon’s marketing tagline has been “Earth’s Biggest Selection.” Is there an ambition to become earth’s biggest content producer, or is that too grandiose?

I think what we’re trying to do is make Prime Instant Video fantastic and valuable and special for customers. That’s what we’re very focused on … Going back to your Golden Globes question, it occurred to me that it’s actually very common for really interesting new shows to come from either a new network or one that is not doing very well. I would put us in the category of “new [network],” not in the latter category. You have that hunger and that desire to do something interesting. I think the key is to preserve that mentality and keep your goal the same. To take chances, not do the obvious thing. To do the interesting thing. That’s what we’re going to keep trying to do both in TV and in movies.

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