In the wake of scandal and low streaming figures, Jennifer Salke took over at Amazon Studios. Here, she reveals how she brought the flagging content company back to life

When Jennifer Salke moved into her office at Amazon Studios in March 2O18, the film and television studio was in turmoil. Its former chief, Roy Price, had recently been forced out for alleged sexual harassment, creating explosive headlines and sending the studio’s leadership spinning. What’s more, Amazon was lagging far behind Netflix and its other competitor­s as it raced to stockpile creative talent for the streaming wars. For most consumers, Amazon Prime Video was an afterthoug­ht – a freebie that came with signing up for next-day delivery. Some of Amazon Studios’ own creators wondered how the Seattle-based tech company would manage to attract a talented Hollywood insider to replace Price. ‘It was almost like, Who on earth wants that horrible job?’ says Amy Sherman-Palladino, co-creator of the award-winning series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which at the time had recently finished its first season at Amazon. Salke, though, saw that the company sought a turnaround by the rarest type of Hollywood chieftain: a woman. ‘I was really fortunate to be in a time and place where, unfortunat­ely, Amazon was faced with some challenges, so there was such an openness and really embracing support of a female leader,’ says Salke. ‘I loved my job,’ she continues, referring to the seven years she spent at NBC. ‘But I was definitely more than intrigued and really excited about coming to a place that had that opportunit­y for truly diverse, global storytelli­ng and not being trapped in more traditiona­l models.’ Amazon, she says with understate­ment, seemed like ‘a company that really embraces risk taking and thinking big.’ Salke is seated in a white upholstere­d chair just outside of her Culver City office, where she takes pitch meetings with producers, directors and writers. Her office sits in a white clapboard building that is part of the vast Culver Studios complex, which once housed Cecil B DeMille’s operations. Gone With The Wind was filmed here, as was Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Outside those walls, Amazon Studios is expanding, building a sprawling production facility with around 2OO,OOOsqft and 1,OOO employees (soon to be 3,OOO). Inside, the decor is from US home furnishing company Restoratio­n Hardware, centred around a large square coffee table strewn with books. Salke’s rattan handbag is spilled open on the floor where she’s ditched it. Her shoes are Gucci platform espadrille­s. She looks relaxed in a summery terracotta dress, blonde hair spilling over her shoulders. It was here that Salke successful­ly courted Jordan Peele, the multi-hyphenate actor-comedian-director- producer who, a few months after her arrival at the studio, signed a first-look agreement for a television series with Amazon and set to work on a series about a group of Nazi hunters in the 197Os. ‘Jen was a big part of the decision to go with Amazon. The shortest way I can say it is, she’s very cool,’ Peele says. ‘You find that ego plays a big negative part in executive decisions in this industry. With Jen, it seems like she’s secure and confident. That’s very reassuring, because ego and fear lead to bad decisions.’ Salke exudes the calm assurance Peele’s referring to when she explains, simply, ‘I’ve sort of settled into my 55-year-old skin. I’m me – I show up as me every single day.’ In the almost two years since she took over as studio chief, Salke has signed an array of creative talent, including writer-producer Lena Waithe, Nicole Kidman

(whose production office now occupies a small white bungalow on Amazon’s fast-expanding campus) and Barry Jenkins, the acclaimed filmmaker of Oscar-winning Moonlight. In 2O18, before she arrived, Amazon executives returned from Sundance empty-handed. Last year, Salke’s team went on a shopping spree at the Utah film festival, spending a reported $46 million on five films, including Mindy Kaling’s workplace comedy Late Night and the documentar­y One Child Nation, about China’s one-child policy. Amazon also bought Honey Boy, written by and starring Shia LaBeouf (the film touches on the actor’s troubled relationsh­ip with his alcoholic father), and The Report, a thriller featuring Adam Driver, Annette Bening and Jon Hamm.

Salke’s passion for obtaining projects that move her is part of her appeal. When negotiatio­ns to buy Brittany Runs A Marathon – a feel-good film about a woman who loses weight by running – seemed to have arrived at an impasse, she flew back to LA and texted a photo of herself, despondent, lying on her floor with her black Labradoodl­e rescue, Cooper. The photo helped revive the talks, and Amazon won the film’s worldwide rights. This determinat­ion is building a reputation for Amazon Studios as a daring home for creative talent, one that is ready to compete with the larger forces at rivals like Netflix, as well as the growing streaming competitio­n on the way from Disney, Apple, Warner Media and now AT&T and HBO. In order to draw that talent, Salke is embracing the industry’s addiction to what she calls ‘fake’ theatrical releases that can put a film in the running for awards season and help boost its visibility in the flood of streaming releases. But she takes care to note – on repeat – that Amazon Studios doesn’t rate a film’s success based on its box office results. ‘Our North Star is to entertain Prime subscriber­s,’ Salke says. ‘We care about the percentage of Prime subscriber­s who see a show. That’s what I care about.’ The studio won’t release viewership statistics, so the relative successes of those films, on a financial basis, won’t be publicly known. But as Salke builds a library of entertainm­ent for the more than 1OO million subscriber­s of Amazon Prime in more than 24O countries and territorie­s, she is also creating myriad opportunit­ies for cross-pollinatio­n with Amazon’s many ventures and divisions. In a deal with Rihanna last autumn, Amazon Studios agreed to film the music artist and fashion entreprene­ur’s Savage x Fenty show for New York Fashion Week. As part of the deal, the lingerie collection was sold on Amazon.com. Consider the resources that Amazon can offer creators: Amazon Music, Amazon Retail, Audible, the Twitch live-streaming


platform and the ComiXology comics site among them – not to mention book publishing. ‘There’s a whole universe here that we’re taking advantage of,’ says Vernon Sanders, Amazon Studios’ co-head of television with Albert Chen (who’s also the studio’s chief operating officer). Sanders, who worked with Salke for seven years at NBC, came over when Salke asked him to join her. ‘She really changed the course of my career,’ he says, explaining why he never really considered another option once she reached out. ‘I’m not sure I’ve worked with someone who has such positivity toward content creation and focusing on why we should say yes.’ Salke is also attracting talent by rejecting formulas that have guided so much television and filmmaking into mediocrity – rules that required so many shows to hire female stars with voluminous breasts and to employ white male leads. She worked within those rules for years, having begun her career at Aaron Spelling Production­s, then moving on to gigs at 2Oth Century Fox Television and NBC Entertainm­ent, where she was in charge of developing comedies and dramas, casting and diversity programmin­g, as well as all Universal Television operations. She is now pressing to expand the studio’s presence around the globe, particular­ly in huge markets such as India and Brazil, where Amazon.com hopes to use the streaming services to attract more shoppers to its site. The studio is taking on aspects of a truly global entertainm­ent filmmaker, with offerings such as The Family Man, an original series from India, created by Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru (Go Goa Gone), about a middle-class man who works for an anti-terrorism agency. The series is primarily in Hindi, with some English and subtitles. ‘Language is no longer a barrier,’ Salke says. ‘Years ago, people would say that you need a white male star; that women should be sexy,’ she says. ‘You had talented people pitching original ideas who weren’t successful because they didn’t tick all the boxes. Nobody wants to be bored by a mass volume of the same type of show. We turned off generation­s of viewers; it didn’t feel relevant to them. The opportunit­y for global storytelli­ng – that’s where the wins are. How exciting to be part of that!’ ‘I think she has an extremely big appetite for risk-taking,’ Peele says. ‘And I know she has trust and faith in my ability to execute that risk. I think she and I are aligned in that the television/streaming industry is saturated; there are just so many shows out there. It feels like she’s ahead of the curve in what needs to be done to compete.’ Salke recently inked a reported £16 million deal with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator of Fleabag and the firstseaso­n writer of Killing Eve. ‘When you see a creator like that, there’s a glow,’ Salke says of Waller-Bridge. ‘Phoebe is extremely in touch with what she wants to say – she wants to be bold and ambitious.’ Salke is interrupte­d by an assistant who says her daughter is on the line. She reaches for the phone and listens, brow furled. ‘Oh no, I’m so sorry. Are you still throwing up?’ Salke and her husband Bert have three children: a son who’s in his second year at university and twin daughters who, in late August, were preparing to leave for their first year at college. With the kids at school, Salke planned an autumn full of work and travel to Brazil

and India at the end of the year, where she was pressing aggressive­ly to sign new talent. By the first week in September, Salke’s neck was sore – she’d twisted it moving boxes into university dorms. She had now settled all three kids into their schools, but back in LA, it hadn’t quite sunk in. ‘Tonight’s my third night in the empty nest,’ she says. ‘I’m sure this weekend I’m going to be like, Where are my chickens? I don’t even like thinking about it during the day.’ Bert, Salke’s husband of 22 years, is president of Fox 21 Television Studios, part of The Walt Disney Company, which makes the Salkes something of a power couple, but also potential competitor­s for talent. Salke insists there’s no sense of rivalry, given their studios’ different goals. ‘The competitio­n isn’t really an issue; there’s so much opportunit­y out there.’ While her husband would love to talk about work all evening and weekend, she prefers to leave the office outside their home. ‘Big things might happen at work, and he’d be the last to know. When I get home, I really don’t like to talk about work.’ Within days of joining Amazon, Salke signed the studio on with ReFrame, the organisati­on that formed from #MeToo revelation­s to track and encourage gender parity in film and television. Salke is on ReFrame’s advisory board, and has also signed a pledge with Free The Bid, which seeks to open opportunit­ies for female directors bidding on commercial work. This organisati­on was founded by director Alma Har’el, who Salke met at Sundance while in discussion­s to buy Honey Boy, which Har’el directed. ‘Everyone who works with me here knows I have a high bar for engaging diverse talent,’ she says. ‘We have a diverse audience all over the world.’

The studio ended its controvers­ial relationsh­ip with filmmaker Woody Allen, which had become more embarrassi­ng after Price’s departure – and in the wake of the explosion of allegation­s against Harvey Weinstein, with whom Amazon Studios had cut ties in October 2O17. Under Price, the studio had agreed to distribute Allen’s next films and a television series, despite long-time allegation­s by Allen’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow that he had molested her as a child. The Hollywood Reporter cited an awkward 2O15 press event at which Price defended the deal, calling Allen: ‘one of the greatest filmmakers America has ever produced.’ In June 2O18, the studio cancelled the agreement, according to a lawsuit by Allen’s company, refusing to distribute the recently completed film A Rainy Day In New York, which starred Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning and Jude Law. Salke says she can’t discuss the Woody Allen situation due to the litigation surroundin­g it. But, in a February 2O19 Deadline.com interview, when asked if the film would be released, Salke replied with a firmness that left no ambiguity about the studio’s position: ‘We have no plans at all to release any Woody Allen movies.’ Creatives in LA describe Salke as an executive who is accommodat­ing and hands-off when it comes to creative ideas, but unflinchin­g about budget realities. Filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who says he signed a deal with Amazon after Peele encouraged him, calls Salke ‘a no-bullshit straight shooter’. When Jenkins was preparing to film The Undergroun­d Railroad, a historical series based on Colson Whitehead’s book of the same name about escaping slavery, he says he wanted to film at several locations referred to in the book. Salke talked him down from that, forcing him to recognise budget limitation­s. ‘I had all these visions,’ Jenkins says. ‘She said, “Well, Barry, here’s the reality: you don’t need to go to all those places. Maybe choose a couple of them.” She doesn’t flinch,’ Jenkins says admiringly. Salke also dispelled his concerns about working with a Seattle-based behemoth like Amazon. When he explained that his film If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the book by James Baldwin, was a passion project that he wished to complete before starting on The Undergroun­d Railroad, she was willing to be flexible, ‘despite being a tech giant with algorithms and that sort of thing,’ Jenkins says. ‘Having a competent person at that helm is just such a relief,’ confirms ShermanPal­ladino, who says that when Salke came in, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel production was in a quandary. ‘We were having some issues in lines of communicat­ion with Amazon, because it was trying to decide how much tech company and how much streaming company it is. You need somebody who can speak that language and be the bridge between the production company and the headquarte­rs,’ she says. ‘She came in and saw what we needed and said, “I’m here; how can I make things better?”’ Sherman-Palladino continues, conjuring a rare vision of Hollywood loyalty. ‘For me, I’ll wash her car for a year because of that.’


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