Amazon Reboots Its Television Studio With a Talent-Friendly Boss

(Bloomberg) -- For her first act as the head of Amazon.com Inc.’s film and TV studio, Jennifer Salke turned to a bunch of Nazi hunters.

She had just met with Jordan Peele, the Oscar-winning writer and director of “Get Out,’’ and heard through his agent that he was eager to make a show about war-crimes investigators in New York City called “The Hunt.’’ The project was languishing at another company, which meant Peele, one of the hottest filmmakers in Hollywood, was available.

Salke brought the script home with her, and then offered to turn it into a TV series the next day. Peele not only agreed, he also signed a deal giving Amazon the first crack at all future TV shows from his company, Monkeypaw Productions.

Signing Peele was a coup for Amazon, and a first step toward rebooting a studio hindered by a poor reputation among the creative community. Salke’s predecessor resigned after being accused of sexual harassment, and his deputy departed following allegations that he favored his girlfriend for a role.

The world’s largest online retailer has tasked Salke with rehabilitating its reputation in Hollywood -- part of a bid to challenge Netflix Inc. for viewers around the world. While technology rivals Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. flirt with Hollywood, Amazon is shelling out big money on entertainment. It has pledged to increase a programming budget that already eclipses $4 billion a year. The company also just signed a 10-year lease for its Los Angeles headquarters.

“We can compete with the biggest of them with our resources,” Salke said while sitting on a couch in her new office at Culver Studios. Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos “wants big shows,” she said. “He wants to be successful. He wants shows people care about.”

Amazon organized a day of interviews for their new studio chief to meet a handful of reporters one on one, separated by a vast expanse littered with coffee-table books, a charcuterie plate and bottled water.

Clad in all black, Salke said she had no plans to leave her job at NBC when Amazon first called her about running its studio before the holidays last year. The 53-year-old Los Angeles native prefers to stay in her jobs for a decade or more.

NBC Tenure

She had only spent seven years at NBC, where she oversaw scripted entertainment programming. NBC vaulted from last place to first under her watch, thanks to “This Is Us’’ and “The Blacklist,’’ shows she put on the air. “This Is Us’’ hailed from her old home, Fox, where she helped develop hits “Glee’’ and “Modern Family.’’

In an interview, “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman said support from Salke was key to the show’s success.

“I’ve had as close a relationship with Jen these past two years as I’ve ever had with any executive on anything I’ve worked on,” he said. Salke protected his vision for the show, not an easy task in the world of broadcast TV, where “you are constantly doing the best you can to not allow your show to become terrible.”

But Salke faces new challenges at Amazon, where few, if any, shows have connected with the masses.

Missing the Mainstream

Critics have praised many of Amazon’s shows. And “Transparent’’ was the first program on a streaming service to win the Golden Globe Award for best comedy, a prize Amazon has won three of the past four years. Amazon has also won more Oscars than Netflix and another key streaming rival, Hulu LLC, combined.

Bezos has made clear that awards aren’t enough. His studio has yet to produce a cultural sensation on the scale of Netflix’s “House of Cards” or “Stranger Things.” Even before new revelations about Price and his deputy Joe Lewis, Amazon was readying a new strategy.

The company paid $250 million for the rights to turn “Lord of the Rings’’ into a TV program, and committed upwards of $100 million to turn the podcast “Homecoming’’ into a show starring Julia Roberts, her first TV series.

New Culture

When accusations against Price turned into a public-relations crisis, Amazon jettisoned its top executive and began a hunt for a female leader.

In Salke, Amazon hired one of Hollywood’s top female executives -- and one who prides herself on building a culture that attracts talented people.

“You’ll see us pursue deals across every category,” Salke said. There is “an overarching feeling of wanting to be more successful.”

Mounting competition for the next hit show has pushed the cost of securing producers into the stratosphere. Netflix committed about $300 million to “Glee” co-creator Ryan Murphy, while Warner Bros. promised Greg Berlanti -- known for “The Flash” and “Riverdale” -- more than $300 million to keep him away from online rivals.

Salke began recruiting creative talent before she took the job. She met with Reese Witherspoon about adapting Celeste Ng’s “The Fire Next Time,’’ which sold to Hulu, and made an aggressive push to sign Murphy.

While she missed out on that one, she exhibited little concern about finding the next Murphy and Peele. She’s just as excited about Reed Morano, an award-winning director of “The Handmaid’s Tale.’’ She knows one thing: Money won’t be a problem.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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