Big Players and Big Swings:
Joe Lewis is Amazon Studios' Rainmaker
Being a big player in the TV production boom means having deep pockets – very deep pockets. This year, Amazon and Netflix will each spend in the range of $5-6 billion on original content production. As the head of half hour and drama series development at Amazon Studios, Joe Lewis is one of the people who writes the cheques. One happy recipient is Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, whose new eight-episode series about Russian royals is in the works with an estimated price tag of $50 million.
Lewis tells CFC that he wasn’t so surprised to see the ground shift as it has. Prior to becoming the first hire of Amazon’s original TV division in 2012, Lewis was busy with a startup of his own called Bark, a comedy streaming-video service. He was convinced that the time was right for the idea because of an especially telling stat he’d noticed: a decline in pay TV subscription rates over successive quarters. “Prior to that, pay TV rates had never dropped,” he says. “There were just these signs.” And they’re still plummeting.
Lewis is hardly shocked to see where we’re at in terms of audiences flocking to streaming and abandoning linear TV, but, he admits, “I would not have anticipated how a company like Amazon would support such big risky swings in such a big way, in everything from the production to the marketing to the ideas themselves.”
Amazon Studios’ slate of original programming for its Amazon Prime SVOD service established series like Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle with a seemingly endless stream of new pilots, released in batches every few months. Whether the shows are comedies or dramas, the Amazon Originals have thus far followed the serialized model established by the first seasons of the studio’s flagship shows, which Lewis describes treating as “five-hour movies.”
“That's what we're trying to take advantage of,” he says. “You're not wasting time and real estate re-stating things or going through similar adventures – you can build upon story and character and that's always been the most exciting part of working in this medium.”
What’s more, he believes the intensity and diversity of competition have made it all the more important to take bigger and bigger swings. “When the number of hours of great television available surpasses the amount of free time the average audience member has to watch, it’s no longer enough to have compelling writing and a great story engine. Equally important is uniqueness of concept and structure as well as a higher-than-ever level of talent executing the series. You need a world that hasn’t been seen before and, as such, is slightly-to-very risky.”
Indeed, the big-swing, big-spend mentality can lead to disasters like Vinyl, a $100 million debacle for HBO despite the pedigrees of Terence Winter, Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger. Nor is there any assurance that shows will get the attention they deserve even when they do hit the mark. Just ask any admirer of Amazon’s retro-‘80s comedy Red Oaks, which is criminally under-appreciated, starting with Toronto actor Ennis Esmer’s performance as a lascivious tennis pro.
Nevertheless, Lewis projects plenty of confidence that despite the chaos of the present, quality will win out. “When you’re making something that is supposed to earn back its value over a longer lifespan and is going to be accessible at all times,” he notes, “on a practical level it just has to be better.”
Another lesson: don’t fear the flux. “One thing I’ve observed about the most compelling characters in scripted series is that, like us, they’re always in some state of transition,” says Lewis. “They’re evolving, learning and always changing. The communications business is similar. Networks haven’t stopped evolving since the invention of the telegraph and I don’t expect that to stop anytime soon.”
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Indeed, that may sound a little like corporate boasting, but it’s no small thing given the rather more conservative status quo we used to know. Sure, popular and critically acclaimed shows like Lost, The West Wing and The Sopranos all pointed the way to the industry’s fervent embrace of the more European model of short-order series with serialized storytelling. So did Mad Men and Breaking Bad for AMC, though it’s worth noting that those shows didn’t become full-on phenomenons until they became available on Netflix.
Yet the tolerance for creative risk in this new ecosystem is arguably unprecedented. Many of the critical darlings of the past 12 months – Westworld, Preacher, The Leftovers, Insecure, UnREAL, Atlanta, Easy, Stranger Things, The OA, Legion and The Girlfriend Experience, to name just a handful I found time for – represent a degree of ambition and audacity that was unthinkable even at the start of this decade. (And we haven’t even gotten to the Twin Peaks sequel on Showtime yet.)
Hindsight might make Transparent seem like a safe bet, but it was hardly a sure thing that a wider audience (and Emmy voters) would respond to a story with transgender characters, especially one with such a uniquely tragicomic tone. Reflecting on the show’s early history at Amazon, Lewis says that the studio had confidence in Jill Soloway’s vision because of the strength of her original script and her track record as a showrunner (Lewis was also a fan of Soloway’s too-little-seen 2013 feature, Afternoon Delight).
“The thing I can help with,” says Lewis, “is to look at the world and say, ‘No matter what, a show like this doesn’t exist – so if she’s right, then we have something that will stand out.’”
Though Transparent certainly benefited from the sort of good timing no one could’ve engineered, the devotion it attracts points to the need for creators and producers to foster a deeper engagement – casual viewership just can’t cut it when viewers have so many other demands on their time. “You want to build a community around a series, make it a movement in which people want take part,” says Lewis.
Again, Transparent may be the perfect epitome of that “movement” ideal, what with the well-publicized efforts by creator Jill Soloway and her team to hire trans people in all of the show’s departments. The industry, Lewis says, is “only made better by voices getting in from the outside.”
Amazon’s drive to claim those new voices as part of its own services can be seen in its recent spending spree on indie movies as part of its Film Festival Stars program for Amazon Video Direct, the digital-content platform it launched last year. The company just paid millions in deals for 40 films that debuted at SXSW this spring, and it plans to do the same at TIFF. Hungry to take on YouTube, Amazon Video Direct is also offering distribution deals to zero-budget video creators and major media operations alike.
Yet all that is relatively small potatoes compared to the flagship productions, and Amazon is understandably concerned with ways of mitigating the biggest risks. One is to back filmmakers, showrunners, stars and creative teams with proven track records. Among the major projects on the horizon besides Weiner’s newly-announced series is a two-season, 16-episode mafia drama by director David O. Russell starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore. For all the high-priced, high-profile talent that Amazon has been attracting, Lewis believes that it’s been crucial to break from the industry’s tradition of pressuring its best talents to repeat their successes ad infinitum and to instead offer real creative freedom. “I would think that all the filmmakers we work with, if you asked them to remake one of their former projects, they would all balk at you,” he says. “I come at it the same way and I think any artist would.”
Of course, providing those creative freedoms does not guarantee results – consider the drubbing that Woody Allen received for his Amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes. Or Amazon’s period drama starring Christina Ricci as Zelda Fitzgerald and created by actor-filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson, Z: The Beginning of Everything, which met a tepid response earlier this year.