The smart guys at Netflix have torn a page from the HBO Bible with their success at launching watchable original programming, and perhaps more importantly, conveying to mainstream Hollywood talent, that they have a hit factory and an open wallet for the “right” type of projects.
Now it’s Amazon’s turn, with the launch of two new original series and a full-scale hype fest at the TV Academy’s huge Goldenson Theatre last week. Hosted by Seth Shapiro, one of two Governors for the Academy’s Interactive Peer Group (disclosure: I’m a member and serve on the Exec Committee), the evening was light on video and long on positioning for Amazon, with the main focus firmly placed on Roy Price, Director of Amazon Studios. Price, who will forever be introduced as the son of former studio chief Frank Price, has a background in animation with Disney.
You can watch an archived version of the live-streaming feed here.
Price has woven Amazon’s own version of the HBO “not TV” narrative from the beginning, with the announcement of his appointment in 2010. Amazon (in loose partnership with Warner Brothers, which wasn’t mentioned last Thursday) made a big deal of crowd-sourcing scripts and allowing fans to vote all along the development process.
From the outset, many observers dissed the scheme, either because it was an unlikely way to generate network-quality material ... or because this approach could easily be seen as exploiting talent and bypassing the Writers Guild.
Turns out, the whole crowd-sourcing thing was kind of secondary. Price noted that “exactly 8 percent” of the submissions made it to pilot. Most of the projects that earned Amazon investment came in the time-tested way via experienced producers and agents coming in with pitches. (Have my people call your people.)
The result was an initial slate of comedies, dramas, and kidvid – many, but not all from experienced Hollywood hands. Indeed, input and votes from fans played at least a partial role in the narrowing down of the pack and providing data, which Amazon loves. For Amazon’s description of their development process, see this FAQ.
Price clearly wanted to convey to Hollywood that Amazon was an A-List network. Yes, we have this wacky, data-driven DNA and we’re part of a business that sells diapers and so forth, but rest assured, we’re looking for awesome storytellers. Once we’ve found them, we ourselves are awesome to work with. You’ll get freedom, better notes from our suits, and the money isn’t bad. (Wildly paraphrased, yes it is).
Shapiro was a lively, informed and respectful moderator -- No gossip. Nothing transgressive (except maybe a bit of the material that was shown). But once past the Amazon positioning, this event was like any other – a very large group of cast-and-crew vied to describe what they did (and how cool it was to do, basically).
It must be said: Amazon Studios’ first two projects are both male-dominated sitcom series -- ALPHA HOUSE and BETAS, snippets of which were sandwiched into sequential cast-and-crew gabfests featuring only two women on camera and NONE behind the scenes. If Warner Bros was once known as the studio of gritty realism, Amazon is a sausage festival.
Alpha House would be a hit anywhere – it’s like an all-male “Veep”, which on paper sounds awful, but-- did I mention?-- it has John Goodman? And Clark Johnson? And other fine actors whom you will recognize, even if you don’t know their names. Two Congressmen and two Senators live in a group house in D.C. Hilarity ensues. Really, it does.
At first, I liked the clips of “Betas” less than “Alpha House” (Seriously: is Amazon going to do a Sue Grafton thing with the Greek alphabet, would you think?). The young (also primarily male) cast play Silicon Valley start-up types, trying to build the next social network, or more accurately, the next Grindr for horny straight people. Another log-line that sounds awful, but I found the humor sharp and the timing excellent when I watched the entire pilot.
One thing puzzles me: these are digital-native series. Why no interactivity? Or multiplatform backstory? Or even a decent website. Weird....
This week also marked the premiere of a new Hulu Plus comedy/mystery called “The Wrong Mans” (trailer here), a co-production with the BBC. This one will have legs, trust me – there’s already a great Tumbr (oh, those Brits!), but mostly two really terrific leads, the funny and awkward duo James Corden and Matthew Baynton.
What makes these projects, and those from Netflix, Xbox, and other emerging Internet-based networks unique? I’d have to say, the ambition and directness of the creative process – Emerging players are working hard at curating, selecting, and managing production and promotion with less bureaucracy and more intensity, for one thing.
These new networks understand TV history – whether it was ABC in the 60s and 70s, Fox in the 80s, HBO in the 90s, AMC and FX in the past few years – history shows that it is great shows that a great network makes. And great shows are made by teams of great talents, sometimes guided by the inspired hand of a network team, but usually best left to deliver quality on the merits.
Leave aside the way the fans will find and consume this content – that is a topic for another post. The show’s the thing. Probably always will be.