Amazon Gets Ready For Its Next Hollywood Evolution After Jeff Blackburn’s Exit
Amazon’s future in streaming video has come into greater focus in 2022 with the acquisitions of Thursday Night Football and MGM and the debut of LOTR: The Rings Of Power. Now, the onetime bookseller is headed into 2023 without the main architect of its expansion into TV and film via Prime Video over the past decade, Jeff Blackburn.
His retirement, announced on Friday, capped a month of a series of executive moves that laid out Amazon’s plans for the next stage of its evolution as an entertainment brand.
Blackburn most recently had served as SVP of Global Media & Entertainment, overseeing all entertainment businesses, including Prime Video and Amazon Studios, Music, Podcasts/Wondery, Audible, Games and Twitch, for the past 18 months. Blackburn, a well-liked executive within Amazon and in the Hollywood community, originally took what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical in mid-2019. Some of his plans for travel and other activities with his family were thwarted by the pandemic, which is believed to have played a role in his retirement decision.
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In his most recent executive stint, Blackburn reportedly focused on forging synergies across Amazon’s entertainment businesses, with initiatives such as the weekly Amazon Music concert ahead of Thursday Night Football. That strategy is expected to continue after his departure.
Two days before the Blackburn news became official, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy addressed the state of the company’s video efforts during an appearance at the New York Times DealBook conference. Video “is a really important ingredient in whether people choose to sign up for Prime or not,” the exec said of the company’s loyalty program, which has more than 200 million members. “We see more and more people signing up to Prime because of the video content.” When people come to Prime for video, he added, “they tend to spend money with us in our stores and our e-commerce offerings. I do think over time we have opportunities to make our Prime Video business a stand-alone business that has very attractive economics.”
The breakthrough of The Rings Of Power and Thursday Night Football in the fall helped make Prime Video the No. 1 subscription streaming service in the U.S. as of September, surpassing Netflix for the first time in rankings compiled by research firm Parks Associates. A longtime also-ran compared with digital advertising giants Google and Facebook, Amazon has surged into contention thanks to its sports-led streaming efforts. To Jassy’s synergy point, it has also sought to leverage the NFL telecasts to try to point viewers to Amazon’s e-commerce offerings, teasing Prime discounts for Gillette razors and other products.
While the company is making strides, it also faces some significant questions, especially as it looks to keep funding video at a time of broader cutbacks and layoffs at the company. How will the operations of MGM, which Amazon acquired last year for $8.45 billion be integrated? How will Blackburn’s turf be divvied up? And, perhaps the biggest question, what will Amazon’s signature be in streaming?
Blackburn’s retirement elevates Mike Hopkins and Steve Boom’s standing at the company as both will now report to Jassy, the former head of Amazon Web Services who succeeded Jeff Bezos as CEO in 2021.
Hopkins, who recently negotiated Amazon’s deals for MGM and Thursday Night Football, will continue to lead Prime Video, Amazon Studios, and MGM, and Boom will add oversight of Audible, Twitch and Games to his current duties leading the Music and Podcasting teams. The leaders of Audible, Twitch and Games are expected to stay, reporting to Boom.
Blackburn’s departure completed the restructuring of Amazon Studios and its integrating it with MGM as the company set its entertainment executive team.
It included Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke also taking over MGM as Mark Burnett exited as Chairman of MGM Television.
Salke’s top lieutenants on the TV side, Vernon Sanders and Albert Cheng, both landed new responsibilities, Cheng being named VP, Prime Video U.S. and Amazon Studios’ Head of TV Sanders also becoming Head of Scripted TV for MGM, with Laura Lancaster, Nick Pepper, Lauren Anderson, Lindsay Sloane and Rola Bauer leading his teams on the Amazon Studios and MGM TV side.
Dan Scharf, VP and head of global business affairs for Amazon Studios, gained a lot of turf in the span of a few days, first adding Production, Studio Operations & Casting for Amazon Studios and then the respective areas at MGM.
And Sue Kroll was named Head of Marketing, first at Amazon Studios and then also at MGM, leaving the Head of Film for MGM as the only piece of the Amazon Studios/MGM puzzle that is still outstanding.
This was the second major restructuring of Amazon Studios’ scripted operation in less than two years. According to sources, the goal is to streamline the process so people know who to pitch. The new structure also signals Amazon’s commitment to co-productions with well-known executives, led by Lancaster, on that team.
And Amazon made a point of easing fears that MGM TV would only be supplying Amazon platforms going forward, stressing that the label, which is behind such hits as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, FX’s Fargo and Netflix’s Wednesday, will remain open for business with outside buyers.
Still, speaking with agents and producers, there is some confusion in the marketplace as some call the new structure more complicated and containing too many layers.
International Scripted TV
Amazon has had a number of high-profile international originals and co-productions over the years including Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, which it boarded for its second season, Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens and Emily Blunt-fronted The English.
Rola Bauer is now taking over the development and production of English-language originals for Prime Video outside of the U.S. as Head of Pan-English Scripted SVOD TV, Development & Series.
Bauer is a well-known fixture on the international TV circuit, having founded Tandem Communications, which made global dramas such as NBC’s Crossing Lines, ABC’s Take Two and Starz’ The Pillars of the Earth, before taking over scripted content for French giant Studiocanal.
She joined MGM as President of International Television Productions in 2020 and in her first year, she shepherded series such as Peacock’s Last Light starring Matthew Fox and Joanne Froggatt, Harlan Coben’s Shelter for Amazon and Michael Hirst’s Billy The Kid for Epix and struck first-look deals with the likes of Downton Abbey star Froggatt and The Mentalist star Simon Baker.
Bauer’s new role clears up one rumor that has been prevalent in London over recent weeks. There had been much talk that following the August departure of Georgia Brown, head of Amazon Studios, Europe, that all global English-language scripted originals would be ordered out of LA. It seems that this will now be done by Bauer, who is largely based in Munich, while James Farrell, head of international originals, will still oversee global commissions.
While MGM Television has splashy scripted titles such as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and FX’s Fargo, the company’s slate of unscripted series such as NBC’s The Voice, CBS’ Survivor, ABC’s Shark Tank as well as cable hits such as Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Reelz’ On Patrol: Live are its engine.
As part of the restructure, Chris Brearton was handed responsibility for MGM Alternative with Barry Poznick and Brian Edwards named as heads of unscripted television.
Poznick and Edwards were both key lieutenants of Mark Burnett, who exited the company, albeit with continued oversight of the legacy broadcast hits.
There was much speculation over the last few weeks whether Poznick, who was previously President, MGM Unscripted Television, would stay and now he will essentially share that job with Edwards, an attorney by trade who was previously President of Television Operations at MGM.
What this means for the unscripted pipeline going forward is unclear.
Brearton was previously COO of MGM, having joined the company from law firm Latham & Watkins, where he was a managing partner. “He knows zero about unscripted content, it’s not his world,” said one source. “He’s a business guy, a deal maker.”
Amazon has “not really wrapped its head around the value of unscripted” even though it was “making up the lion’s share of MGM’s TV revenue,” according to one MGM unscripted executive.
Amazon itself has had a mixed track record with unscripted content. Chris Castallo oversees unscripted programming for Prime Video and Freevee, reporting to Lauren Anderson, having joined in 2018.
Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls won an Emmy earlier this year but there’s been no news on a second season; Making The Cut, starring Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, has arguably been its most high-profile show with three seasons but World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, a reboot of Mark Burnett’s first show, and Lindsey Vonn’s The Pack only ran for one season and dating shows such as The One That Got Away and Cosmic Love failed to break through.
MGM Television has also struggled to create any new unscripted hits in recent years and Fox’s Beat Shazam, which has run for five seasons, was arguably its last successful creation, having launched in 2017.
Earlier this year, ABC launched game show Generation Gap, exec produced by Burnett and Jimmy Kimmel, but it also hasn’t caused much noise. One source questioned whether without Burnett MGM will be able to sell such shows or get connected to such projects.
There are also question marks over two of MGM’s other unscripted businesses, Evolution Media and Big Fish Entertainment.
Evolution is behind series such as The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and The Real Housewives of Orange County as well as Vanderpump Rules and Botched but has been somewhat “rudderless” since the departure of President Alex Baskin earlier this summer.
Baskin’s departure came five years after it was acquired by MGM. A year after that deal, MGM also bought Big Fish Entertainment, which had big success with A&E’s Live PD, meaning that the company run by Dan Cesareo, comes up to its five year anniversary, generally the point of an earn out, next year.
The company has had a huge ratings performer with On Patrol: Live on Reelz, with the cable network saying that nearly 7M people watched the show in its first three weeks.
Fate Of Film?
If you’ve ordered batteries from Amazon, you’ll know it’s taken a substantially faster time for them to arrive to your doorstep than the time it has taken for the shopping-streaming crew to hire a film head for MGM. There has been a gap at the top since last summer, which was when former chiefs Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy departed for Warner Bros. The news that Salke would take overall oversight of MGM was to be expected, and it’s why some buzzed-about candidates for the top production chief job didn’t work out. Some expressed qualms about reporting to Salke, whose TV background dwarfs her experience in film.
As Deadline has reported, former Warner Bros. President of Production Courteney Valenti remains in the mix for the top spot, however, contract talks as we understand it have yet to commence. Valenti brings decades of experience of working with top tier talent and filmmakers, as well as building tentpoles, with her accomplishments including the Lego franchise, the last four Harry Potter films, multi-Oscar winner Mad Max: Fury Road and this summer’s hit Elvis. Valenti’s sensibilities and track record would seem to make great assets for Amazon as it eyes projects with theatrical potential. In recent years, it has subsisted on a diet of indie films like Being the Ricardos, My Policeman, Catherine Called Birdy and Late Night and even pricier arthouse fare during the Jason Ropell era such as the $70M+ Felicity Jones-Eddie Redmayne pre-turn-of-the-century flying balloon drama The Aeronauts. That latter title traded in a traditional theatrical release for a truncated one followed by a swift drop on Prime Video back in December 2019.
Amazon used to distribute their own movies theatrically and report grosses, however, soon after Salke arrived, she adopted the Netflix model whereby titles were released over a short theatrical window, without grosses reported, followed by a debut on the streaming service. That decision came in the wake of a massive buying spree at Sundance in 2019, led by Late Night for $13M, which yielded several pics tanking at the box office. To date, a number of the big event films that Prime Video has touted were tentpoles purchased from other studios during the pandemic, i.e. Paramount’s Coming 2 America for $125M, Borat 2 from Universal, The Tomorrow War from Skydance, and Cinderella and Hotel Transylvania 4 from Sony. Amazon even sent the Sylvester Stallone original action movie Samarian and Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives straight to Prime Video after they bought MGM.
Only when the new MGM film head arrives will Amazon’s commitment to theatrical become more clear. There was news prior to Thanksgiving that the streamer was committing $1 billion to 8 to 10 titles a year, but again, that plan won’t fully be set in motion until the new film boss arrives. Per Salke’s memo to staff, Julie Rapaport will continue to run the AOM team and oversee the MGM film team as Amazon continues to integrate.
Even with the corner-office vacancy, theatrical plans are under way at Amazon for six MGM releases dated over the next year. Women Talking debuts Dec. 23; Creed III on March 3, 2023; A Good Person on March 24; On a Wing and a Prayer on April 7; Challenges on Aug. 11; and Underdoggs on Oct. 20. In the meantime, Amazon put some key MGM and United Artists Releasing executives under contract, including Stephen Bruno as chief marketing officer reporting to newly installed Amazon Head of Marketing Sue Kroll, who is overseeing both series and movies.
Former UAR theatrical distribution boss Erik Lomis is now reporting to Salke and will run the streamer’s entire theatrical distribution operation. We hear that former UAR Marketing Boss Gerry Rich continues to be in talks with the streamer about re-upping. Omitted from last week’s announcement were MGM Head of Corporate Communications Katie Martin Kelly, and Orion Pictures boss Alana Mayo. Adrienne Bowles, longtime MGM awards strategist, is expected to stay.
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