Open for Business
Amazon Studios previews its first two original series.
With 250 million active customers in eleven countries, Amazon.com is the world's largest online retailer. And now that it's moved into original television production with the creation of Amazon Studios, the seller has become a buyer of television content.
Television Academy members learned about the Amazon Studios programming philosophy — think: innovative, idiosyncratic, out of the box — and previewed its first two original series, Alpha House and Betas, at the November 7 program "Amazon Studios at the Television Academy."
Amazon's original content is meant to enhance the experience of users of Amazon Prime Instant Video, Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios, told the evening's moderator Seth Shapiro, in a one-on-one conversation — which began in earnest only after Price pulled out his phone to photograph the audience in the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre and post the image to Instagram. And customers "are clearly responding to high quality, engaging programming," he added.
Price and Shapiro subsequently chatted with the casts and creative teams of Alpha House and Betas, sitcoms whose pilots were posted online in April and developed into series based on positive audience reviews.
Alpha House, launching November 15, is a satirical look at the life of four Republican senators who share a rental house in Washington, D.C. Its creator-producer, Garry Trudeau — the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the comic strip Doonesbury — was joined on the panel by cast members Matt Malloy, Mark Consuelos, Clark Johnson, Yara Martinez and Haley Joel Osment.
Betas, premiering November 22, is about the professional and personal lives of Silicon Valley techies trying to launch a new app. Representing the show were: writer-co-creators Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard; executive producer Michael Lehmann; producers Alan R. Cohen, Michael London and Alan Freedland; and cast members Ed Begley, Jr., Joe Dinicol, Charlie Saxton, Jon Daly, Karan Soni and Maya Erskine.
Amazon Studios works with TV pros through the traditional development process, but also has an open submissions policy: anyone can submit material, and a response will be sent within forty-five days. Of Amazon Studios' twenty-five pilots — fourteen launched last April and eleven are currently in production — two came through the open-source process.
Presenting pilots directly to their intended audience for review increases the chances of a great but unconventional show being discovered, Price said, and such a system "allows you to be more experimental. You can take chances, explore the boundaries." And in an on-demand world, an audience that is smaller but deeply engaged with the material is more desirable than a larger, less passionate viewership, he added.
Passion is also essential for those making the programs. Alpha House and Betas were chosen in part, Price said, because people respond to a series "that has a passionate, talented creator who has this vision for a great show. If you focus on that — which has a very strong correlation with success — that's a better path to development. Both shows had that characteristic."
Garry Trudeau had been unaware of Amazon Studios until producing partner Jonathan Alter approached him about working with the service. Not having seen any quality online shows, he had reservations at first, but soon realized that Amazon's goal was "to support high-end, HBO-style programming," he said.
The show's premise — D.C. politicians who room together — is based on real life, Trudeau related. "I read a piece where someone said, 'This would make a great TV series, but who's going to watch a show about four middle-aged men when you don't have sex and violence?'" he said. "The way we got around that is, we added sex and violence. One of our guys goes to Afghanistan right off the bat, and [in the home] we have two upstairs bedrooms where things happen."
The actors have enjoyed making the show. "It's been better than anything I've done," Consuelos said.
Betas came about when Michael London became interested in exploring the tech world after his film company went from being the hip tenant in an office building to being passé, with the arrival of cool, youthful online code-writers. He met Endicott, who had a script — written with partner Josh Stoddard — which London liked.
"We wanted to do something a little more adventurous than a sitcom," Endicott said. "We hooked up with Amazon, and they really got it. They encouraged us to push the envelope and take it to those idiosyncratic places. They were really willing to have us try things."
One way the creatives knew they were on track with the show: the Amazon offices looked remarkably like the sets built for the pilot. And, noted Cohen, just as the show's app is a start-up, "The whole experience feels like a start-up. We're in on the ground floor."
When it comes to getting notes, the usual "creative bureaucracy," as Lehmann called it, is refreshingly absent. "There are two or three people we talk to," he said. "They're young, but they're experienced enough to give you high-quality notes. They care. They're invested in making good material. It's much more personal."
The series is not just about technology — it explores emotions that viewers can connect with, the producers said. The characters are also in beta, Endicott said: "We want them to become better versions of themselves." Indeed, it was the pilot script's "great writing" that attracted veteran actor Ed Begley, Jr., who said that doing the show "has been the best experience in many, many years."
Price teased the audience with news of a project that is also in beta: an app called Amazon Storyteller that turns scripts into storyboards. More information on Amazon Studios submissions and Storyteller is available here. For Amazon Instant Video, go to Amazon.com.
"An Evening with Amazon Studios" was produced by Seth Shapiro, who is a governor of the Academy's Interactive Media peer group and CEO of Village Green Network.