Mumbai: When Jennifer Salke took over as head of Amazon Studios in February last year, after her predecessor Roy Price quit over sexual harassment claims, she inherited a number of challenges.
Salke, who’d earlier been the NBC Entertainment president, not only had to steer Amazon in a hyper-competitive streaming market but also shepherd the TV series Transparent through to its finale without star Jeffrey Tambor (also accused of sexual harassment) and nurse to fruition the Lord of the Rings series, Amazon’s ambitious bid for the lucrative fantasy market on television.
Salke has been in the news recently, making a splash at the Sundance Film Festival, where Amazon spent a record $46 million on five films, and announcing, in India last week, a new series starring Hindi film star Akshay Kumar.
We met Salke at the JW Marriott in Juhu, Mumbai, where we spoke about the studio’s new film strategy and how they’re building relationships with Indian talent. Edited excerpts:
Akshay Kumar is probably the biggest Indian star to headline a streaming fiction series. Have you found that actors here are more resistant to entering this space?
No, I feel like, with him in particular—and many other examples I can point out—he built a relationship with our team. They’ve known him and been working with him for a long time now.
It’s been part of the building of a relationship, a creative collaboration and trust that was really about him coming to the table with something he wanted to say. There was no arm-twisting. I didn’t have to set him on fire. He’s not going to just do a show. He’s doing something he feels has a reason to exist and he talked about his son being an inspiration for it. It’s not just a job. It’s a passion.
I think that is indicative of how we work with talent in general, which is building relationships. Made in Heaven is our third show with Excel.
What was is about Made in Heaven that interested Amazon?
I think if you look at the wedding business and the planning of weddings, it’s a global topic. Indian weddings have their own wonderful traditions and specificity. We had this team of creators that really wanted to explore what it’s like to have a relationship under pressure of producing these kinds of big weddings. Then there’s the clients coming in and how they complicate each other’s lives.
I think it’s really entertaining and has a crisp, creative point of view. I especially love that all the women—not only the two who created the show (Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti), but also the directors (Alankrita Shrivastava and Nitya Mehra)—share a common goal in pulling the curtain back on the complexities of those relationships.
It’s been a little over two years for Amazon as a streaming service in India. How would you assess your progress?
Coming into the company a year ago, I was made aware very quickly that India was one of our fastest-growing regions.
There seems to be a great creative life force here that’s only building every day. The kind of diversity and originality of the shows coming out of India are really resonating with us and our team globally.
We’re very excited about India. A big hit can come from anywhere and some of these incredible shows coming out of India can be our next big global hit.
Are there genres that haven’t been explored that you might get into here?
That’s always the goal—to make sure we’re in the white space. We don’t like to put viewers in a bucket. We’re viewers ourselves.
We love action, we love comedy, we love shows with big emotional heartbeats. Taste varies and our customers vary. But what I’m struck by is the diversity of genre and storytelling here, often coming from the same creators. They’re very versatile and they’re not formulaic, which reflects the fact that they too are operating from a place of passion and specificity and intention.
I don’t think there’s anything stopping us from taking a big swing in a genre we haven’t explored as much. We’re not in the musical documentary business, but I met the Jonas brothers and watched this documentary on them and I was like, we should have that. So we can pivot very easily and maintain that curated approach.
Amazon has been more willing to self-censor than Hotstar or Netflix in India. We first and foremost follow the laws of the land and we’re very respectful of that. We also operate from a place of common sense and wanting to support creative freedom.
So again, these are very case-by-case situations. We’re very clear on being transparent and talking early on when we get into an idea.
We talk about trigger points, instead of someone making a show and we’re like, whoa, we didn’t mean to go down this road.
You announced recently that Amazon would be ramping up film releases to 30 a year. Why the increase?
The impetus is evolving our feature film strategy. We’ll continue to support prestige movies, wider release movies, but the increase in movie output is explained by the fact that we’ve developed a direct-to-service strategy that right now lives in three avenues: a thriller-horror slate of eight movies Jason Blum is making for us; Nicole Kidman’s producers are making date night movies; and we’re speaking to a prolific young adult producer to do something in that space. Those movies are designed from inception to go direct to service.
We also promoted an executive to co-head the movie division who isn’t really focused on prestige as much as the movies that exist in the mid-range budget, which might invite more people into the tent, which aren’t designed to be quite as niche. There’s a variety of pathways.
Will the theatrical window be considered on a case-by-case basis as well?
It’s a 100% case-by-case for us. We bought five movies at Sundance—a documentary and four films. All those movies will be released theatrically but the windows will range from a full theatrical to something more limited.
As for the debate, which is a very lively one in Los Angeles and the world right now, everyone has skin in the game.
We’ll end up with a compromise that leaves both sides feeling a little burned but happy to know there’s a reasonable window.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that the viewing habits of people are changing and you can’t pretend that they’re not. Coming from network TV, I’m acutely aware of what that feels like when you have that one delivery method for your content, but you’ve got to be able to realize that shifting doesn’t mean it’s going away.
Amazon surprised many by spending close to $50 million at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Had you gone in with this strategy in mind?
I’ve been asked a lot if that was a strategy, if I went ahead and planned, ‘okay, I’m going to spend up to X amount of money and this is what my targets are’. It was none of the above. It was really just having the trust of the company, to be able to react, with my team, to things instinctually and emotionally and move on that material. We don’t like to slow things down with too much process.
Getting to Sundance was an exciting moment because I’d been to it many times as a spectator. If there was any strategy it was that in 2019 we have a few big movies with The Aeronauts and others, but it was a little bit of a slower pipeline, with me just having come in and focused on television. So there was an opportunistic reason to move aggressively. So that’s what we did and I felt really great about it.
Are you considering producing movies in India?
Yes. These are early days but we’re talking about that as well.
The Disney OTT (over-the-top) service should be introduced this year. How much will that disrupt the market?
They’re going to be a formidable...not opponent...a formidable horse in the race. We don’t spend that much time focused on competitors. We move forward, we deal with talent and ideas and that’s where our energy goes.
It is a competitive environment and a race for talent, but I think there are so many forces out there, there’s so much diversity yet to be explored that there’s plenty for everyone. We just look to build Amazon as a great home for talent.