Amazon Studios Chief Talks Woody Allen, Today’s New Pilots and Ratings

Roy Price plots his streaming service's future

Just two and a half years ago, Amazon Studios did not exist as a streaming service. But since then, Amazon has slowly but surely built up a stable of original series. Last fall, it took a big leap forward in legitimacy, and it began to finally match the quality of Netflix's shows thanks to Transparent, which landed 11 Emmy nominations and became Amazon's signature series.

Earlier this week Amazon set its fall lineup, with a new or returning show rolling out each month (including Season 2 of Transparent, which begins streaming on Dec. 4). The company also revealed that despite Woody Allen's public protests, his upcoming Amazon series is on track to air later next year. And today, the streaming service rolls out two new pilots—the marvelous drama Sneaky Pete and Casanova—and will solicit feedback from Amazon customers as it decides whether to pick them up for a full season.

In the midst of Amazon's busy week, Amazon Studios director Roy Price sat down with Adweek to talk about his new pilot strategy, "Woody being Woody" and why ratings don't matter.

Adweek: From the beginning, Amazon Studios' primary objective has been to make Amazon Prime customers happy enough to keep renewing their subscriptions, while also bringing in new Prime customers. Is that still the case?
Roy Price: Yes. You're both serving the Amazon Prime customer, which is great, adding value on top of the stuff that they already have, and also introducing the service to new people, who may not have been using it but were attracted because they hear about the shows. So those are the two goals, and we're seeing success on both dimensions.

When you made the deal last week with the Top Gear team, had you been looking to push into the automobile genre, or did you specifically want to be in business with them?
I think you want to be in business with people that are, or are going to be, the voices of their time. And when those people become available and they want to do something, you need to get into that conversation and see if you can be a part of that.

Woody Allen keeps saying how much he regretted making his Amazon deal. Was that just Woody being Woody, or did he ever come to you and say he wanted out?
That's totally Woody being Woody. The thing to worry about would be if he was suddenly super sunny and positive about it. Then I'd be worried [laughs]. But we met on Friday, all systems go, looking good, on track. We'll shoot around the turn of the year. It's all good.

Can you say anything about what his show will be about?
I have nothing else to say at this time.

It seemed as if some people were interpreting his earlier comments to mean that you were forcing him to stick to a deal that he didn't want to be a part of.
We would never do that, because you're not going to get a good show. That was not the case.

The Woody Allen show is going straight to series. Will you do more straight-to-series orders going forward, or do you still enjoy Amazon's public pilot process? 
Straight to series will always be the exception, but if it's the right answer in a particular circumstance, we'll do it. But it has to be a very particular set of circumstances and talent. Most of the time, we will not do it.

You're debuting only two new pilots Friday after rolling out 13 in January. Does this mean you're transitioning to a smaller number of pilots for each round? 
We'll be very interested to see how it goes, because maybe ultimately we can get to the point of having one or two per month. Or maybe we continue to bunch them up. We'll have to do this one and see how it goes. We just did the first pilot season for kids that didn't also have adult shows at the same time. So we continue to experiment and evaluate what works.

Last summer, you looked at some network pilots that weren't picked up, but decided not to move forward with any of them. This year you acquired Sneaky Pete after CBS passed on it. What did you see in that show?
I think that could be a very exciting, deeply involving show. It really wants to be a serialized, single-camera show. It is a show that is really well suited for us. And the fact that it may not have been suited to the previous network doesn't really reflect on whether it's a good fit for us one way or the other. It may indeed not be a good fit for them and be a good fit for us, in which case it's a happy outcome.

During your TCA session on Monday, you said Casanova was the most ambitious pilot Amazon had done. Did you mean ambitious in terms of budget?
Maybe that wasn't a great choice of words. Because you could say in a way, Transparent is the most ambitious pilot we've done. It's a big, opulent world, I'll say that. And it has that big, period, epic spirit, and I think that's what we meant by ambitious. But you could make the argument as to whether it was the most ambitious of all time. Hand of God is one that definitely takes chances. Man in the High Castle, very big, imaginative. So maybe it's tied for first.

Netflix keeps adding more series each year, and Hulu is also increasing its number. What is a manageable number for Amazon? You're debuting one a month this fall, so would you like to have 12 shows a year?
There may be a number that is unproductively high in the sense that it would be possible to have so many coming out that it just becomes very chaotic. I think having something coming out every three or four weeks is very manageable, mentally. I guess you could argue that you want to have a few more than that would suggest, to allow for the occasional misfire or what have you.

When you started releasing series, you put out new episodes each week. By last year you'd switched to the binge model and released all episodes at once. Would you ever go back to one episode per week?
I think people are used to it now, and it would be a hard switch to make. I do worry a little; there is something about a show that comes out every week that provides a certain pleasurable anticipation of the next episode. And yes, technically, you'd like it immediately, but there's something kind of good about [waiting]. From a business point of view, I think it increases the risk of the show because if you launch it all at once, it either takes off or it doesn't. But I think the base expectation now is to binge-release, so for the most part, that is what I would expect to continue to do.

You won't talk about ratings, but what can you say about how viewers are watching your shows?
Primarily people are watching on some version of a TV. There was a lot of talk [in the TCA session] about trying to watch it on your computer, but that's not really how it's done. Most TVs these days, they have the [Amazon] app, and most people watch that way.

I just feel like the ratings can be a little bit of a distraction. If someone told you that one novel had outsold another novel by 20 percent, would that make you more likely to read it? It wouldn't in my case. If you said, "Why would you read Light in August instead of Absalom, Absalom! when one of them sold a lot more than the other?" I don't care that much about that. I guess if you regarded yourself as some sort of super paragon of the mainstream, where mass viewership numbers would always determine your preferences, then that would be super helpful. But I think for most people it's only semi-useful. 

During Monday's session, you and your team said that you don't want to make people's third-favorite shows, you want to make their favorite shows. But you recently passed on picking up Hannibal, which is indeed the favorite show of a small but loyal audience. What led you to conclude that you couldn't make that  deal?
I never comment on deals, whether they are deals we made or didn't make, but I think a show in that circumstance has a tough time, unless it is a multi-award-winning, widely revered show. If it's not that, and it's merely a well-regarded show, and it's not a huge ratings winner, kind of a middle-of-the-road show, then what are you hoping to get from that? What is your dream scenario? Now, what is your dream scenario for a totally new show you could do? Unless the cupboards are really bare in the development department, I bet the dream scenario is better for the new show than the show you might get another season for. Because you already know the outcome of that show. And if the outcome of that show was really brilliant, it wouldn't be available. So those have a bit of a tough path.