What’s Going On at Amazon TV?
Last week, Amazon Studios announced the cancellation of The Last Tycoon after one season. This came quickly after similar news regarding another series, Z: The Beginning of Everything. Both shows were costly historical dramas that never caught on with audiences, although it was still a surprise to see the latter canned given that Amazon had already announced its renewal before spending several million dollars on pre-production costs. I must admit that I’d entirely forgotten Amazon had made a television show about Zelda Fitzgerald starring Christina Ricci. Even in this oversaturated era of television, where every network or streaming platform works overtime to engineer Emmy contenders, I try to keep an ear close to the ground regarding new and upcoming releases. This one, however, just passed me by. The Last Tycoon probably would have done the same if a friend hadn’t watched it for review, only to tell me ‘It’s fine, I guess?’ That about sums it up.
Since both streaming services decided to dip their toes into original content, the perception has been that Amazon remains at war with Netflix. How do two giants of the industry — one of whom dominates every other field, from bookselling to groceries to newspaper ownership — go to battle in an increasingly crowded field where audiences’ attention is more splintered than ever? For Netflix, the strategy has been to go big — lots of money, lots of content, bigger and shinier and impossible to ignore. Amazon, however, have gone quieter but kept that oft-desired sheen of prestige. Remember, it was Amazon whose TV shows were winning awards first, from critically acclaimed family drama Transparent to supposed comedy Mozart in the Jungle. Netflix’s shows may be flashier, with the price tags to match, but Amazon’s business plan has hinted at a more tangible goal in the long-run.
Amazon have less shows, but what they do have work well within more specific niches, like the feminist metatextual drama of I Love Dick or the pitch-black political intrigue of Patriot. While their children’s division is certainly diverse and seemingly flourishing, their most notable content is very much adult oriented. There seems to be a strategy in place, whereas Netflix, with their oodles of cash and the debt to match, have a tactic more akin to flinging spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
On top of that more grown up attitude, Amazon have been keen to brand themselves as a haven for auteurs on both the big and small screen. Their frantic throwing of money at Woody Allen to make a series — remember that? — fizzled on arrival, but the future seems brighter for upcoming series like David O. Russell’s untitled mafia show (starring Julianne Moore and Robert De Niro), and more familiar faces from the world of TV like Matthew Weiner and Amy Sherman-Palladino. According to Variety, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a very clear goal — bring the next Game of Thrones to our platform.
Of course, that’s essentially the aim of every network right now, including HBO. The hope is that that brand of high-end production with glossy visuals and a gripping hook will entice new viewers to the platform. In between cancellations, Amazon announced some new shows they hope will ignite some real passion for the platform, including an adaptation of Garth Ennis’s The Boys by Seth Rogen and the team behind Preacher, a comedy starring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, and an epic period crime drama on the history of Chinese immigration to the USA directed by none other than the legendary Wong Kar-wai. Netflix loves a big name creator too but Amazon keep their strategy refined to a more precise degree.
Amazon have also been smart enough to broadcast shows from other networks to wider markers. In the UK, if you want to watch Black Sails, Outlander or American Gods, you need an Amazon account (Outlander is now on More4 but only after two season had already been broadcast on Amazon). Americans can find British hits like Catastrophe and Fleabag on the service. This model offers Amazon a real cut of the marketplace without having to produce the costly content, and gives them an insight into what the customers want. Here was a selection of popular TV shows that had established fanbases or enough critical acclaim from their network of origin to carry over when moved to Amazon. When everyone is talking about that hot new show on Starz or Channel 4, Amazon can play middle man and reap the benefits while having their own sort of focus group to help with their own content strategy.
Still, their own strategy could use a little more-fine tuning. They’ve got the glow of prestige and the shine from having incredible talent on their team — not to mention their burgeoning film division, with upcoming projects directed by Lynne Ramsay, Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes — but they’re not as central in the wider pop culture conversation as their opponents at Netflix. While the biggest name in streaming certainly has its issues — that debt! — you can’t deny how present they are in every discussion about Peak TV, the Emmys and what everyone’s next binge-watch is. Nobody’s taking the day off work to mainline the newest season of The Man in the High Castle, hence the desire to get ahead of the zeitgeist.
That’s not been a problem with their movies, but that strategy has been remarkably traditional. When it comes to their films, like Oscar winner Manchester by the Sea or Sundance favourite The Big Sick, they’ve operated similarly to most indie studios working today, like Annapurna or A24, working out co-distribution deals with more established operations. Their successes there speak for themselves, but it’s unclear if these projects, which receive typical theatrical releases, actually encourage new subscribers to Amazon, which is the entire point of creating original content. Netflix’s films may not reap Oscar gold but their sign-up numbers continue to steadily increase.
Netflix’s genius has been in its willingness to accumulate. Their ultimate plan is to be the go-to one stop shop streaming service where you can find anything and everything, which obviously requires a lot of money and has questionable implications regarding monopoly of media ownership, but it plays well into the universal truth of human laziness. We’d all far prefer it if everything was on one platform with no fuss or changing of remotes and Netflix are banking on outlasting every other burgeoning streaming service, including the beasts of Disney, to hold that top spot. Amazon can’t really compete with that, although they seem less interested in market domination (although given that they’re Amazon, it’s assumed that they like being at least a little bit evil). They certainly have lofty ambitions, as they’ve recently joined the race to win the distribution rights to the James Bond franchise, and they outbid media giants Sky to win exclusive rights to broadcast the ATP tour. Perhaps the best plan for Amazon isn’t to make exciting new TV: It’s just to make sure you own everything that everyone actually wants to watch.