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Amazon Studios Head Jennifer Salke Breaks Down the $700 Million ¡®Rings of Power¡¯ Gamble and Plan for MGM Integration

Photographs by Art Streiber for Variety

Jennifer Salke entered the Second Age in London.

The head of Amazon Studios spent the 72 hours leading up to the launch of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” in a whirlwind, traveling from the series’ global premiere event in London’s Leicester Square to her Manhattan apartment to watch the early returns arrive via reports from Amazon’s formidable consumer research department. The “Rings” team was exhausted, having had no chance to recover from the grueling worldwide promotional campaign for the Amazon Prime Video series that is an enormous bet for the tech giant, being the most expensive television series ever produced. For most of launch day, Sept. 1, Salke and key members of her executive team, many members of the large ensemble cast and executive producers J.D. Payne, Patrick McKay and Lindsey Weber gathered together for hours in virtual “war rooms,” bone tired but energized, to wait for the world’s reaction.

Art Streiber for Variety

“There was just this adrenalized excitement that, after four and a half years, we were actually letting people see the show,” Salke says. “It really was a holding of hands across the company.”

Salke also kept her eye that night on the numerous war rooms filled with technicians and engineers set up in London, New York, Seattle and sites in India to ensure that the Prime Video streaming had no performance issues as it dealt with what it hoped would be a worldwide deluge of traffic. The last thing Amazon wanted to see when the launch cycle began, was screeching on social media from “LOTR” fans that the platform had crashed. Salke’s nerves were soothed, though, as she saw photos and videos flying around Amazon’s internal messaging channels with scenes of parties and Champagne corks popping as the war rooms monitored the surge that most likely did come.

“They were up all night long,” Salke says. “Pictures were being sent around to everybody. It was just a very culturally defining moment for the global company.”

For Salke, it’s one season down, four to go. The successful maiden voyage of “Rings of Power,” which focuses on stories from the Second Age period of the beloved “LOTR” mythos from author J.R.R. Tolkien, is off to an impressive start. But Amazon Studios is playing the long game with its Tolkien investment. The company committed to an unprecedented five seasons (or 50 hours) of production as part of the jaw-dropping $250 million rights deal struck with the Tolkien estate in November 2017. That came about three months before Salke left her role as president of NBC Entertainment to take the reins of Amazon Studios. She inherited the Elendil-sized task of shepherding the series from idea to fruition.

It was a mission that tapped all the skills she’s honed over the years as a top creative executive at Aaron Spelling Prods. and 20th Century Fox Television, and as an instrumental player in the turnaround at NBC a decade ago.

For these achievements, Salke and Amazon Studios have been named the 2022 recipient of the Variety Vanguard Award, recognizing contributions to the global television industry and presented by Variety and Mipcom. Salke will be honored on Oct. 18 as part of the annual Mipcom content market and conference that runs Oct. 17-20 in Cannes.

Part of Salke’s tough assignment with “Rings of Power” comes with enormous scrutiny on the project from “LOTR” devotees around the world, including one close to home for Amazonians. It’s no secret that Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman of Amazon, is a longtime lover of tales of Middle-earth. With the “Rings” rendition delivered by her team, in addition to the massive growth of Amazon Studios operations since her arrival, Salke has proven herself in the eyes of Amazon’s top boss. “Jen is an inspiring leader who’s built an amazing team and transformed Amazon Studios and Prime Video into a marquee destination for talent, creators and elevated storytelling,” Bezos tells Variety. “Her willingness to take big swings is matched by her good judgment and creative taste. She has just the right kind of thoughtful fearlessness.”

Friends and colleagues of Salke say she demonstrated natural leadership early on. Dana Walden, chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content, was a mentor to Salke when they worked together at 20th Century Fox Television in the 2010s. In Walden’s view, Salke has the combination of charisma, managerial skills and artistic instincts that are needed to work effectively with the creative community and within a giant corporation such as Amazon. “One of the things that makes her so special as an executive is that she is so creative herself. She’s funny. I have never laughed harder than at some of the times I’ve spent with Jen,” Walden says. “She has a unique ability to hear an idea that has the potential to be explosive that others don’t hear, and I think it’s because she connects with creators in a very authentic way.” Nicole Kidman, who earned an Oscar nomination this year for playing Lucille Ball in Amazon Studios’ 2021 biopic “Being the Ricardos,” is effusive about the executive she calls “one of the great female leaders” in the industry. “I’ll do anything for that woman,” Kidman says. “She is deeply kind, loyal, talented — and a treasure.”

I’ll do anything for that woman. She is deeply kind, loyal, talented — and a treasure.

NICOLE KIDMAN

Another star who recently scored in the kudos derby with Amazon Studios is the multi-hyphenate music maven Lizzo, whose unscripted series “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” was an upset winner last month in the Emmy Awards’ tough reality competition series category. Lizzo and her dance troupe were fierce enough to snap the four-year winning streak of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” “When I pitched the concept of ‘Watch Out for the Big Grrrls’ — where we could champion and celebrate women who are often overlooked — [Amazon Studios was] behind the idea immediately and supported my vision every step of the way,” Lizzo says. “Jen’s decision to empower storytellers is what sets her and the team apart.”

As her career has taken her into senior management roles, Salke has done a deft job of managing creative teams at a high level and at the same time staying close to the final product. “She’s very hands-on in the details of these big shows, and it’s the details that make these things work,” says Tony Vinciquerra, chairman-CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Sony TV co-produces one of Prime Video’s biggest series, the sardonic superhero romp “The Boys,” with Amazon Studios. The executives also worked together at Fox. “She genuinely gets excited about her shows, and that’s not always the case with executives,” Vinciquerra says. “She does everything she can to get behind them and make them work, which we love to see.”

The timing of all of this is good news. The most recent season of “The Boys” set viewership records and laid a nice path for “Rings of Power” to follow, which is fortuitous for Salke. As she approaches her fifth anniversary at Amazon, the company is at long last finalizing its plan for the integration of MGM within Amazon’s content operation. It’s been a parlor guessing game in Hollywood as to who would oversee what in the new world order. Amazon insiders have long said that the smart money was on Salke to be rewarded with oversight of MGM’s film and TV production activity for transforming Amazon Studios. Nothing’s official yet — Big Amazon famously takes its sweet time settling on big-picture operational decisions — but the expectation is that MGM will operate as an autonomous label under the Amazon Studios umbrella, reporting to Salke.

As “Rings of Power” cruises to its Oct. 14 finale, Salke sat for a wide-ranging Q&A late last month at Amazon Studios’ newly renovated office complex in Culver City, which incorporates the hallowed ground of the David O. Selznick Studios Southern Gothic mansion, just down the road from what was once MGM and is now Sony Pictures Entertainment. The discussion goes deep into the behind-the-scenes business story of birthing a new chapter of Tolkien, what it’s like to manage creative people in crazy times and the work Team Salke has put in to make Amazon Studios much more than a rounding error for its e-commerce giant. It’s also interspersed with comments on Salke’s professional strengths as an executive from some of the boldface names who are now in business with Amazon Studios.

You walked in the door of Amazon Studios in 2018 with a huge assignment: Get a new iteration of “Lord of the Rings” off the ground. Where did you start?

The essence of the project was clear from the moment I got here, because it emanated from Jeff Bezos and the whole company. They rallied behind making this extraordinary rights deal that was also very groundbreaking for us as a company and in the industry. Bezos is a huge fan of Tolkien and has a great knowledge of the lore. The whole idea of why we got the rights to begin with was to tell the story of good versus evil — of people coming together from all different worlds to fight evil, really. That was really the essence and the heartbeat of the whole thing. And that’s why it resonates with people — that’s why showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay’s vision has resonated. Season 1 is really doing the hard work of setting up who all those characters are, what are the worlds and how are they going to come together to fight the ultimate evil to save the world. I mean, what could be more resonant than that?

Art Streiber for Variety

“Rings of Power” uses Tolkien’s work as a foundation, but there’s a lot of material that’s not from the “LOTR” canon. How did you set the tone for that material?

There’s so much darkness in the world. Leaning into light was the other thing that was really appealing to everybody — bringing something to our global customer base that is hopeful and has light and that a family can watch. So many people have grown up with this literature, and we wanted this series to pay it forward for new generations of Tolkien lovers. The line we’ve been using is “If you’re old enough to read the books, you’re old enough to watch the show.” We knew from the beginning that this was not our “Game of Thrones.” In fact, the fans spoke up from the minute the deal was closed, saying, “Please don’t try to insert sex and a level of provocative violence,” things that don’t feel true to the stories that Tolkien wanted to tell.

How was the Tolkien estate to work with? The rights to this property have been so carved up. Was that tricky at all for you?

Simon Tolkien, the author’s grandson, turned out to be such a collaborator of ours, and a friend. He’s a wonderful guy and an author in his own right. And he’s sort of the designated liaison for this deal with Amazon. There were very clear guidelines around that participation, and he really became such a good sounding board and partner.

What sort of guidance did he give you? What was on his wish list?

It wasn’t that specific; it was more about advising around different pathways of rights that might have challenges to them. Because there are very clear delineations there. But the estate was very open and encouraging for reinvention, but always in ways that stay true to Tolkien. We all have the same kind of vision for this property. There was never any disconnect there, which is probably why it worked out so well.

In my experience, you can’t get a better leader than Jen. She is insanely perceptive, has genuine faith in her creative partners, understands the process, is always at the end of the phone — which is genuinely astonishing — and on top of it all is a very cool person to hang out with. For such a huge studio, Jen makes working with Amazon feel very personal.

PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE

Much has been made of the $450 million price tag for production. Is that number accurate? Did the sheer amount of investment going in make this even more daunting?

We’re building infrastructure for five seasons. We’re building a small city. We were always going to spend what we needed to spend to get it right. I’m fortunate to be working at this company where we want to be financially disciplined, but nobody wanted to compromise on what this would be visually. I think it was all money really well spent. If you look at how people are reacting to the visual experience of the show, that’s been overwhelmingly positive.

What is your target for a Season 2 premiere date?

The production team is working on Season 2 now. We’re going to get that out into the world as soon as we can.

Art Streiber for Variety

Will it be out in 2023?

We want the shortest time possible between seasons, but we want to keep the bar just as high. So it’ll take what it takes. But there’s been some urgency around moving quickly, which is why these guys have been writing all through their hiatus. We’re moving fast.

What was Jeff Bezos’ review of Season 1?

Jeff Bezos loves this show and this whole endeavor as much as anybody possibly could. I’ve talked to him a lot about it. He loves the show, and I can tell he’s proud of it. And he respects the integrity of what we’re setting up and the intelligence and thoughtfulness behind it. And, of course, we hope that more and more people come to it, because it’s five seasons of storytelling.

She’s not a a quiet leader. When she wants something, she really wants it. She pursued “Red, White & Royal Blue” in the same style she pursued “My Policeman.” And when she gets something, she’s all about what can we do to tee you up for success? It creates a familial atmosphere at the studio.  

GREG BERLANTI

One month in, how do you feel about the performance so far?

We’re cresting toward 100 million customers having watched it so … It’s a big number. We can’t wait to get more info on how the audience all breaks down. We really anticipate, with these last three episodes, a huge turnout, because it’s all coming together and curiosity is at a fever pitch. And these last few episodes are the strongest in the season, because they’re not just about the setup. They’re excellent.

It’s been almost seven months since Amazon closed its $8.5 billion acquisition of MGM. Do you have clarity on how Amazon Studios and MGM will coexist?

You’re going to see us investing, as a company, even more in film. You’ll see more investment and more expansive opportunities for film. You’ll see more fluidity between theatrical and streaming options for films. And then there’s a TV team that’s still working on great shows that exist outside our company. And we’re looking forward to more collaboration as time goes on.

Will Amazon Studios continue to make movies for theatrical release?

Yes, we will. With all the IP and our growing strategy around film, there’s going to be more opportunity.

Jen deeply cares about telling female-driven stories, and she’s been a fantastic partner to Hello Sunshine from the very beginning. She is genuine and passionate, and she has assembled an exceptional team at Amazon.  

REESE WITHERSPOON

Even with all the volatility in the stock market, Amazon’s market cap is still more than $1 trillion. Do box office receipts matter to your film business?

It definitely matters. Our goal is to make some big films that will have value across the spectrum in theatrical and then to streaming. The goal is to make hit movies. We all know that’s not easy. As we build out the larger businesses around us and all the things we’re doing in ad-supported streaming, we’re just thinking about more options for customers. Nothing rings the bell louder than big originals that are global. So you’re going to see us invest more on the film side and the television side.

Give me an example of a show that only Amazon Studios would make.

“Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls.” During COVID, we went to a [Zoom] meeting with her. She got on and she just — she’s so Lizzo. She talked about her upbringing and breaking into the business. She’s like, “When I go in to cast my backup dancers, there’s nowhere to call. I have to find these people myself.” She told us she wanted to sign her own agency called Big Grrrls to cultivate talent, and she wanted to do a reality show where some [contestants] become her backup singers. I said, “We’re done. We’re doing that.” And so we just moved forward, and it was just the most joyful experience.

Jen Salke has been a great partner on our movie [“The Tender Bar”] and we hope to make many movies with her in the future.  She has great instincts and has been extremely supportive. She is honest, reliable, visionary and has a sharp focus on delivering movies that move and inspire the audience.

BEN AFFLECK

You are angling for big global hits with “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Boys,” “Jack Ryan.” How much are you investing in local-language production of content aimed for specific regions outside the U.S.?

Local language and regional series are very important to us. We’re investing hugely in “Citadel” from the Russo Brothers. It’s a big global [spy thriller]. I’ve seen the first three episodes. The whole idea behind that show is global storytelling with standalone local series that feed into the storylines and fill in details about specific characters. So there’s a show set in India featuring a big star and showrunners there who are working under the umbrella of “Citadel” that will fill in the details of Priyanka Chopra’s character. And in Italy, we’re doing the same, and there’s another in Mexico. We had an international Citadel summit [at Amazon Studios headquarters in Culver City] where we showed the some of the footage from Joe and Anthony [Russo]. So we’re experimenting with stuff like that.

I loved working with Jen on “Being the Ricardos.” She’s brilliant, creative, supportive and loves movies, and you can’t hope for more than that from a studio head.  

AARON SORKIN

Amazon Studios has seen its staff grow by more than 50%, to about 1,500 employees, since you signed on. The studio’s output has had a similar growth curve. What’s been the biggest challenge of managing that kind of growth?

What you’ll notice with us is that we’re going to try to not do everything. We’re going to try to do some things really well, as far as acquiring new audiences, and then evolve from there. Every decision we make is associated with a goal; it’s not like I just go, “OK, let’s greenlight that.” We look at whatever data we have to support — if you spend X amount on that, we expect to accomplish A, B and C. We are constantly looking at [Prime Video’s] overall trajectory of how are we engaging with customers. This is not like when I got here, and the mandate was to “surprise and delight” 200 million Prime members. We’re a responsible business unit. And we just try things we believe in. The only thing we know for sure is that hits are elusive and data’s imperfect. If you don’t take risks, you will definitely not be right a lot of the time. So we are a company that works hard not to be risk-averse.

Jen Salke is a superb creative executive, very intuitive. She’s confident in her taste and she knows how to help shape a writer’s vision. She just cuts right to the essence of a show and knows how to get the best out of her creative teams. She’s also always been good at trusting her gut and going with it, even when something isn’t obvious.

BOB GREENBLATT

TOP AMAZON STUDIOS SERIES SINCE 2018

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022) 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (2018) — co-produced with Paramount Television Studios and Skydance Television

The Boys (2019) — co-produced with Sony Pictures Television 

Reacher (2022) — co-produced with Paramount Television Studios and Skydance Television

The Wheel of Time (2021) — co-produced with Sony Pictures Television  

Upload (2020) 

The Summer I Turned Pretty (2022) — co-produced with Wiip 

Source: Amazon 


Makeup: Joanna Wood; Hair: Liz Sustaita; Look 1 (cream skirt dress): dress: Burberry; Look 2 (black dress in office); dress: Fendi