Skip to story Left: Roy Price | VP of Amazon Studios | Amazon; Right: Cindy Holland | VP of original content | Netflix LOUISE POMEROY
When Netflix debuted the binge-worthy first season of House of Cards in 2013, the company that brought down Blockbuster with its DVD-by-mail service ushered in yet another new era of entertainment: the age of quality web television. Just two years later, though, Netflix has company, as everyone from Yahoo! to Hulu is jumping on the original programming bandwagon. The most formidable opponent, though, is Amazon Studios, which, thanks to its hit original series Transparent, won two Golden Globes this year for Best Comedy TV Series and Best Actor in a Comedy Series.
As the two tech leaders battle it out for viewers’ attention, they’re driving each other to be better and better, making life a whole lot more interesting for the average remote-clutching couch potato. We talked to the brains behind these operations—Cindy Holland, vice president of original content at Netflix and Roy Price, VP of Amazon Studios—to see what they look for in new projects and how they view their roles in shaping the evolution of television. —Issie Lapowsky
The world of original web television is a few years underway. How have you seen this industry change over the last, say, five years?
Price: A few years ago we had some explaining to do. Is it web video? Is this YouTube? I think that’s evolved quite a bit. People have seen that a lot of great content is coming out through non-traditional sources. Now, we’re at a point where when we say we’re calling from Amazon, we don’t have to explain that we’re not calling about whether someone got their package or not.
Holland: The environment for original programming has really been evolving starting with broadcast television. You think about Hill Street Blues in the ‘80s as a watershed moment for the quality of broadcast television. The Sopranos in 1999 was HBO thinking about what premium television was. Netflix is on that evolutionary path. I think we’re just scratching the surface on the notion of what an original series can be. House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black are innovative in certain ways, but also very traditional in terms of the length of an episode or how the storytelling is structured. Now, the creative teams working on series for us are asking us to allow them to experiment with the types of storytelling and chapter length. We’re encouraging them to be as adventurous as they dream to be.
What makes the web TV model preferable to the way television has traditionally been made?
Price: One benefit here is that we don’t have multiple parties we’re looking to please. We don’t have advertisers. We don’t have a problem like Wednesday at 9:30 pm, where we need to lead out from Frasier or something. You get into certain TV environments, and you’re developing shows and thinking about 12 different factors. We don’t have to do that. We only have one thing that we think about: Is this going to be special and different?
Holland: All we have to do is identify an audience size that meets the economics of the project, and we can take risks on projects both large and small. The creators we have been working with so far have been very interested in changing the way stories are told and seen, and we allow them quite a lot of creative freedom. We want people to join us in shaping what the future looks like.
Today, competition in this field is fiercer than ever, with both tech companies and traditional media companies vying for the best new series. What do you offer creators that no one else does?
Price: Amazon has the ability to reach out to a lot of people and find the right people for a show to generate interest and attention. On Amazon, we can reach out to a customer base that’s appropriate to that show, so we can succeed with shows that are more nuanced and serialized. But television now is so unlike how it was in 1975 or ‘85 or even ‘95. There are so many companies out there that spending a ton of time thinking about competitors and whether they’re developing a certain show—I don’t think that’s time well spent. I don’t think it makes you better. The reality is if you both make great shows people will probably watch them both.
Holland: I don’t feel there is any one competitor. We tend to play our own game. Our yardstick measurement is really against how we’ve done before and what we expect to achieve in the future. But I do believe our culture is a real differentiator. We’re willing to allow folks to bring their vision to life. We’re buying [Orange Is the New Black creator] Jenji Kohan’s creative vision, not mine. Because we’re tinkerers and risk takers by nature we have a mentality that fits well with the creative folks we’re in business with.
Because we are technology leaders first and foremost, we’re also always pushing the envelope there. So we are leading the way in 4K storytelling. All of our shows are shot in 4K, which has been an interesting discussion and process, because even the movie studios are, by and large, still shooting on film or on cameras that are less than 4K. It’s been a conversation with each of our storytellers on why 4K is important to the future of storytelling. Even though the TVs out in the marketplace today aren’t capable of capturing the images, they will be in the future.
What do you look for in new projects?
Price: One thing we look for is real specificity in terms of the characters and the world. Traditionally there’s been a desire to make shows relatable, so the maximum number of people would think of those characters as being recognizably like them. The risk there is you can push everything in a somewhat generic direction. We think the thing that you want people to relate to ultimately is the characters’ goals and emotions. So you can have a very specific character, who’s unlike me or you, but the emotion is there.
In the on-demand environment, you need love, not like. There’s no lead in. You’re not going to surf channels and hit it.
That’s how we pick the pilots, and then we produce the pilots and put them online and get a lot of feedback. There’s no voting, and it’s not mechanistic, but we take a look at a lot of different evidence about whether people liked it. We are looking to understand not whether it’s generically appealing, but whether there is a group of people for which this could be a favorite show. In the on-demand environment, you need love, not like. There’s no lead in. You’re not going to surf channels and hit it. People have to really want that show. Then, we take into account what we know about the show and the show runner. So it’s a mix of science and art.
Holland: It’s really creator driven, so either a filmmaker like David Fincher or a television show runner like Jenji Kohan come to us with an idea they’re passionate about. It starts with a great creative idea, and we do some analysis to see if we can support the economics required to bring that idea to life, and if there’s an audience large enough among our subscribers to support that project. We have a series of projection models we run. We’ve used versions of these models from our DVD days. We can project out how many viewers there might be for any given type of project, so it’s not an exact science but we’ve been very successful at predicting minimum audience size for any particular movie or television show or idea. We don’t think about our subscribers in terms of male/female and age, we identify them based on taste preferences.
Now that you’ve changed the way we watch television, what are your plans for taking on the big screen?
Price: The death of film has been greatly exaggerated. It’s been a somewhat difficult time for independent or prestige films or even a strong drama. There are some aspects of the business model of those films that are suboptimal. Those movies are in the theater relatively briefly, and then it’s a pretty considerable wait until they’re available on demand and DVD. The maximum awareness and desire to see the movie is when the movie is released, and yet they wait until as many people as possible have forgotten their desire to see the movie, and then it gets released digitally. That doesn’t seem ideal. I think we could make the market for independent film much more robust. That has to do with the timing of the digital release. We want films to have a great theatrical run also, but I think we can move that timing up a little bit to take maximum advantage of the early interest.
Holland: We are definitely serious about an investment in feature film. As to what that looks like in the future, we’re not sure. But we do think there’s a demand for great theatrical length programming. We approach it this way: whether it’s a 13-hour movie in the form of a series like House of Cards or whether it’s a 90-minute feature film, great programming is great programming.
What are some predictions for the future of this industry?
Price: I left Disney in 2000 because I thought that the process of watching TV was really going to change and the process of creating it and the business model had to change, too. I think we’re going to observe a lot of that. TV is going to be more tailored to you and the traditional experience of coming in in the middle of a show will be part of the past. Even the concept of channels and networks will probably evolve, and my version of a particular brand might be different from yours. The good news for customers is that everything inconvenient or annoying about TV, a lot of that will be innovated away.
Holland: I think it’s going to be a huge and really diverse and vibrant marketplace. There may not be so many buyers of original premium programming that are truly Internet-based today, but a few years from now there will be a huge number of them. When you fold in cable and broadcast networks, there are hundreds of buyers so it’s never been a better time for creators and creativity, and that’s all going to benefit viewers. But I think television continues to exist. You’re already seeing the evolution of linear networks that also develop apps that look like something we’re doing today. So I wouldn’t predict the end of broadcast television just yet. It’s going to persist for quite some time, but you will see the evolution to apps develop pretty rapidly.
Check out the full Next List here.