Woody Allen is a director used to exercising his own creative freedom, but even he must have been surprised by the lax demands made of him by Amazon when he signed a deal to produce a comedy series for them recently.
“We basically told him, ‘You’re the genius. Go away, produce something brilliant, see you in two weeks or two years, doesn’t matter,’” reveals Amazon Prime’s Film & TV Strategy Director (Instant Video) for the UK, Chris Bird. “We’ll see it when it’s done.
“I like to think that with creative freedom and no interfering eyes, his juices will flow and he’ll come up with something that we like because it’s him.”
Creative freedom is what it’s all about for the distributor who has, like Netflix, recently turned its focus, and plentiful resources, to acquiring and producing original, exclusive content, to add to its considerable distribution platform. The strategy has been rewarded with shows including the third series of ‘Vikings’ from the man behind ‘Tudors’ Michael Hirst, Spielberg-exec produced ‘Extant’ starring Halle Berry, and most spectacularly with transgender comedy ‘Transparent’, which earlier this year beat more traditional shows, both in content and platform, to two Golden Globes – for Best Comedy and Best Leading Actor for Jeffrey Tambor.
“We’re trying to be progressive and thought-provoking in our content,” explains Chris. “We know they’re not TV shows for everyone, but hopefully they’ll excite some of our customer base.
“We don’t have to conform to the general rules of TV-making. Our episodes don’t have to be squeezed into a 60-minute slot.”
He cites ‘Ripper Street’, the BBC show at risk of being cancelled until scooped up by Amazon. “We wanted to do something different, we’ve made our series (Series 3 of the show) more intense and passionate.”
One of Amazon Prime’s innovations is its pilots project, where it showcases a choice of TV pilots, and viewers can decide which ones get picked up for a whole series. While genuinely democratic, this does seem to pose the risk of populism over the creative freedom promised above? Chris Bird puts the onus firmly back on the programme-maker…
“I say to the auteur, ‘Make it happen.’ If you want your show to get made, you’ll have to find a way of making sure it does.
“Look at ‘Transparent’. If someone had told me two years ago that Amazon would win two Golden Globes for a comedy about a 70-year-old transgender person… “ he doesn’t need to finish. Point made.
“There must be more out there,” he adds. “We’re asking extremely creative people to stretch themselves, to make the stuff that traditionally would have been too difficult to fit into that TV hour.
“In return, we can greenlight those productions, we’re not constrained by ad breaks, by running time, or episodes. We can release them all once or episodically, whatever works.”
Chris is palpably, and understandably, gleeful at all the opportunities created by an established customer base, very deep pockets and technology streamlining the whole process.
“All these new devices do make us feel very innovative,” he acknowledges. “The biggest change in the last five years has been boldness of concept.”
And what’s the biggest challenge that comes with all these fruits?
“Doing everything we want,” he ponders. “The rules aren’t set, it’s a whole new area of TV, and we’re being overwhelmed with opportunity. We have to adhere to principles.”
We’re asking everyone we speak to for TV Revolution about the show they binge-watch themselves. For Chris Bird, it’s US show ‘Supernatural’ – “I’ve been known to watch 13 of those in a go.”
And what was the show that first brought into TV’s new Golden Age?
“I would have to say ‘24’,” he decides. “That moment when movie stars got into TV, and it became all about the narrative arc.”