See How this Veteran Visionary Brought a Flailing Amazon Studios Back from the Brink
“Years ago, people would say you need a white male star…that women should be sexy…You had talented people pitching original ideas who weren’t successful because they didn’t check off all the boxes. Nobody wants to be bored by a mass volume of the same type of show…the opportunity for global storytelling – that’s where the ‘wins’ are now. How exciting to be a part of that!” – Jennifer Salke.
With a refreshingly modest office that’s more reminiscent of a fun family playroom than that of a high-powered Hollywood studio exec, Jennifer Salke’s think tank sits snugly situated on the historic Culver Studios lot, home to the Cecil B. Demille’s entertainment operations and the same lot that brought us legendary films like Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, and Hitchcock’s classic suspense thriller Spellbound. Just beyond her Restoration Hardware walls, Amazon Studios is currently undergoing a discernible do-over – a sprawling, 200,000 square-foot facility is being built in hopes of making cinematic history. It was here that the 55-year-old former NBC development exec successfully wooed actor-comedian-director-producer Jordan Peele who eventually (and gleefully) signed a first-look deal for a television series with Amazon Studios and is set to work on a series about a group of Nazi hunters in the 1970s. Her unmistakably calm, cool, and confident demeanor played an integral part in Peele’s decision to sign on with the tech giant’s studio sector. “With Jen, it seems like she’s secure and confident. That’s necessary because ego and fear lead to bad decisions,” says Peele.
A Dicey Decision?
When Salke ditched her NBC digs to move onto the Amazon Studios lot in March 2018, the film and television studio was a fast-sinking ship. Its former Chief-in-Charge, Roy Price, had recently been forced to resign after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, and in the midst of the #metoo movement, left the already-floundering film studio precariously teetering on the brink of no return. Not to mention, Amazon was being markedly upstaged by the entertainment subscription service Netflix and other content-based competitors as they race to acquire creative talent – both above and below the line – was of the utmost importance. And, to add fuel to the flames, Amazon’s poor previous branding positioned them to be a mere afterthought in the minds of consumers – a superfluous freebie that came with signing up for free 2-days shipping on the tech giant’s site.
With no one wanting to jump into the ravaging waters, Salke, in true entrepreneurial spirit, immediately saw Amazon Studios as a forward-thinking entertainment enterprise that needed to be revamped and redone by the very rarest of Tinseltown types – the ingenious female. “I was really fortunate to be in a time and place, where, unfortunately, Amazon was facing some challenges, so there was such an openness and really embracing support of a female leader,” admits Salke. Referring to her seven illustrious years at NBC, “I loved my job…but, I definitely was more than intrigued and really excited about coming to a place that had that opportunity for truly diverse, global storytelling, and not being trapped in more traditional [entertainment] models,” she declares. Salke felt Amazon Studios seemed like the perfect production company to begin taking risks and to start thinking outside of the box…a bigger, better box.
The Amazon Studios are Salvaged – and Successful!
In the short 18 months since Salke signed on to her new chief-in-charge role at Amazon Studios, she has effectively signed a smorgasbord of hot ticket talent, including A-lister Nicole Kidman (whose very own production company is housed within an unassuming white bungalow on the lot), Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, and writer-producer Lena White. A year before Salke’s arrival, Amazon was in the red, as it came back from that year’s Sundance Film Festival empty-handed and hopeless. Salke has since taken the once-beleaguered studio on a whirlwind shopping spree – spending a reported $46 million on five films, including Mindy Kaling’s Late Night and the hard-hitting documentary One Child Nation, a deeply-resonating film depicting China’s long standing one-child policy. Another powerful purchasing pick included Shia LaBeouf’s autobiographical drama Honey Boy. Part of Salke’s show biz appeal is her seemingly innate ability to procure projects that are provocative, riveting, and unforgettable, like when Amazon was in white-knuckle negotiations to make Brittany Runs a Marathon, a feel-good film about an ordinary woman who gets fit and healthy by running.
Doing it HER Way
With Amazon’s newfound audacious reputation and bold branding strategies for producing daring content that their studio counterparts would deem “risky,” Amazon Studios is quickly becoming the home for creative talent and is expected to easily supersede the success of rivals Netflix, Disney, HBO, Apple, and WarnerMedia. However, Salke is wary to note that Amazon doesn’t subscribe to the customary Hollywood obsession of flooding awards season with “fake” theatrical releases in an effort to boost visibility. “Our North Star is to entertain Prime Subscribers…we care about the percentage of Prime Subscribers who see a show. That’s what I care about,” Salke tells the November 2019 issue of Elle Magazine. Although the studio refuses to reveal viewership stats, Salke continues to build a lofty repertoire of entertainment from more than its 100 million Amazon Prime subscribers in more than 240 countries and regions, while creating a plethora of opportunities for cross content with Amazon’s many other divisions and ventures. In a deal this fall with singer-turned-cosmetics connoisseur Rihanna, Amazon Studios agreed to film the performer and fashion/beauty mogul’s Savage X Fenty show for New York’s Fashion Week. Rihanna’s lingerie line is set to be sold on Amazon.com as part of the deal.
Salke is on a fast-track of pulling away from the traditional Tinseltown method of casting big-breasted, leggy ladies paired with the requisite rugged white male lead and evolving into producing unorthodox content that reflects a more inclusive, diverse set of characters with off-the-cuff stories to match. Salke is also pushing to expand the studios’ international presence, as Amazon hopes to attract more shoppers to the site with its original streaming content. “Years ago, people would say you need a white male star…that women should be sexy…You had talented people pitching original ideas who weren’t successful because they didn’t check off all the boxes. Nobody wants to be bored by a mass volume of the same type of show… the opportunity for global storytelling – that’s where the ‘wins’ are now. How exciting to be a part of that!”
Within days of signing with the behemoth tech site, Salke signed the studio on with ReFrame, an organization that was birthed from the #metoo revelations to help track and embolden gender parity in entertainment. Salke sits on the organization’s advisory board. Salke also signed a pledge with Free the Work, which works to offer opportunities for female directors bidding for commercial work. Salke currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband of 22 years and President of Fox 21 Television Studios, Bert Salke. An original Hollywood power couple, Salke insists their marriage doesn’t suffer competition acquiring the industry’s top talent, as there is enough opportunity to go around.