Amazon might be an SVOD of sorts but its evolution reflects a rapidly changing sector poised for new entrants. Head of international originals James Farrell tells Richard Middleton what’s in the works
A flurry of SVOD services are set to join the market over the coming months but none look anything quite like Amazon Prime Video.
Bolted onto the side of the world’s largest retailer, it has always occupied a unique position within the streaming landscape, regularly mentioned alongside competitors such as Netflix but, in truth, quite a different business.
It is not just the nature of the company behind it that makes Prime Video stand out from an increasingly large crowd: the company has for some time embraced more flexible rights models; it seems happy enough for shows to only work in one territory; and it has the luxury of knowing that the company’s core business isn’t directly built on the success or failure of its programming. All three differentiators, of course, are probably linked to the fact that it is Amazon-backed.
None of that is to say the retail giant’s boss Jeff Bezos would be too happy if the $1.7bn spent on content in the first quarter of 2019 had gone to waste though, of course. But it does mean there is a marked difference in how the company approaches content, as well as those who produce and distribute it – something that seems to be increasing as the SVOD evolves.
“We are very lucky to be part of the Prime ecosystem,” admits head of international originals James Farrell, the former Sony Pictures Entertainment distribution exec who is a year into the job. “It is not a volume game here – we are not a service where you just need to watch a ton of shows each month.”
Farrell is supremely adept at side-stepping any mention of his SVOD rivals by name but he is clear about where the differences lie between Prime Video and both incumbents – such as Netflix – and the soon-to-launch triumvirate of Apple TV, Disney+ and HBO Max.
“Everybody is running very different businesses,” he says. “If I ran an AVOD I would be looking for very different content to what we are looking at, which is quality – and that is priority one.
“If I was in the volume game and had to program a broadcaster with four hours of primetime, or if I worked on a standalone SVOD that needed to get you to watch 50 hours a month, the way I program would be very different. So it’s not too helpful to see what other folks are doing.”
It helps Farrell’s case that Amazon is by and large doing things quite differently from its rivals. The exec readily concedes that he uses the word “distinctive” regularly, but that is core to the streamer’s proposition, he adds, and the priority for a local original is for it to work in the market where it is commissioned.
“The shows and films we want to make in France, for example, are our best chance to reach out to our French customers – it lets them know we have content on the service for them. So it is super important that the content works in France for French customers, Germany for German customers and the like,” he says, with series such as techno drama Beat available in the latter.
“Our mandate in India for example, as well as elsewhere, is making shows that have to be distinctive. So even if a customer only watches a couple of series or films each month, they come out thinking, I can’t wait to watch Amazon’s show next month,” he explains.
The Indian example is an intriguing one: a market of a billion people where Prime – providing free shipping alongside Prime Video – has been available for more than three years. It is now fast becoming a battleground for global streaming companies and Amazon is fighting hard.
“Our volume in India is higher mainly because that is what customers there want,” he explains, with shows such as Made In Heaven and Inside Edge on the originals slate. “Some other countries might love US content for example so our need to produce isn’t as great – we still produce content in Canada and Australia but the customers are pretty happy with blockbusters coming out of the US for example or from the UK.”
India is different though and Farrell says around 12 originals are on the slate at present, including shows such as Mirzapur. “That’s a good number. It’s one a month and any more than that can start to seem cluttered. One of the reasons why so much talent really likes working with us is because they know they will get all of our marketing push for that entire month,” he says, highlighting a regular bone of contention for producers of shows for other global streamers.
“Their show isn’t going to be lost in the shop or buried behind other things, we are all in on those 12 programmes and that is pretty exciting for talent. They want their shows to stand out.”
The ‘glocal’ programming trend can also be a handy boon for Amazon, as Farrell admits. “It’s been something of a pleasant bonus that if you make a show really distinctive – whether that’s Made In Heaven, which you start off thinking would be great for Indian viewers, or The Marvellous Mrs Maisel for people in the US – and if they are well-written with great characters they can have that global reach.” Others, such as German drama franchise Deutschland 83, 86 and 89, have fared better abroad than domestically.
Farrell adds that Made In Heaven has worked “incredibly well around the world” and he believes recent release Family Man, also from India, will perform equally well. Indian originals could grow further because of regional language differences, Farrell adds, but the exec’s global remit means he must balance output. It also means he has a rarely surpassed oversight of programming trends internationally.
“Spanish shows are super high quality,” he says, highlighting series such as El Cid, La Templanza and Un Asunto Privado as forthcoming series that he expects to engage, though that is perhaps underplaying it.
“They will be monster hits,” Farrell enthuses, “and our Sergio Ramos show [El Corazon de Sergio Ramos] is doing great, too, we are super bullish on those series.” He has similar hopes for the company’s slate in Brazil.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in Brazil recently – Prime just launched there – and we are really well positioned with some great content coming out over the next 12 months,” Farrell continues. But the market is a good example of the challenges facing global streamers as they look to establish themselves against muscular local players – in this case, companies such as long-established giant Globo and more recent entrants such as YouTube.
Farrell argues that the “very distinctive” Brazilian line-up can cut through, however. “If you’re a younger viewer and watch a lot of YouTube you probably still like great drama and comedy but the problem is no one is making it. It doesn’t work on broadcast and more local stories don’t necessarily work for the other global platforms.
“If we can execute super high-quality, well-written and funny shows – and not just scripted but unscripted too – then it will be very distinctive and interesting to those customers.”
Few shows have been unveiled as yet but one key title is Tudo Ou Nada: Seleção Brasileira, a study into the daily lives of the Brazilian national football team, which won the Copa America in 2019. The series is due to launch in 2020 and is an indicator of Prime Video’s fast-expanding unscripted strategy and an insight into how it uses formats.
On the former, Farrell says that to date, unscripted shows “in pretty much every country” has worked for the streamer. But there is a caveat.
“The types of shows that work in different countries are very different, so for example in Japan one of our top shows is The Bachelor format from Warner Bros. It does fantastically well. We’ve already commissioned The Bachelorette for next year there as well and that franchise will continue for a long time. In some countries, we wouldn’t make that show but it was so different to what was out there.”
Plans for European formats are also in the works but Farrell is keeping details close to his chest for now. He is more open about his wider format strategy, which can operate on both a country-by-country basis and as part of a global play.
“We are very open to formats – the key is it needs to be distinctive,” he says, noting again his use of the word. “In Japan, nobody really makes the big local formats – there isn’t The Voice or MasterChef so the format space was wide open.
“Then when we looked at what the Japanese companies were making for themselves, they were doing some things really well – a lot more male-skewing stuff like Wipeout. We said if we are going to import a format then we want something that nobody else is doing, with a female angle for example, which is why we went after The Bachelor.
“It is similar elsewhere in the world – if The Voice or Idol had worked in France, for example, it wouldn’t be a case of us then looking to do Got Talent. We wouldn’t do the same thing, it’s not distinctive. We look for the white space.”
Then there’s Tudo Ou Nada: Seleção Brasileira. Although it was the first original show to be ordered by Prime Video in Brazil, the format was not new. The company had already made a UK version, focused on Premier League football side Manchester City and a US series about American Football sides including the Arizona Cardinals, while a show about New Zealand’s national rugby team the All Blacks debuted last year.
“We’ve also got our LOL (Last One Laughing) competition show too,” Farrell adds. The Mexican version has already become a hit and Rebel Wilson was recently secured to front an Australian version, to be produced by Endemol Shine Australia. “It’s not just a case-by-case basis,” Farrell highlights, “we can roll out and do formats over and over.”
Which brings us neatly onto rights, which applies to both unscripted and scripted. “There is a spectrum where on the one hand we fully-finance – we pay everything and take worldwide rights, and that is great in a lot of cases.
“The shows and films we want to make in France are our best chance to reach out to our French customers – it tells them we have content on the service for them and that is super important” James Farrell
“At the other end of the spectrum, we have licensing deals where we could be the second or third window. We’ll negotiate a fee to come in later but then we don’t have the creative involvement. And then there is the stuff in between, co-productions where territories and windows are split. And we are happy at either end of the spectrum or in the middle.”
Scroll through the order slate for Prime Video and examples do indeed dot the spectrum. Last month, Amazon Prime Video France scored first-window SVOD rights to thriller The Inside Game from Newen Distribution, and a month before that the streamer picked up global rights to Súbete A Mi Moto, about 1970s Puerto Rican band Menudo. But it has also co-produced with partners such as the BBC, with recent launches including Good Omens, which launched in May.
Just how this non-binary approach to producing will fare as new SVODs enter the market is unclear, but Farrell is adamant that the focus is purely on Amazon. But what does he make of the mega deals that will see shows such as Friends moving to HBO Max and Seinfeld – which has been available on Prime Video in numerous countries including the UK – moving to Netflix in what is believed to be a deal worth north of $500m?
“I read the headlines on those things but I look at what is working for us. I assume that those folks are looking at what is working for them and if they are going to pay all that money then it must mean that those shows will perform.
“Library content does work for us, a lot of people watch a lot of hours of it, people don’t just watch the newest thing – they watch those shows as comfort food on the weekend and when they get home late. I get it.”
And while Farrell works in originals – not licensing – he suggests there is a balance to be found. “If they think that a show is exactly what customers want to see then [our licensing teams] will fight for that show. But if they think that actually instead of spending that money on one show there are 10 other shows that could be acquired for the same price – and if we think customers will spend more hours watching those 10 shows – then we’ll get those 10. Our licensing guys are a smart group, they wouldn’t do something irrational.”
But there is clearly a rush for talent that Prime Video is by no means immune to, highlighted by Amazon Studios’ recent deal with Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Farrell’s US colleagues are also behind the much-discussed Lord Of The Rings reboot, rights for which came in at around $250m: so given that US rights to Friends are now going for around double that, does he think such a deal that will deliver original IP globally looks like good value?
“I’m not on that team but all the signs are it is going super well. I don’t think anybody is saying we shouldn’t have done that.
“Amazon is a great company because as soon as you know what customers want, it is very supportive and will say, ‘let’s do more of that’. If something like Lord Of The Rings is a big hit and if customers love it as we dive deeper into some of that classic [IP], I’m sure my colleagues from the US will find more of those things to do. And if The Bachelor in Japan works then we’ll do more there, and there will be more formats in Europe,” he says, before again referring to Prime Video’s model as the key differentiator.
“There are some great companies entering and some great content on the way, they will do very well. But they have very different business models, different content and some are local versus global. They’re all very different to us.”