When Amazon first got into the business of producing original television shows two years ago, it was with the idea of leveraging its vast troves of consumer data and smart recommendation algorithms and sourcing cheap scripts from unknown writers, including amateurs.
The scene at the Golden Globes Sunday night, where the cast and crew of Transparent thanked Jeff Bezos for his support, showed how far Amazon's thinking has evolved. Produced by Amazon Studios and starring Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent became the first streamed show to win a best series Golden Globe, beating out Netflix favorites House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.
Today Amazon is following up on triumph by announcing a deal with Woody Allen to produce his first written and directed television series. The yet-to-be-titled half-hour series is set to premiere on Amazon Prime Instant Video. (Not to be out-streamed, Netflix continues to tap also high-profile stars for upcoming projects, including Tina Fey and the creators of The Matrix.)
Transparent and the untitled Woody Allen project are marked departures from the original mission set out by Amazon Studios. In the beginning, Amazon's original programming aimed to come out of crowdsourcing TV pilot ideas and submitting the candidates to users and staff to vote up or down. Greenlit projects were then developed based on Amazon's extensive recommendation algorithm. That led to Amazon's first pilot season, which consisted of mostly animated series and male-driven comedies. Its best known show at the time was Betas, a lesser version of HBO's more critically acclaimed Silicon Valley.
After those shows failed to make a splash with either viewers and critics, Amazon's TV executives shifted their approach. When it came to developing a second pilot season, a zest for storytelling trumped Amazon's endless trove of data. Taking a page from Netflix, it forgot about the no-names and opened its doors to top Hollywood writers seeking good homes for their passion projects, including those that might be considered too challenging or niche-oriented even for cable. Transparent's creator, Jill Soloway, was a writer and co-executive producer of HBO's Six Feet Under. Her new series is a dark comedy about a father coming out as transgendered.
"What we've learned, which is kind of our theory from the beginning, is that you really have to go with passion," Roy Price, VP of Amazon Studios, tells the New York Times.
"Go with someone who is writing that script, not for the industry and not for other people, but the script that they love and that they are going to love to do," Price says. "If you go with the talent and the passion, it will work out."
As a strategy for minting hit TV shows, it's not as disruptive as the data-driven approach. But there are some things that can't be boiled down to numbers. Just ask Woody Allen.