Amazon with Jeremy Clarkson is making a bid to be a major broadcaster
At first glance, it seemed like a typically iconoclastic move by a man who has made a career out of upsetting apple carts (and TV executives). When Jeremy Clarkson announced last month that he and his fellow ex-Top Gear presenters, Richard Hammond and James May, had agreed to front a new motoring show for internet company Amazon, many fans were taken by surprise.
The trio, after all, were television’s hottest free agents at the time, having left the BBC abruptly following a widely reported punch-up in a hotel, and commentators were confidently predicting the team would be signed up by ITV, Sky or another of the BBC’s traditional rivals.
Former Top Gear trio Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May, moving to Amazon.
But, in fact, we shouldn’t have been surprised at all; Amazon has been plotting to take over the world of television for years and the Top Gear coup is just the start of an accelerated investment in programme making and feature film production by a company that not that many years ago was most famous for selling books online.
But why is Amazon muscling its way into film and television? And what will it mean for viewers? The answer to the first question is simple: it is doing it because it can. Over the last five years a technological revolution has seen more and more people watching their favourite films and television shows over the internet.
Instead of waiting for a time in the week when a broadcaster deigned to show the next episode in a particular series, viewers now have the opportunity to watch programmes or movies at a time and a place of their choosing, whether that be in their living room between nine and 10 o’clock on a Tuesday evening or under a tree in their local park on a Sunday afternoon.
The on-demand streaming service Netflix has attracted more than four million subscribers in the UK with a slate of dramas, sitcoms, documentaries, children’s programmes and films.But, if anything, Amazon is in an even stronger position than Netflix.
The sixth most popular website in the world, Amazon has tens of millions of internet-connected customers, most of whom have, over the years, happily embraced an ever-expanding suite of Amazon products. The US company was also in the film-rental business way before Netflix, having built up a back catalogue of tens of thousands of films and TV shows, which it sent to customers via post.
Realising that the era of the DVD was almost at an end, and the attraction of watching content immediately, at the click of a button, was growing, Amazon set about buying the rights to stream content, and, in 2008, launched Amazon Video on Demand.
The offering was limited. But, then, in 2011, the service was rebranded as Amazon Instant Video and added access to 5,000 movies and TV shows. Anyone who belonged to Amazon Prime, the company’s pounds 79-a-year subscription service, could now watch thousands of TV programmes and films for free.
But the first real coup for the streaming service came in 2014, when it successfully revived the Victorian crime drama Ripper Street, which had been cancelled by the BBC in December 2013.
“Forty thousand people signed a petition to keep it alive,” notes Chris Bird, Amazon’s UK director of content strategy, who also secured zeitgeisty US shows such as Outlander for British audiences.
“When there’s that level of interest, you need to take note of it.”
Since then, Amazon Instant Video has gone from strength to strength. As well as securing the rights to stream more and more content, it has, like Netflix, started hiring top talent and making its own high-quality programmes, the most successful of which has been the comedy-drama Transparent, which won two Golden Globes earlier this year.
Woody Allen recently announced he would be working with Amazon on his first TV show, and the company, under its production arm, Amazon Studios, is also producing a new comedy by Steven Soderbergh, a film by Spike Lee and an adaptation of the Philip K Dick novel The Man in the High Castle, exec-produced by Ridley Scott. (Netflix has also gone into the film business; it is preparing to release a sequel to the Ang Lee hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and an adaptation of the 2005 novel Beasts of No Nation, starring Idris Elba, which will be available to watch on Netflix the same day it is released in cinemas.)
On a scorching June day in San Pedro, Los Angeles, I watch the penultimate day of filming on the set of one of Amazon’s latest projects, Hand of God. The company’s second home-grown drama, Hand of God is set in the fictional city of San Vicente and centres around the influential, corrupt, and unstable judge Pernell Harris (Ron Perlman).
Less obviously starry than, say, a House of Cards or a True Detective, it nevertheless tackles age-old moral dilemmas and emotions (in this case, relating to grief and belief) with the same unflinching and grown-up approach as the best of Netflix or HBO.
Yet series creator Ben Watkins chose to work with Amazon, claiming other suitors were “scared” by the darkness and religious aspects of his concept. Both he and Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, maintain that Amazon’s quick decision-making and collaborative instincts are unique in television.
While such comments carry an element of, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”, they maintain that similar series for conventional broadcasters would have taken years to make.
“I go to work every day and I’m making the exact thing I want to make,” says Soloway. “I feel like I’m making art.” (The veteran producer of Top Gear, Andy Wilman, who is working with Clarkson et al on the new, as-yet-unnamed, motoring show has said that one of the reasons the team chose Amazon was because, “they leave you alone to make your show.”)
Amazon’s reputation for artistic freedom was also a major draw for director Marc Forster, making his television debut on Hand of God after 20 years in cinema.“After [Brad Pitt zombie epic] World War Z,” he says, “I realised that audiences want to know all about the hero’s journey in these big movies, and at the end they want to be satisfied. With TV, it’s completely the opposite: the looser it is, the better.” And Amazon, he adds, embraced the looseness.
Netflix has also won awards for its own programmes (both Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards have won Emmys). But, thanks to a subversive pilot process, Amazon, the billion-dollar internet behemoth, is said to embody the spirit of “indie” cinema.
Amazon invites pitches from anyone at all, whether they be scripts, short films or full-length pilots, reportedly sifting through many thousands of entries before commissioning a few for public assessment. First episodes of potential series are made available to everyone, free to view, and audience reviews then help determine whether a series is commissioned, giving viewers a sense of ownership.
The truth is, though, that both Amazon and Netflix also have masses of data about their customers. It has been reported that Netflix commissions programmes according to information about the demographics of its viewers, the most popular genres and actors, and the average length of time people watch for (among many other metrics).
That means, according to one commentator, Netflix can be expected to commission a slew of “half-hour sitcoms starring millennial viewers’ childhood crushes.
”With all the data it’s collected over the years from its customers and their online purchases, as well as everything it observes about their viewing habits on its streaming service, it seems likely Amazon will do something similar.
But, some say, what is wrong with that? Surely it is better to make programmes based on a deep analysis of viewers’ preferences than to leave the commissioning up to a coterie of highly paid television or film studio executives in their ivory towers?
“I think we’re in a golden age of television,”Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told the Telegraph in a recent interview. Whether or not he colonises this medium as he has so much else, it is already fantastic news for anyone who makes or loves television.
Series one of Hand of God is released on September 4 on Amazon Prime Instant Video