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Amazon's Woody Allen series deal marks big step in creative strategy

Fresh off Golden Globe wins, Amazon marks another triumph: signing Woody Allen for a series @latimes

It may be the oddest TV couple since Oscar and Felix.

Two days after making history by becoming the first streaming service to win a Golden Globe for a television series, for "Transparent," Amazon announced a partnership with one of the biggest names in Hollywood, Woody Allen.

The filmmaker will write and direct an as-yet-untitled series for Amazon, the online retail giant and streaming video service said Tuesday. The deal with Allen marks a clear triumph for Amazon, which less than two years after launching its first original series is now poised to challenge online competitor Netflix, not to mention broadcast and cable networks, in the increasingly competitive race for high-quality original content.

Allen and Amazon are an unusual pairing. Allen is an unrepentant Luddite who bangs out screenplays on the same manual typewriter he's used for a half century and reportedly prints out his emails and dictates responses to an assistant.

"This is not a 'Net-savvy guy," said Allen filmography writer Jason Bailey. "The idea he would be creating a show for an outlet he probably couldn't get to on his own is surprising."

The new high-profile Hollywood relationship advances the online retailer's strategy of investing in films, books, music, television and other forms or original content. The creative offerings are seen by company executives as essential and powerful lures in attracting even more customers to the huge Amazon brand.

"It's an arms race," said Chet Fenster, head of MEC Content, a unit within advertising giant Group M. "Everyone is spending more and more money because they want to attract new viewers, and they are signing high-caliber talent to distinguish themselves."

Executives at Netflix, one of Amazon's main online competitors, welcomed the news — at least publicly. Netflix shook up Hollywood in the summer of 2013 when it garnered an armful of Emmy nominations for its highly praised online political series, "House of Cards."

"We always anticipated competition in this evolving marketplace," said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer of Netflix, in an email."The good news is consumers have more choice than ever before in what they watch, when they watch and where."

Roy Price, vice president of Amazon Studios, met with Allen twice in New York before putting the deal together. "I had always thought Woody Allen's characters and comedy would translate beautifully to TV," said Price, "particularly now with more serialized story lines and openness to nuanced characterization."

Though best known as a writer, director and sometime star of films including "Annie Hall," "Midnight in Paris" and "Hannah and Her Sisters," Allen has worked extensively in television. He began as a writer for variety programs including "The Sid Caesar Show" and "The Garry Moore Show," while also starring in a series of stand-up specials in the 1960s and '70s.

With his trademark self-deprecation, Allen said in a statement, "I don't know how I got into this. I have no ideas, and I'm not sure where to begin. My guess is that Roy Price will regret this."

The 79-year-old filmmaker, who lives in New York, joins an ever-growing list of feature film auteurs migrating to television.

Steven Spielberg and Jerry Bruckheimer have produced television for more than a decade. Indie pioneer Steven Soderbergh directed the entire 10-episode first season of the Cinemax series "The Knick," which will return to the pay-cable network later this year. He is also executive producer of the upcoming Amazon series "Red Oaks," directed by Sundance favorite David Gordon Green.

Meanwhile, David Lynch, whose last film, "Inland Empire," received a limited release in 2006, will revive his cult series "Twin Peaks" for Showtime next year.

Though the prolific Allen has continued making films at an enviable pace of one to two a year, he's often had to turn to international sources of finance, requiring him to move beyond his beloved New York City for settings such as Barcelona, Spain; Rome; and London. No financial details of the Amazon deal were released.

"We are at a point where the idea of a noted filmmaker going to, for lack of a better word, television is not surprising anymore," said Bailey, who wrote "The Ultimate Woody Allen Film Companion," noting that Allen makes the sort of mid-budget, grown-up films that are increasingly endangered in tent-pole-obsessed Hollywood.

For its part, Amazon has become the largest e-commerce site in the United States since launching as an online bookstore in 1995, with technology playing a fundamental role in its expansion. Amazon introduced its e-reading device, the Kindle, in 2007, and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos has said the company is studying the possibility of delivering shipments via drones in the near future.

Amazon migrated into the TV content creation business as part of its larger strategy to become a one-stop shop for consumers. It launched its Amazon Prime membership program a decade ago and created Amazon Prime Instant Video service in early 2011.

The streaming service is offered as part of Amazon Prime Instant Video, which is included in an Amazon Prime membership for $99 a year. Amazon now has roughly 30 million subscribers in its Prime membership program, but the company doesn't break out numbers for how many of those subscribers stream video.

Allen, though, may care less about the platform than the creative freedom afforded by working with Amazon, a company with deep pockets that does not have to conform to the same grueling production schedule or strict decency standards as a broadcast network.

The company has been spending heavily in the last few years to build out its library of Prime Instant Video offerings. Mark Mahaney, an Internet analyst at RBC Capital Markets, estimates that Amazon spends between $100 million to $200 million a year to create original content unique to Amazon, part of an estimated $1 billion a year that the company spends on its video library.

As Chuck Lorre, creator of hit sitcoms "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory," told The Times in an interview last year when asked if he'd ever work with an online outlet, "There's the amazingly attractive idea of doing eight episodes as opposed to 22 or 24.... The luxury of time would be phenomenal."

Amazon also has the ability to deliver content to viewers on demand, an increasing necessity in the era of DVRs and rampant cord-cutting.

The Amazon deal also represents an important and new professional association for Allen, who was at the center of controversy in 2014 when estranged daughter Dylan Farrow revived claims that he sexually molested her as a child in an op-ed in the New York Times.

In a sign of Allen's continued industry clout, the project is also the first series from Amazon to fully bypass its unique development process in which users vote on pilots and influence which series are picked up for a full season order.

Amazon released its first batch of pilots less than two years ago in April 2013. At the time, Netflix was making lots of noise with "House of Cards," the first series developed exclusively for the online video service.

The political thriller boasted big-screen talent in the form of leads Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and executive producer David Fincher, and went on to become the first digitally distributed series to be nominated for an Emmy.

Amazon's first foray into original programming, the inside-the-Beltway comedy "Alpha House," attracted less attention when it premiered in November 2013, despite the involvement of marquee names such as creator and "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau and star John Goodman.

But "Transparent" made a bigger splash upon its release in September. Critics swooned for the dark comedy starring Golden Globe winner Jeffrey Tambor as a retired professor who finally decides to embrace her true gender identity. The series from creator Jill Soloway arrived just as the issue of transgender rights has edged into the national conversation.

On Thursday, Amazon will release its latest round of pilots, including projects from filmmakers Ridley Scott and Alex Gibney.

But while Amazon has no doubt had a good week, it may find that creating must-see content over the long run is easier said than done — a lesson Netflix is already learning. After the early success of "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black," the big-budget gamble "Marco Polo" has failed to generate much buzz or critical attention. Even HBO, which has been creating critically acclaimed original series for two decades, has had some notorious flops, such as "John From Cincinnati."

"This has been building," said Richard Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG Research. "Winning a Golden Globe won't bring instant financial awards, but that helped to solidify in the minds of the Hollywood talent community just how real subscription video is. And the move with Woody Allen proved to Hollywood how committed and serious Amazon is."

Times staff writers Yvonne Villarreal, Richard Verrier and Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

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