Why Amazon Studios suffered rare drought at the Emmys

A woman sits under a large moss-draped tree
Sheila Atim (Mabel) in “The Underground Railroad.”
( Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios)

Amazon Studios has typically hauled in the hardware on Hollywood awards nights, but not at the 73rd Emmy Awards.

The Culver City studio came away empty-handed this month after entering the annual competition in television excellence with 19 nominations, including five in major Emmy categories. Archrival Netflix dominated the night with 44 trophies while Apple TV+ claimed 10 wins thanks mainly to its breakout comedy hit “Ted Lasso.”

The shutout comes as Amazon Studios looks to fortify its place in a more competitive streaming market and recover from production delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.


The weak showing was in stark contrast to two years ago, when Amazon Studios captured 15 Emmys for its original programming, including “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Fleabag.”

The gold statuettes are marketing gems, enabling a video service to tout their high-quality projects to attract more subscribers. Awards also can provide a competitive edge by enticing top Hollywood producers and writers to bring their prestige projects — ensuring additional hits for years to come.

“Awards in themselves are significant,” said Larry Adams, chief executive at LVA, a New York-based marketing agency. “[They] are signals of prestige and accolades ... the barometer for what’s really good content.”

Amazon declined to provide executives for this story but, in a statement, studio spokesman Cory Shields said: “Being nominated is a great honor and a true acknowledgement by our peers for delivering creative at the highest level. In one of the industry’s most challenging and competitive years, it’s all the more gratifying. We remain focused on bringing quality, award-worthy film and television content to our diverse global audience.”

The decade-old studio, which spends $8 billion a year on programming, has been under pressure to build a library of shows — such as “Jack Ryan,” based on the Tom Clancy character — that please mainstream Amazon Prime retail customers and international audiences as much as the art-house crowd.

It also must deliver on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ desire to create a “Game of Thrones-”size blockbuster that dominates the cultural conversation.


Amazon had two original programs vying for this year’s Emmys: “The Boys,” a popular and irreverent take on superhero franchises from writer-producer Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”); and Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad,” based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It also received nominations for two TV movies, “Sylvie’s Love” and “Uncle Frank.”

While it was critically acclaimed, industry insiders acknowledged “The Underground Railroad,” with its searing depictions of the brutalities of slavery, might have been a tough sell in a pandemic year when viewers were craving lighter fare. The show had a respectable debut, ranking as the 107th most in-demand series in the U.S. in May, reaching 18 times more demand than the average show in the U.S., but interest has since abated, according to Parrot Analytics.

Jenkins, the director of “The Underground Railroad,” told IndieWire this month that while he is “most creatively proud” of the series, “it’s probably going to end up being one of the least seen” of his projects.

Some analysts questioned the marketing campaign for the series and noted that projects can get lost in Prime Video’s vast menu of titles.

“People don’t know it exists, and therefore they can’t have demand for something that they aren’t aware of if it’s out of sight, out of mind and on Prime Video,” said Julia Alexander, senior strategy analyst at Parrot Analytics.

Additionally,Television Academy voters bypassed several projects featuring people of color. And, unlike past years when the wealth was spread among numerous productions, a handful of shows swept the major Emmy categories: Netflix’s “The Crown” and “The Queen’s Gambit,” Apple TV+‘s “Ted Lasso,” and HBO’s “Hacks” and “Mare of Easttown.”

The deal is the latest in the media industry that’s aimed at boosting streaming services to compete against Netflix and Disney+.

May 26, 2021

The pandemic was also a factor. Netflix’s big winners — “The Crown” and “The Queen’s Gambit” — were both filmed prior to the production shutdown. Hulu also was shut out of the Emmys.


This awards season wasn’t a complete washout for Amazon Studios, which received 12 nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards; its film “Sound of Metal” won two Oscars — for sound and film editing. In the past, Amazon scored with its 2017 indie film “Manchester by the Sea.”

The studio has different goals and benchmarks than competitors Netflix, HBO Max and Disney+.

“Amazon is different; they are driven by the Amazon Prime retail service,” said Brian Fuhrer, Nielsen Global Media senior vice president for product strategy.

The studio is a tiny part of a global behemoth that is better known for its cost-conscious corporate culture, variety of online merchandise, fast free shipping and the Alexa smart speaker. Amazon’s core business revolves around customer analytics and delivering products people want.

“They are looking to grab consumers who will sign up for Prime and then they will buy other things,” said Deana Myers, research director at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

“We have hundreds of millions of people who are watching our original content,” Amazon CEO Andy Jassy recently told CNBC. “It’s still early days for us in media, [but] I think we’re off to a great start.”

Amazon in April said more than 175 million Prime members worldwide have streamed programs in the past year and that streaming hours jumped more than 70% in the preceding 12 months compared with a year earlier, prior to the pandemic.


Amazon represents nearly 9% of the streaming market in the U.S. It trails Netflix, which has nearly 25%, YouTube, which has about 20%, and Hulu, which has 10%, according to Nielsen’s Fuhrer.

“The Boys,” and movies including “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and Eddie Murphy’s “Coming 2 America,” have done particularly well on the service, Fuhrer said.

The e-commerce giant is looking to bulk up its entertainment offerings with some multibillion-dollar bets.

In March, Amazon agreed to a roughly $1-billion-a-year deal with the NFL for Thursday Night Football, beginning next season, after the current pact with Fox Corp. expires.

The company also agreed to pay $8.45 billion to buy MGM Studios, which owns the rights to such franchises as James Bond, “Rocky,” “The Pink Panther” and “Legally Blonde.” Amazon wants to add library titles and have more intellectual property rights so it can produce remakes and spinoffs.

“They’ve had a number of high-profile series that have worked, and now it looks like they are starting to focus more on movies,” Fuhrer said.


Amazon’s highly anticipated projects this fall include “The Wheel of Time,” writer-producer Rafe Judkins’ vision for Robert Jordan’s fantasy novels. In December, Amazon will open “The Tender Bar,” directed by George Clooney and starring Ben Affleck. That movie, which will first open in theaters, is based on the book by J.R. Moehringer, a former Times staff writer.

Also arriving in December is Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” biopic, starring Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz.

Next September, the studio will launch its biggest gamble, “The Lord of the Rings,” after four years in the making. The budget for the first year exceeds $500 million, said Myers of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

“It is expected to be a great series, and they have certainly spent a lot of money on it,” Myers said.

Many of Amazon’s popular shows, including comedies “Fleabag,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and the ground-breaking “Transparent,” were greenlighted by Roy Price, who ran the studio before its current head, Jennifer Salke. Price was pushed out of Amazon after he was accused of sexual harassment, which he has denied.

Salke joined Amazon in 2018, after serving as NBC Entertainment’s president and, before that, as a top executive at 20th Century Fox Television.


Amazon earlier this year restructured its TV team, naming three executives who will report directly to the studio’s co-heads of television, Vernon Sanders and Albert Cheng. Laura Lancaster became head of series, Marc Resteghini was promoted to head of development, and Nick Pepper was named head of studio creative content.

Under Salke, Amazon has ramped up deals with celebrities to produce content for the streaming service, including with Eddie Murphy, Donald Glover, Michael B. Jordan, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Viola Davis and Blake Lively.

“For a long time, movie stars would only go to HBO,” said an agent who declined to be named because of business relationships. “Jen did a real mind trick by shifting perception over there by making these deals.”

But many of the projects featuring big-name stars have yet to hit the service, the agent said. It can take two to three years for big talent to produce shows under these deals, the agent added.

Two people who have had business relationships with Amazon said there has been a slowdown this year in new shows being greenlighted and a tightening of the budgets. The slowdown came as the studio focused on jump-starting productions stalled during the pandemic, said an Amazon insider who was not authorized to comment. While “fiscal discipline is always applied,” the studio’s overall creative spend has increased year over year, the insider added.

Amazon has faced rising competition, primarily from Netflix, which dominates the industry and produces more shows and movies.


This year, Amazon did not have any tentpole shows that broke into the top 0.2% of shows in the U.S. based on demand. Netflix did with two series — ’80s drama “Stranger Things” and “Cobra Kai” — a show based off the “Karate Kid” franchise, according to Parrot Analytics.

Five Amazon shows made it into the top 3% of shows based on demand in the U.S., according to Parrot Analytics: the sci-fi television series “The Expanse,” drama “The Boys,” animated series “Invincible,” the dystopian tale “The Man in the High Castle” and drama “Bosch.” . Netflix during the same time frame had more than three dozen shows in that ranking.

However, Parrot noted that some Amazon series, such as “The Boys,” proved more popular worldwide.