It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks for Amazon and Hulu, hitting just as the two big online-video service have become increasingly vital to consumer viewing habits. The question is, will their executive distractions open opportunities for traditional Hollywood or the newer digital players while these two tech giants regroup?
To review, Amazon Studios saw its top executive, Roy Price, resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Price’s departure was one of several in Hollywood and beyond as fallout continued around the unfolding Harvey Weinstein scandal.
Since then, a string of other Amazon executives has also left, including Joe Lewis, who headed comedy and drama development. Lewis was accused of using his position to pressure producers of “The Tick,” one of Amazon’s high-profile new series, to create a bigger and more permanent role for Lewis’ girlfriend, Yara Martinez.
Long in the works and unrelated to all this, Apple hired away Morgan Wandell, who headed Amazon’s international development and had helped create some of the service’s most popular shows. (Disclosure, Wandell is an acquaintance of mine).
Price, Hollywood royalty as son of an actress and a Universal studio executive and himself a former Disney exec, had been with Amazon since 2004, joining before the company launched its standalone video unit nearly a decade ago.
Price presided over shows such as “The Man in the High Castle” and “Transparent,” but this year the company largely came up empty in the big awards derbies despite lavish For Your Consideration campaigns. The company is now, reportedly at the behest of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, seeking a “Game of Thrones”-sized blockbuster, to the relative exclusion of smaller projects that might appeal to targeted audiences.
Meanwhile, over at Hulu, CEO Mike Hopkins departed to run Sony TV under his old Fox boss, Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Tony Vinciquerra. Hopkins, who had been running Hulu since 2013, will be replaced by yet another Fox TV executive, Randy Freer.
Hopkins’ departure comes at a peculiar time, which is to say just when Hulu is enjoying its greatest success. The company launched its own skinny bundle service last summer, then became the first streamer to win an Emmy for best drama, for “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Several theories have floated about Hopkins’ departure: Maybe he just wanted to work again in a traditional media company, for a well-liked former boss. Or maybe there’s a problematic reason why Hulu hasn’t released subscriber numbers in more than a year, despite that hefty $2.5 billion content budget. Perhaps even with the awards the paying subscribers aren’t coming.
Or maybe Hopkins had tired of managing Hulu’s four owners (Comcast, Disney, Fox and Time Warner) and their shifting, sometimes conflicting priorities. After all, when he arrived, the owners wanted to sell the company, but couldn’t get a decent price because they wouldn’t commit their shows to Hulu under longer-term output deals. These days, the sale talks have quieted, and the studios are happy to sell their shows to Hulu instead of dreaded Netflix.
Hopkins’ departure could have been spurred by any of these motivations, all of them or some that no one on the outside can divine.
It’s worth noting, however, that as Hopkins leaves Hulu’s peak moment, he’s taking over a company mired in a mess.
Sony still hasn’t recovered since the devastating hack of three years ago. A series of top executives – including SPE chairman Michael Lynton, studio head Amy Pascal and TV chief Steve Mosko – have left, mostly under duress. This summer, Apple wooed away Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, the two Mosko successors running Sony TV, a coup that stunned many in Hollywood.
And even if morale and stability return under Hopkins, Sony remains without a traditional TV network of its own. That’s a problem in an era when Sony’s competitor-clients want to own every corner of their shows’ television production and distribution. They’re doing fewer deals with any outside producer, including Sony.
It’s possible that Hopkins jumped because he knows Sony TV’s next moves are to a) expand programming on Crackle, its over-the-top channel best known for Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee,” and b) push harder on PlayStation Vue, the skinny bundle offered through its thriving separate PlayStation division. In fact, that may be the only set of moves that make sense for a company without a traditional network.
Meanwhile, the disarray at Amazon, and the inevitable changes that will follow a new boss at Hulu, may provide an opening for traditional Hollywood networks to grab audience attention. Will Fox, for instance, buy out other Hulu owners, given its Hopkins and Freer legacy there?
Disney, with its recently announced initiatives to launch standalone film and TV services next year, might be open to selling, but it certainly will have more room to operate those services while Hulu and Amazon recalibrate.CBS has launched its All Access app, with a new Star Trek series, and no doubt would love to attract a younger set of viewers than those watching its aging fleet of police procedurals.
And Comcast, hobbled by terms of the government deal that allowed it to buy NBCUniversal (which admittedly ends in 2018), may decide it doesn’t wants a different role. It may get out, to create its own service, in hopes of something more successful than Seeso. And of course, Time Warner, with the smallest and newest Hulu stake, may have different priorities as a part of AT&T than it has had as a stand-alone company, though that deal still may get blocked.
Facebook’s Watch service is underway, with a variety of offerings, though how much those actually are being watched is unknown. A friend of mine, a small independent producer who’s been selling his genre material on every digital platform imaginable for more than a decade, said Facebook’s terms and attitude weren’t the sort to get him excited about opportunities there, though he’ll make content available to try out the platform.
Apple, meanwhile, is pulling together a formidable team of executives for its first slate of original scripted programming, whenever that may arrive. Wandell helped create a string of top shows for ABC and then Amazon. That he is now focused on finding shows for Apple with potential global appeal says a lot about Apple’s ambitions. And with $260 billion in cash, and 500 million users of its platforms, Apple certainly has the ability to reach a lot of people around the globe.
And then there’s Netflix.
It added 5.3 million new subscribers again last quarter, which also once again outstripped analyst expectations, and expects to hit 116 million subs worldwide by the end of the year. Netflix previously announced that it plans to release an eye-popping 80 movies in 2018, roughly one every 4.5 days. I doubt that’s a pace any modern U.S. studio has ever even approached.
And just as the opportunity arrives for Netflix to stretch its lead over the competition, the company announced it is doubling down on content spending, borrowing another $1.6 billion to finance its content push next year. In all, it plans to spend as much as $8 billion on original programming, after spending a combined $11 billion the past two years.
With shares in Netflix up by two-thirds this year, its $84 billion market capitalization makes Netflix worth more than every traditional media company except Disney.
So who’s lighting a celebratory cigar these days? Maybe Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. It’s good to be king, especially when all the pretenders to the throne keep suffering self-inflicted wounds.