Roy Price, Amazon Studio’s downright chirpy boss, is setting his sights on the big screen.
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Amazon’s reputation is button-down, from the shirts the top executives wear to the discipline with which they parrot corporate-speak about the company’s products.
Which is why Roy Price, who runs Amazon Studios, is a study in contrast. When he’s working from his office here, or a second desk in a cubicle in Seattle, there’s a pretty good chance he’s wearing a black leather jacket, a dark-gray T-shirt, black jeans and black sneakers.
“I literally wear the same outfit 14 days out of 15, the same look,” Price said, pleased with the ease his monochromatic wardrobe brings to packing for his frequent travels. “I have four pairs of pants, all basically like this, and a bunch of shirts, all like this.”
And unlike the executives of Amazon who prefer “no comment” with the sort of regularity that their website offers product recommendations, Price is downright chirpy. He’s one of the few Amazon leaders to use Twitter routinely, and is as likely to post a selfie in front of the gates at Paramount Studios as he is to drop the F-bomb in saluting a YouTube video that synced the words of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” to footage from the 1990s television show “Dinosaurs.”
“It may appear that I’m not the normal Amazonian. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that I’m not Amazonian,” Price said. “I’m a little unconventional for that environment, but not in the important ways.”
In the most important way, Price, 47, seems quite Amazonian. In less than five years, he has led the team that built Amazon’s original programing operation into a sought-after destination for Hollywood talent. That’s helping the division crank out acclaimed programming, such as the Golden Globe-winning series “Transparent.” In the United States, those programs appear online on Amazon Prime Instant Video, the company’s Netflix-like on-demand video service included in its $99-a-year Prime membership, which also offers two-day shipping at no extra charge.
Such original programming has turned Prime Instant Video into the second-largest subscription video-streaming service in the U.S., with 13 percent of all television households using it, behind only Netflix, according to media-measurement firm Nielsen.
Price has Amazon Studios on the verge of its next act: moviemaking. The company announced in January that it will release as many as 12 movies a year, and Price expects the company to spend about $25 million per film. Amazon plans to release those movies to theaters, but then quickly, within 30 to 60 days, make them available to Prime Instant Video customers while the buzz is still fresh. Amazon also plans to sell DVDs and digital downloads to non-Prime customers.
TheWrap, an entertainment-industry news website, reported last week that one of Amazon’s first movies will include a Spike Lee film, “Chiraq,” a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq, with a cast that could include Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Piven, Common and Kanye West.
Amazon declined to comment on the report. But Lee is the sort of filmmaker that Price described when he talked about his ambitions for moviemaking.
“We’re looking for visionary filmmakers who want to do something, have a passion to do something new and interesting and fun and worth talking about,” Price said.
It’s a formula that’s worked well for Amazon Studios’ television production. Price has championed original, edgy shows, even if they might offend, unnerve or even shock viewers.
“Transparent” follows a father’s transition into a transgender woman. “Alpha House,” from “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, pokes fun at a group of self-absorbed Republican congressmen who share a house in Washington, D.C.
In January, Price inked a deal with Woody Allen to write and direct his first-ever television series. While Allen has legions of loyal fans, his deal has some risk for Amazon. His adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, accuses Allen of sexually molesting her as a child, a charge Allen has denied.
That programming doesn’t come cheap. In one of the few glimpses the company has given into the business, Chief Financial Officer Tom Szkutak noted in a conference call with analysts last July that the company planned to spend $100 million on original series in the third quarter alone. Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst Colin Sebastian estimates that Amazon will spend $300 million a year on movie production and marketing.
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Amazon is willing to drop such huge sums for one simple reason: It wants to boost the number of Prime subscribers and retain the estimated 40 million members it already has. Prime members are among Amazon’s most loyal and lucrative customers, spending three times as much as non-Prime shoppers, by some analyst estimates.
Making movies and television shows to keep those members steadfast is a job Price was born into. His grandfather, Roy Huggins, was a legendary television writer who created such classic series as “Maverick,” “The Fugitive” and “The Rockford Files.”
His father, Frank Price, ran Columbia Pictures when the studio released “Gandhi” and “Ghostbusters,” and then took over Universal’s motion-picture group when it released “Back to the Future” and “The Breakfast Club.” Earlier, he ran Universal’s TV business.
Roy Price recalls stars such as “Dragnet’s” Jack Webb dropping by for dinner parties at the family’s Beverly Hills home. The Prices took Christmas vacations in the Bahamas for several years with Sidney Poitier and his family. The “Six Million Dollar Man” himself, Lee Majors, taught Price how to swim.
Despite working in the industry, or maybe because of it, Frank Price limited his kids to just 2½ hours a week of TV viewing. “I was in television, and I was a little worried that too much television watching would turn a brain into mush,” the elder Price said.
Looking back, he believes that constraint helped his son learn to discriminate, to pick the shows he really loved.
It wasn’t a given, though, that Roy Price would follow in his father’s footsteps. The elder Price was wary of having his son go to school in Los Angeles, where he’d be known as the studio head’s kid. So he attended Phillips Academy Andover, an exclusive boarding school just north of Boston.
He went to college down the road at Harvard University, where he majored in English. His thesis was about poetry and social change, Price recalls, an exposition about “poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
When Price graduated, he decided to focus on a Hollywood business career. He looked at the biggest difference makers, aside from filmmakers, and determined that they fell into two camps: college dropouts, such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Barry Diller, or lawyers.
“At that time, I had already graduated from college, so it was too late not to graduate from college,” Price said. “So it was clear I had to go to law school.”
Price earned a law degree from the University of Southern California but never practiced. Instead he landed a series-development job at the Walt Disney Co. Within a few years, Price realized that the Internet was going to change the way viewers watched shows, and he doubted Disney would lead that revolution. So he spent two years at McKinsey & Co., a giant global consultancy, helping media companies figure out digital distribution.
Upload to Amazon
Then he saw a digital-video job posting at Amazon and did what thousands of other Amazonians have done over the years: He uploaded his résumé to the company’s careers website.
In Seattle, he helped develop Amazon’s original digital- video store, Amazon Unbox. Along the way, he picked up more than 10 patents, mostly related to the way viewers download and watch digital video. When it became clear that Amazon needed to develop its own original content to remain competitive in on-demand video, Price was selected to lead the effort.
Initially, Price managed the operation from Seattle, jetting to Los Angeles with enough regularity that he realized he needed to return to his hometown. In August, after 10 years in Seattle, Price moved into a Malibu home with his wife and three teenage children.
Even as Amazon Studios grows, Price remains intimately involved in much of the business. He personally got the Woody Allen negotiations started, meeting the director and his agent, John Burnham, at Bemelmans Bar in The Carlyle hotel in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where Allen performs with his jazz band.
“We often referred to Woody Allen movies when we talked about what is fantastic,” Price said. “And so I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I see if that could actually be a possibility?’ ”
Allen, who had been approached over the years by companies such as HBO and Showtime, warmed to the idea of working with Amazon Studios because it represented something “new and contemporary,” said Burnham. And Price was willing to give Allen both creative freedom and significant financial backing.
“Roy’s utterly transparent. He’s refreshing to deal with,” Burnham said. “He’s everything a Hollywood executive is not.”
Price sometimes gets involved in the creative process as well. Amazon Studios acquired “Bosch,” a series based on detective novels by Michael Connelly that focus on a crusty Los Angeles Police Department detective, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch. A fan of the Bosch books, Price chatted about the story arc for the first season with Connelly and the show’s executive producer, Henrik Bastin, at an industry trade show in Cannes, France. Price suggested adding more tension by weaving in some of the plot from “Echo Park,” a Bosch book that hadn’t been part of the first season.
“It went from a very sedentary season to one that’s very active and emotional,” Connelly said. “That’s all because of Roy.”
A Harvard grad with Hollywood pedigree and a portfolio of patents might seem destined for the corner offices of corporate America. But just as Price is an unconventional Amazonian, he’s a bit of an outsider in the rest of his life. He admits to having few nonwork hobbies.
“The thing is, I’m not that well-rounded,” Price quipped, squatting with his feet on a chair in a conference room. “I do play tennis occasionally. I should do that more.”
One of his closest friends, Joseph McGinty Nichol, the Hollywood director better known as McG, refers to his buddy as “wacky Roy Price.”
“He’s a punk rocker. He’s a Wes Anderson film come to life,” said McG, whose credits include the “Charlie’s Angels” movies and “We Are Marshall.”
To McG, that wackiness makes Price interesting and is what’s helping make Amazon Studios successful. Price has a distinct point of view, and it’s not one that tries to cater to the milquetoast tastes of the masses.
“He does not conduct from a place of fear,” said McG, who is also developing a project with Amazon.
Instead, Price trusts that his taste in projects will find an audience as passionate about television and movies as he is. It’s that attitude that’s put Amazon on Hollywood’s radar, leading some of the entertainment industry’s most creative minds to the studio owned by the button-down online retail giant.
“Amazon is cool,” McG said. “What were they more in desperate need of?”