How Amazon is betting on big names, fresh talent and 'beautiful storytelling' in Netflix battle

We spoke with Amazon's Helen Cowley about the pilot shows vying for your votes, finding fresh talent and signing the "Top Gear" boys.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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From "House of Cards" to "Transparent", some of today's best TV isn't on TV at all. We caught up with Helen Cowley, senior manager at Amazon Instant Video, to find out how online streaming gives big names and fresh talent an opportunity to do something different, and find out why Amazon wants you to help choose its next big hit.

"We are ambitious, we want to see innovative shows, and I think you can see the quality of the content," said Cowley of TV streaming service Amazon Instant Video and its catalogue of TV and movies. She's been in the business for over a decade, joining British DVD-rental business Lovefilm before it was bought by Amazon. Now, Cowley works on acquiring new TV and movie content and helping get that to viewers however you choose to watch, whether on your computer, mobile device or smart TV.

Streaming services such as Netflix are increasingly funding their own content to tempt you to sign up, and Amazon is getting in on the action with shows developed exclusively for Amazon Instant Video by the company's production arm, Amazon Studios.

New shows are offered to viewers in batches known as pilot seasons. Each pilot season involves a round of sample episodes that introduce the concept and characters, in the hope that they'll be picked up for a full series of more episodes. Pilots have been used to develop new TV shows for decades, especially in the US, but the difference is that Amazon throws the pilots open to the world to have your say.

This week, Amazon is screening two new pilot episodes, costume drama " Casanova" and crime drama " Sneaky Pete".

"Pilot season is an integral part of the output that comes from Amazon Studios, so we find it a really important way for us to understand what our customers would like to see more of," said Cowley. "In every pilot season that we run, all the episodes are free so you don't have to be an Amazon Prime customer to watch them. We make that content free for all, and we're super interested in people feeding back to us on social media or via the detail page of every episode we run."

"We're starting to see some really great, great quality TV shows come out of the pilot seasons," said Cowley. Successful pilots that have gone on to become full series include cop drama "Bosch" and family drama "Transparent".

They'll be followed this September by "Hand of God", starring Ron Perlman, and by Philip K Dick adaptation "The Man in the High Castle", a lavish production exploring what the world would be like if the Axis powers had won World War II. The full series is currently in production in Canada, and will be available to stream at some point before the end of the year.

"The quality of the talent that we're working with is significant," said Cowley, "like Ridley Scott with 'The Man in the High Castle', Bryan Cranston for 'Sneaky Pete', Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman on 'Mozart in the Jungle'. It's great to be working with these names. I think the quality of the talent just goes to show that bigger names really want to work with Amazon because they understand that working with Amazon Studios is a great opportunity to realise their vision."

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In one of its biggest coups so far, Amazon last week nabbed motormouthed after the three left the globally popular BBC motoring show under a cloud. With Netflix and other broadcasters reportedly circling the trio, Amazon won out. "They're signed up for three series," said Cowley, "and they'll go into production relatively soon on the first series. We are very, very excited to be working with the three of them. It was a landmark deal."

Another coup is Amazon's signing of writer, director, comedian and actor Woody Allen for his first TV series. Details are scarce, but for a different reason. "Woody is Woody," said Cowley, "and we'll have to wait and see what he creates for us."

Outside of episodic TV, big screen legend Spike Lee will direct "Chi-raq", the first feature film to be produced by Amazon.

Star power is certainly important for streaming services looking to establish themselves as producers of original content. It's no coincidence that the first original Netflix show, "House of Cards", involved the big-name double-whammy of actor Kevin Spacey and director David Fincher. But Cowley emphasises the opportunity for streaming services to look for fresh talent alongside the familiar faces.

"The Amazon Studios team in LA offers a platform where creatives can upload their scripts via their website. [Amazon is] a platform for creatives that potentially wouldn't have got that opportunity elsewhere," she said. "Something like 'Transparent' falls in that category because it potentially might not have been made by a traditional network."

Created by Jill Soloway, Amazon's original drama "Transparent" tells the story of a middle-aged transgender woman, played by Jeffrey Tambor. "It didn't really have any big names in it," said Cowley, "but it's just really beautiful storytelling and it won two Golden Globes earlier this year [best TV series and best actor for Tambor]. That's a fantastic achievement. So while names are important because that kind of recognition within a broad audience is important, it's not just about recognised names. It's about quality TV shows and quality entertainment."

Amazon has also provided a home to shows that, although popular, struggled to find a home elsewhere. "Not everything that we've featured on the service has come through the pilot season," said Cowley. "Our pilot season is obviously very important to us and it gives customers the opportunity to let us know how they feel about those shows, but we'll also listen to the customers in other ways as well. A good example of that is 'Ripper Street' -- season one and two had been on the BBC and they had actually cancelled it, and we worked with the production company to bring the show back.

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"Another good example is 'Outlander'. Half of it had broadcast in the US and it hadn't found a home yet in the UK, and again, there was a significant amount of demand for that show to be available in the UK. We were able to bring 'Outlander' to our audience here in the UK."

Unlike Netflix, which is currently available in more than 20 countries with more to come, Amazon Instant Video is only live in the US, UK and Germany. "We are always thinking about how we can deliver a good service to our customers around the world," Cowley said when asked about Amazon's international expansion plans.

"UK content's always done very well in the US, and I think that will continue," said Cowley. "Ultimately, a good story is a good story and sometimes, irrespective of the subject matter, if the narrative really stands out it transitions irrespective of country. I think stories like 'Transparent', which are quite unique, resonate with customers all around the world, and I don't think it necessarily is about kind of cultural differences."

Amazon and Netflix both make their original shows available to everyone in the world at the same time, which is great news for telly fans in the UK and around the world who have traditionally waited for weeks or months for American shows to cross the pond. But in the streaming age, the hassle of watching a hot show has switched from enduring a long wait to picking the right service. Netflix and Amazon are in competition with Hulu, HBO and others for new releases in the US; in the UK it's Wuaki.TV, Now TV and more. Viewers are spoilt for choice, but have to be pretty switched-on about what's available where.

In the UK, deep-pocketed satellite broadcaster Sky has long had a stranglehold on new movies fresh from the cinema. But Cowley reckons that's starting to change as Amazon shells out for exclusive access to big new releases. "'Paddington' with his marmalade sandwich has just arrived on the service," she said. "[That's] a great title for us to have, especially over the summer holidays. 'The Imitation Game' was a recent addition for us as well. They are movies that are exclusive to Amazon Prime within a subscription window -- you won't find them anywhere else."

Of course, while streaming is booming, many viewers still like to do things the old-fashioned way. "We still have a DVD rental business," said Cowley, looking back over her time at Lovefilm and Amazon. "I joined Lovefilm in 2004 when it was a startup and there were 20 of us. It's come a long way since then, and I always knew when I joined Lovefilm that it was a super-exciting business to work for."

Did she notice a tipping point when digital replaced physical? "I think it was more a case of understanding that we needed to broaden our reach. Digital obviously is incredibly important for doing that. I don't think there was ever a tipping point, it was just understanding that we need to offer more, and that happened over a period of time as opposed to us reaching a particular moment. I've been there since the beginning and understanding how we brought on digital and rolled out across to different devices. It's been a really amazing adventure.

"I think it is an incredibly exciting time for TV, and I think more than ever it is focused on customer demand," she said. "More than ever, customers have the choice to watch what they want, when they want, on what platform. It's a super-exciting time, and I think the more competition available, the better it is for the consumer."