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Amazon Prime Video's strategy to grab audiences from Netflix: Pay top dollar for top programmes

Online retail giant Amazon says it works with visionary, passionate creators to expand its video- streaming reach

There is no question that Netflix dominates the video-streaming space, counting 75 per cent of Wi-Ficonnected homes in the United States as subscribers, according to figures released last week.

Yet a growing pack of competitors nips at its heels at home and abroad, notably online retail giant Amazon, whose video service reaches 33 per cent of the same homes in the US.

And last December, 11 months after Netflix's expansion to 190 countries, Amazon Prime Video launched in some 240 new markets, including Singapore.

With its deep pockets and willingness to spend billions of dollars on content, Amazon is uniquely positioned to take on the leader.

 
 
 

You can look at what people watch, but you can't be too deterministic about it. The show that will be a real game changer will be a rule-breaker, not what people are watching today.

AMAZON STUDIOS BOSS ROY PRICE

Analysts at JPMorgan project that it will pour US$4.5 billion (S$6.3 billion) into video this year, compared with Netflix's US$6 billion - spending sprees that have raised the stakes in Hollywood, where traditional studios and networks increasingly find themselves outbid in acquiring films and shows (cable television channel HBO, for example, had a programming budget of US$2 billion last year).

Central to its strategy is paying top dollar for "the creme de la creme - the top five to 10 shows in the world people are talking about at lunch", says Amazon Studios boss Roy Price.

At an industry event in Cannes this month, he revealed that the two most-watched Amazon original shows are alternate-history drama The Man In The High Castle and British motoring show The Grand Tour, from the popular former Top Gear team of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, which Amazon is rumoured to have shelled out US$250 million for.

With something that popular, it is "efficient and good economics" to spend big because it will make people subscribe just to watch it, he says, also confirming that Amazon will make shows that are "international originals", using studios in Britain, Japan and India as regional hubs to produce more localised content.

For now, though, the bedrock of the service is still its English-language titles and, here, Amazon is giving Netflix - the home of critical darlings such as prison drama Orange Is The New Black and thriller Stranger Things - a run for its money in terms of accolades.

One of its biggest prestige titles is Transparent, the family drama which has won two Golden Globes and eight Emmys.

And at the Oscars two months ago, Amazon scored a first for a streaming service when a movie it produced, the American tear-jerker Manchester By The Sea, got a nomination for Best Picture and won Best Actor (Casey Affleck) and Best Original Screenplay. 

Amazon had a hand in a third win that night, the Best Foreign Film nod for the Iranian movie The Salesman, which it distributed in the US.

This gave it bragging rights over Netflix, which took home just one statuette that night, for the documentary short The White Helmets, about first responders in Syria.

On the small screen, Amazon appears to approach its programming decisions a little differently compared with its biggest competitor.

Not beholden to advertisers, neither it nor Netflix releases viewing figures, but while Netflix often touts its algorithm-driven approach in deciding what to stream and to whom, Amazon is unique in letting viewers watch and vote on the pilots of some new shows before ordering full seasons.

User feedback and reviewers' reactions to existing shows are taken into consideration as well, it says.

Still, at a gathering of television critics in Los Angeles last year, Mr Price told The Straits Times and other press that he does not believe in getting bogged down on crunching user and other data on shows.

"The key thing is that you have a visionary, passionate creator. So, to some extent, you have to not get lost in the weeds on that data," he said.

"We are privileged to be working with a lot of people who believe in what they are doing and know what they are doing and we back their unique insight, vision and dreams.

"And we do that for a reason - to kick this whole thing to the next level artistically, emotionally, intelligently and sometimes outrageously."

Amazon has thus ordered full seasons of certain series outright, betting on auteurs such as 10-time Emmy winner David E. Kelley with the new legal drama Goliath, or iconic film-maker Woody Allen, whose Crisis In Six Scenes it acquired in 2015, when the director, by his own admission, did not yet have a fully thought-out concept.

"I have no ideas and I'm not sure where to begin. My guess is that Roy Price will regret this," Allen said then. And sure enough, the series about a suburban family in the 1960s proved to be a dud, savaged by reviewers and fans alike.

Whether it is banking on brilliance or crunching the numbers, though, Mr Price acknowledges that there may be no predicting the next big thing.

"You can look at what people watch, but you can't be too deterministic about it," he said in Cannes. "The show that will be a real game changer will be a rule-breaker, not what people are watching today."

•The Man In The High Castle, The Grand Tour, Crisis In Six Scenes and Goliath are available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video in Singapore.

Correction note: In our earlier story, we said Manchester By The Sea was a British tear-jerker. It should be an American movie. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2017, with the headline 'Banking on brilliance'. Print Edition | Subscribe