Interview: Helen Cowley, Senior Manager at Amazon Instant Video UK
Here at TVDaily, we’re just as interested in what goes on behind the screens as what ends up on the box. To better understand the programme selection process at Amazon Prime Instant Video, we spoke to Helen Cowley at Amazon’s recent Christmas Wish List expo about how our favourite shows make it onto the streaming service.
TVDaily: Hi Helen, thank you for taking the time to meet and answer some questions! Tell us, how did you land the job as Senior Manager at Amazon?
Helen Cowley: I previously worked at LoveFilm from 2004, when it was a brand new startup. There were twenty of us working in an old church in Olympia back then, and my role has grown as the business has grown. Then we became part of Amazon Prime Instant Video last year, which is super exciting and an amazing opportunity. The range of devices that we’ve been introduced to, the quality of our content, and being a part of Amazon Studios has all just been fantastic.
What’s unique about Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service? How do you stay ahead of the curve?
I think the fact that we have our own Amazon studios based out in LA makes us unique. We have our pilot seasons where we show customers up to ten pilots, offering a mixture of drama, comedy, kids’ shows etc., and then we take all the customer feedback we get on those pilots, such as comments on social media and on our survey, and use that information to decide what gets made into a full season. To date we’ve produced around ninety pilots – forty of which have been produced into full series – so I think that really places us ahead of the curve; that we are commissioning content based on customer feedback. A really good example of that process is Transparent, which was in our 2014 pilot season, and was hugely successful with our customers, so we took that to a full season. It’s since won two Golden Globes, which is a landmark for Amazon, and a landmark for online streaming shows in general, as it’s the first online show to win a Golden Globe for Best TV Series.
What other criteria do you use when choosing Amazon’s video content?
On top of user feedback, it’s about customer engagement, and understanding what our customers want. A really good example is Outlander, which joined the service exclusively a few months ago and has been a huge success for us. Outlander had already been released in the US, but hadn’t come across the Atlantic yet. There’s a significant amount of love for the show here and the ‘Outlandish’ fans are so passionate, so that’s a really good example of us being able to listen to a wider group of people, and deliver something that they really want to watch.
What’s your favourite TV show at the moment?
One that’s particularly close to my heart is Mozart in the Jungle, which we released over Christmas. It stars Gael García Bernal from The Motorcycle Diaries, and is written by Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, so the guys who brought us Moonrise Kingdom and The Dargeeling Limited. It’s really fun. I was able to watch that in a day! I also have to mention The Man in the High Castle. That is a fantastic series that will be joining the service later this year, produced by Ridley Scott and based on a Phillip K. Dick book. We’ve just been at San Diego Comic-Con with it. Producing this type of content and listening to our customers really does give us that edge.
You mention Ridley Scott, who is such a huge name. Are there opportunities for independent filmmakers to get their content on Amazon Prime Instant Video?
Absolutely! Transparent is a really good example of that. The director, Jill Soloway, had done a few things previously, but she’s had her grounding in independent movies, so this gave her the platform to reach a much wider audience. The great thing about Amazon Studios is they will read any script, so it’s not just big names, it’s also unknowns. Transparent is a really good example of elevating content and giving opportunities to filmmakers that perhaps wouldn’t have been available before.
And what’s your favourite film?
I have favourite films based on different reasons. One of my favourites is Bugsy Malone, as that’s something that I watched on repeat as a child, and it’s definitely one of the films that really got me into movies. Then there’s Quadrophenia, which I watched when I was about 13, and is so cool when you’re a teenager! And I have to include a Coen Brothers film as well.. let’s go with O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Those are my go-to, repeat viewings.
What’s the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
It’s a combination of working in the entertainment industry, and being surrounded by super smart, really passionate people. I’m super lucky and very privileged to be a part of this.
And the hardest part?
Sometimes it’s hard because there’s so much that we want to achieve. We’ve got big ambitions and I’m really excited about the future, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all! The job is hard in that respect.
What’s coming up on Amazon that you’re most excited about?
The Man in the High Castle, which will arrive on the service later this year (20.11.15), alongside another Amazon original, Hand of God, which stars Ron Perlman (04.09.15). Then of course there’s Transparent Season 2 (04.12.15), and Red Oaks, which is an ‘80s-style comedy that was another Amazon pilot (09.10.15). I’m also excited about the next Ripper Street, which is just going into production. There’s a really exciting mixture of movies and TV coming on for the rest of 2015. It’s going to keep us busy!
Finally, how do you see the future of online streaming services like Amazon Prime Instant Video?
Well, it is a super competitive space, but I think competition is only a good thing, as it forces everyone to raise their game. That means that from a customer perspective, things are only going to get better. There are lots of challenges ahead, but that’s great.
Sign up for your free 30-day trial of Amazon Prime Instant Video to enjoy unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows such as these: