Former NBC Entertainment president, was named head of streaming giant Amazon Studios in February 2018 Jennifer Salke entered the Second Age in London.
Jennifer Salke spent the 72 hours leading up to the launch of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” in a whirlwind, traveling from the series’ global premiere event in London’s Leicester Square to her Manhattan apartment to watch the early returns arrive via reports from Amazon’s formidable consumer research department. The “Rings” team was exhausted, having had no chance to recover from the grueling worldwide promotional campaign for the Amazon Prime Video series that is an enormous bet for the tech giant, being the most expensive television series ever produced. For most of launch day, Sept. 1, Salke and key members of her executive team, many members of the large ensemble cast and executive producers J.D. Payne, Patrick McKay and Lindsey Weber gathered together for hours in virtual “war rooms,” bone tired but energized, to wait for the world’s reaction.
“There was just this adrenalized excitement that, after four and a half years, we were actually letting people see the show,” Salke says. “It really was a holding of hands across the company.”
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Salke also kept her eye that night on the numerous war rooms filled with technicians and engineers set up in London, New York, Seattle and sites in India to ensure that the Prime Video streaming had no performance issues as it dealt with what it hoped would be a worldwide deluge of traffic. The last thing Amazon wanted to see when the launch cycle began, was screeching on social media from “LOTR” fans that the platform had crashed. Salke’s nerves were soothed, though, as she saw photos and videos flying around Amazon’s internal messaging channels with scenes of parties and Champagne corks popping as the war rooms monitored the surge that most likely did come, per Variety.
“They were up all night long,” Salke says. “Pictures were being sent around to everybody. It was just a very culturally defining moment for the global company.”
For Salke, it’s one season down, four to go. The successful maiden voyage of “Rings of Power,” which focuses on stories from the Second Age period of the beloved “LOTR” mythos from author J.R.R. Tolkien, is off to an impressive start. But Amazon Studios is playing the long game with its Tolkien investment. The company committed to an unprecedented five seasons (or 50 hours) of production as part of the jaw-dropping $250 million rights deal struck with the Tolkien estate in November 2017. That came about three months before Salke left her role as president of NBC Entertainment to take the reins of Amazon Studios. She inherited the Elendil-sized task of shepherding the series from idea to fruition.
As reported by Variety, It was a mission that tapped all the skills she’s honed over the years as a top creative executive at Aaron Spelling Prods. and 20th Century Fox Television, and as an instrumental player in the turnaround at NBC a decade ago.
For these achievements, Salke and Amazon Studios have been named the 2022 recipient of the Variety Vanguard Award, recognizing contributions to the global television industry and presented by Variety and Mipcom. Salke will be honored on Oct. 18 as part of the annual Mipcom content market and conference that runs Oct. 17-20 in Cannes.
Part of Salke’s tough assignment with “Rings of Power” comes with enormous scrutiny on the project from “LOTR” devotees around the world, including one close to home for Amazonians. It’s no secret that Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman of Amazon, is a longtime lover of tales of Middle-earth. With the “Rings” rendition delivered by her team, in addition to the massive growth of Amazon Studios operations since her arrival, Salke has proven herself in the eyes of Amazon’s top boss. “Jen is an inspiring leader who’s built an amazing team and transformed Amazon Studios and Prime Video into a marquee destination for talent, creators and elevated storytelling,” Bezos tells Variety. “Her willingness to take big swings is matched by her good judgment and creative taste. She has just the right kind of thoughtful fearlessness.”
Friends and colleagues of Salke say she demonstrated natural leadership early on. Dana Walden, chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content, was a mentor to Salke when they worked together at 20th Century Fox Television in the 2010s. In Walden’s view, Salke has the combination of charisma, managerial skills and artistic instincts that are needed to work effectively with the creative community and within a giant corporation such as Amazon. “One of the things that makes her so special as an executive is that she is so creative herself. She’s funny. I have never laughed harder than at some of the times I’ve spent with Jen,” Walden says. “She has a unique ability to hear an idea that has the potential to be explosive that others don’t hear, and I think it’s because she connects with creators in a very authentic way.” Nicole Kidman, who earned an Oscar nomination this year for playing Lucille Ball in Amazon Studios’ 2021 biopic “Being the Ricardos,” is effusive about the executive she calls “one of the great female leaders” in the industry. “I’ll do anything for that woman,” Kidman says. “She is deeply kind, loyal, talented — and a treasure.”
Another star who recently scored in the kudos derby with Amazon Studios is the multi-hyphenate music maven Lizzo, whose unscripted series “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” was an upset winner last month in the Emmy Awards’ tough reality competition series category. Lizzo and her dance troupe were fierce enough to snap the four-year winning streak of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” “When I pitched the concept of ‘Watch Out for the Big Grrrls’ — where we could champion and celebrate women who are often overlooked — [Amazon Studios was] behind the idea immediately and supported my vision every step of the way,” Lizzo says. “Jen’s decision to empower storytellers is what sets her and the team apart.”
As her career has taken her into senior management roles, Salke has done a deft job of managing creative teams at a high level and at the same time staying close to the final product. “She’s very hands-on in the details of these big shows, and it’s the details that make these things work,” says Tony Vinciquerra, chairman-CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Sony TV co-produces one of Prime Video’s biggest series, the sardonic superhero romp “The Boys,” with Amazon Studios. The executives also worked together at Fox. “She genuinely gets excited about her shows, and that’s not always the case with executives,” Vinciquerra says. “She does everything she can to get behind them and make them work, which we love to see.”
The timing of all of this is good news. The most recent season of “The Boys” set viewership records and laid a nice path for “Rings of Power” to follow, which is fortuitous for Salke. As she approaches her fifth anniversary at Amazon, the company is at long last finalizing its plan for the integration of MGM within Amazon’s content operation. It’s been a parlor guessing game in Hollywood as to who would oversee what in the new world order. Amazon insiders have long said that the smart money was on Salke to be rewarded with oversight of MGM’s film and TV production activity for transforming Amazon Studios. Nothing’s official yet — Big Amazon famously takes its sweet time settling on big-picture operational decisions — but the expectation is that MGM will operate as an autonomous label under the Amazon Studios umbrella, reporting to Salke.
As “Rings of Power” cruises to its Oct. 14 finale, Salke sat for a wide-ranging Q&A late last month at Amazon Studios’ newly renovated office complex in Culver City, which incorporates the hallowed ground of the David O. Selznick Studios Southern Gothic mansion, just down the road from what was once MGM and is now Sony Pictures Entertainment. The discussion goes deep into the behind-the-scenes business story of birthing a new chapter of Tolkien, what it’s like to manage creative people in crazy times and the work Team Salke has put in to make Amazon Studios much more than a rounding error for its e-commerce giant. It’s also interspersed with comments on Salke’s professional strengths as an executive from some of the boldface names who are now in business with Amazon Studios.
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