From the mag: Amazon gets experimental with new slate

Amazon Studios VP of children's series development Tara Sorensen shares the strategy behind Amazon's growing kids programming slate, including Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street, which is set to premiere next month.
October 30, 2014

When Amazon Studios announced it was getting into original content development for television two years ago, using a unique crowdsourcing pilot program and an open-door submission process, it was a bold vision aimed squarely at the Netflixes and Hulus of the online streaming world.

A year later, Amazon’s first original productions (adult-targeted comedies Alpha House and Betas) debuted exclusively on the retail giant’s Prime Instant Video service. Both received relatively good reviews, but have so far failed to make a big impact.

With the notable success of darker fare like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black from Netflix, it wasn’t surprising to see Amazon greenlight more mature, dramatic shows (The After, Bosch) in its second pilot season in March. It also announced plans to invest US$100 million in original content in the third quarter of 2014. (Like Netflix, it still won’t release audience figures.)

While time will tell how its new crop of adult-oriented programs will perform, Amazon may soon see greater success in the kids space. Its first three original kids series, Annedroids, Creative Galaxy and Tumbleaf, premiered this summer. Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street and Wishenpoof! were greenlit for full series production in round two this spring, and six more kids pilots (four animated, two live action) were lined up in August.

The bigger production slate has seen the company’s Santa Monica, California-based kids programming division scale up under the direction of Tara Sorensen, VP of children’s series development. “The teams have increased to handle the volume, not only in kids but also across our half-hour and one-hour primetime groups,” Sorensen says. “We have a production team now and everyone is in one location. Christina Reynolds is our development exec for live-action six to 11, Melissa Wolfe handles animation six to 11, and Monica Dennis is our point person for preschool shows.”

The larger team may be something new, but Sorensen says what hasn’t changed is the focus on guiding creators who have strong visions for their shows. “We are not here to say, ‘Let’s make that character a girl or a boy.’ The viewer data we collect and the comments we look at help inform the shows that are right for us, so we know before optioning a show whether or not it could resonate with our audience,” she says. “I don’t want to dilute a creator’s vision. I want to help them understand our customers better and how their projects can become a bit stickier with our audience.”

The studio’s strategy of allowing Amazon Prime customers to stream pilots for free and publicly comment on them gives Amazon an extra layer of certainty in deciding what goes into full series production. It’s a big reason why Amazon is being watched closely in the streaming space and by traditional broadcast and cable networks. But despite its use of metrics, Sorensen says Amazon does rely on gut feelings in certain situations and is showing it’s not afraid to take risks. After greenlighting its first round of series, all created by established producers, the studio said yes to its first online submission from an amateur in March. It greenlit David Anaxagoras’ coming-of-age, live-action pilot Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street.

Anaxagoras, a graduate of UCLA’s MFA screenwriting program, was a full-time preschool teacher when he submitted Gortimer to Amazon, and he had only written feature films previously. “He had never written a kids pilot and didn’t consider himself a TV writer,” says Sorensen. “But David is a wonderful writer with a unique voice that I had never seen in the kids space.”

When Sorensen reviewed the submission, there was some concern it wouldn’t be suitable for a younger kids audience. “It was a bit darker, so we worked with him to get it to a place that didn’t compromise his vision, but also sat a bit more squarely in the six to 11 space, though not completely,” she says. “I don’t really think of Gortimer as a traditional kids show.”

Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street is a 13 x 24-minute single-cam live-action series that follows the adventures of Gortimer (Sloane Morgan Siegel) and his two best friends, Ranger (Drew Justice) and Mel (Ashley Boettcher), in an ordinary suburban neighborhood that has a hint of something magical bubbling just beneath the surface.

“When we greenlit it, [Amazon Studios director] Roy Price was really great at reminding me that we could be experimental. So we took a chance,” says Sorensen. With that mindset, Amazon brought another first-timer to the kids space, Luke Metheny (Maron, God of Love), on to the project to direct. “We looked for talent that hadn’t worked on kids shows to bring a fresh perspective. Bringing Luke on wasn’t necessarily the safest decision, but I wanted to be clear we were doing things in a different way,” she notes.

According to Metheny, his directing techniques didn’t require any major adjustments. “It’s my first kids production ever, but I didn’t approach it that differently from a non-kids project. I tried to stay true to the material and not condescend to kids,” he says, likening the spirit of the show to The Wonder Years and The Goonies. He also supported the producers’ decision to use a single camera to distinguish the series from hit Nickelodeon and Disney sitcoms, which shoot in a multi-cam style.

Sorensen says the one thing that surprised her from kids’ comments about the pilot was that they found Gortimer so funny. “I wouldn’t describe the pilot as funny,” she contends. “There are some funny moments between the kids, but we were going more for a dramedy. I was glad, though, to see that kids responded so strongly to our three leads.”

In fact, she says feedback has also been positive on Amazon’s three newly launched kids shows. “Viewers have reacted well to Annedroids having a strong girl character, and to the curriculum threads in Tumbleaf and Creative Galaxy that encourage kids to do activities outside of screen entertainment.”

And now that Amazon is into its next wave of pilots, Sorensen says the journey continues to be a learning experience. For example, Amazon’s first crop of kids pilots all appeared as animatics, rather than as fully animated or live-action pieces, which caused some confusion with reviewers. “For our second wave, we learned that we needed to more fully produce them so that our customers could better understand what the final product would look like,” says Sorensen. “That has definitely elongated our production timeline. Our first pilots were produced within a two- to three-month period and now it’s a six- to seven-month period.”

As Amazon’s kids division looks to greenlight its next series, there is plenty of talk about how it will integrate commerce into its original content strategy, especially in light of its new deal with HIT Entertainment that is bringing an array of consumer products exclusively to Amazon.com via a Fireman Sam hub on the site. But Sorensen says her division will never option a property because it has a great play pattern. “Our prime objective is to create great entertainment that our customers will love for Prime Instant Video. If a character or story really resonates with a child, then eventually you will see product, but that order has to be done in the correct way.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Kidscreen.

About The Author
Jeremy is the Features Editor of Kidscreen specializing in the content production, broadcasting and distribution aspects of the global children's entertainment industry. Contact Jeremy at jdickson@brunico.com.


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