A new show called Alpha House, whose pilot filmed in New York late last month, has many of the ingredients necessary for television success.
John Goodman, coming off notable roles in Oscar-winning movies Argo and The Artist, is the star. Bill Murray did a cameo. Stephen Colbert shot a teaser for the next episode of the series, which is written by “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau.
Yet this is not the project of a big movie studio or a television network but rather of Amazon.com Inc, the world’s largest Internet retailer.
Amazon, along with Netflix, Google, Apple , Intel, Microsoft and others, aims to play a major role in the Internet-driven transformation of Hollywood. Like Netflix, it has decided that it must move beyond being a distributor of others’ shows to producing top-drawer programming of its own.
“I’m always worried I’m going to be in a YouTube video,” Goodman told Reuters during a break in filming at the cavernous Cine Magic Riverfront Studios in Brooklyn, New York. “But this is just the same as a TV set – full production value, great director, good technical people.”
“I’m very interested to see where this is going to go – TV distribution over your computer,” he added.
Amazon’s approach mixes the tactics of traditional network TV with innovations from the online world. It does not sell a stand-alone video subscription service like Netflix – instead, it bundles streaming video with its Amazon Prime membership program for U.S. customers (streaming video is not yet available in Canada), in which shoppers pay an annual fee of $79 for two-day shipping on most of their purchases from Amazon.com.
Amazon hopes original shows will encourage more people to sign up for Amazon Prime. The online retailer says Prime members tend to buy more goods, but it does not give specifics.
Unlike Netflix, which turned a lot of heads when it plunked down an estimated $100-million to produce two seasons of the political drama House of Cards, Amazon is creating pilots for about a dozen shows.
Amazon has not disclosed how much money it is investing in original video production, but some media experts estimate it likely will cost more than $10-million to produce the pilots. It will pick the shows to develop into full seasons based on the feedback it receives about the pilots, which will be posted online.
“If Amazon has a breakout hit, Hollywood will take them very seriously quickly,” said Dave Davis, founder of Arpeggio Partners, a boutique investment bank focused on entertainment.
“With a hit, they will be able to attract subscribers to the only place they can get that show,” he added.
The “Alpha House” set at Riverfront Studios was bustling last week with more than 100 makeup artists, set builders, camera operators and other crew members. A mock-up of the Senate floor dominated the scene, along with a large green screen used to superimpose actors alongside footage of real politicians.
Trudeau said Amazon provided everything needed to get Alpha House, about four senators living together in a rented house in Washington, D.C., done right.
“They’re moving fast and big,” he said. “They want to go out and make a lot of noise all at once.”
Trudeau had been trying to make Alpha House into a TV show for several years.
“In the last year, all at once there were new, serious players in this business, like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu,” he added. “The project would not have been possible a year ago.”
The streaming video business has moved remarkably quickly from reliance on licensing of old movies and TV shows to head-on competition with long-dominant broadcast networks, cable companies and movie studios.
Netflix broke new ground this year, making all episodes of the first season of House of Cards available only through its subscription video-streaming service. The political drama boasted A-list movie talent, including two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey. Netflix executives say it has been the most-watched show on the service in every country that it operates and critics gave it solid reviews.
Only-on-Netflix series coming later this year include the revival of onetime Fox comedy Arrested Development and murder mystery Hemlock Grove, directed by horror movie producer Eli Roth.
“Everybody wants to have originals so they can stand apart from their peers, as non-exclusive content becomes a commodity,” said Tony Wible, media and entertainment analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott.