This past summer, Jeff Bezos was crowned the richest man in modern history, thanks to amassing a fortune of about US$150-billion. As the founder, chairman and CEO of Amazon, Bezos has many, many, many claims to fame, and about as much, or really more, power than anyone to make whatever he wants a reality.
And what Jeff Bezos wants – or at least, what he doesn’t yet have – is an entertainment blockbuster.
Amazon Prime Video, launched more than a decade ago under the name Amazon Unbox, is Bezos’s attempt at disrupting, reinventing and then dominating yet one more industry: Hollywood. The streaming service – with its mix of original films and series from upstart Amazon Studios, as well as licensed content from others – is intended as both a magnet for turning Prime Video viewers into Amazon Prime shoppers and, potentially, a mainstream studio’s worst nightmare.
On the former front, Amazon is succeeding, with Reuters this spring reporting that Prime Video’s top programs drew more than five million people worldwide to its Prime retail operation. On the content side, though, the streaming service hasn’t exactly delivered a massive four-quadrant-friendly sensation that’s captivated the culture. HBO has Game of Thrones and Big Little Lies. Netflix has Stranger Things, The Crown, Mindhunter, Narcos, Glow, Making a Murderer and roughly a dozen more certified phenomenons.
Amazon is deep in the process of turning around its fortunes, though. It’s currently bringing some undefined version of The Lord of the Rings to the small screen (after securing rights from the J.R.R. Tolkien estate last fall for a reported US$250-million), and is in the thick of filming an ambitious and likely Very Adult adaptation of Garth Ennis’s comic-book series The Boys in Toronto. Its prestige period series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel just won best comedy at the Emmys. Its John Krasinski-led spy series, the annoyingly titled Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, is an out-of-the-gate hit, at least according to company representatives. (Like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video does not disclose actual viewership data.) And next month, Amazon will unveil one of its boldest, and most celebrity-friendly, projects yet: Homecoming.
While the 10-episode series is not a sprawling fantasy epic or a blow-out historical drama, it is one of the most unusual and anticipated adaptations of this spend-till-you-succeed Peak TV era. The psychological thriller is based not on a book or believe-it-or-not memoir, but the hit fictional podcast of the same name. Oh, and it boasts the biggest movie star to enlist in the streaming wars so far: Julia Roberts.
The Oscar-winning actor, in her first recurring work for the small screen, plays Heidi, a government official working at a top-secret military facility. Her job: to help orient soldiers (including one played by rising Canadian actor Stephan James) to civilian life after service abroad. Or so it seems. Like the Homecoming podcast, created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg and produced by Gimlet Media, Heidi’s reality is dotted with question marks, and the series carries a distinct air of paranoia. It’s a little bit Lost, a little bit Alan J. Pakula and a whole lot Mr. Robot hypervisuals. Which makes sense, given that the series is produced and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail.
“I had a few specific needs or requests to help me sign on to this, and one was asking Sam if he would direct all the episodes,” Roberts said during an interview last month in Toronto. “The show seemed inherently unique to one person’s idea as opposed to a lot of people agreeing on tone. I felt it would make me feel secure, as a film actor, to not spend the time and energy getting to know someone and their work process, and then 10 days later say, ‘Hi, I’m Julia, I’m playing Heidi…,’ and do it all over again.”
The star, who turns 51 on Oct. 28, was attending the Toronto International Film Festival on a two-birds-one-junket mission: to promote both Homecoming and her forthcoming Oscar-tipped movie Ben Is Back. Happily, the environment proved to be an entertainment journalist’s dream: Here was the perfect opportunity to dissect not only what Amazon was trying to do (making content that’s impossible to ignore), but to neatly tease out the tension within the industry as a whole, where stories (and paycheques) are now king, not the medium.
Asked whether she was becoming “platform-agnostic” like many of her peers (Big Little Lies’s Nicole Kidman, Ballers’s Dwayne Johnson, Maniac’s Jonah Hill and Emma Stone), Roberts laid out the situation. “I’m going to start saying ‘platform-agnostic’ and I’m going to take full credit for it, but it’s true,” she said, laughing and flashing her surely-by-now-trademarked smile that lets her get away with essentially anything. “It’s about content, it’s about quality, it’s about telling an interesting story in a unique way so that it doesn’t matter where they’re coming from: your living room or a building you have to drive to.”
Her co-star James – after being gently scolded by Roberts for pulling out his phone during the interview – quickly added, “There’s really no distinction any more on how you can tell a story, from TV to film.” James would know just as well: He was pulling double duty at TIFF, too, promoting Homecoming and the upcoming, also Oscar-tipped, drama If Beale Street Could Talk.
Esmail, plopped into a hotel suite down the hall from Roberts and James but armed with the same talking points, doubled down on the power and privilege of this new storytelling landscape – one in which, as long as the resources are there, the smallest screen can be just as enticing a draw as the biggest one.
“Growing up as a TV viewer in the days of the eighties, a lot of TV was just coverage: capturing what was on the script. Telling a good story didn’t to me seem about how to tell a good story,” the showrunner, 41, says. “I attribute that filmmaking part a lot to when The Sopranos arrived. Now, it’s a free-for-all of great filmmakers matched with great actors. It’s not to say TV is becoming more like film, but in a different way they’ve reached the same qualitative level.”
Although Esmail is grateful Roberts signed on – “As soon as I heard she was a fan of the podcast, I immediately called my agent and asked if I could talk with her” – he is skeptical that a show can survive on star power alone, especially in today’s crowded marketplace, where, say, Netflix can toss US$6.3-billion on programming in 2017 and then realize, no, it should up that amount to US$8-billion this year. (Amazon reportedly spent US$4.5-billion in 2017, and is set to outspend its largest rival by 2021.)
“It has to be more than that, because at this point Julia is a major draw to anything she does, but the staying power is how unique is your story, and how well are you executing that story?” he says. “That’s the thing that’s going to push any TV show through the 500-plus shows competing for that attention.”
Thanks to its slick plotting and slicker visuals – no one can turn a mundane office into a nightmare factory quite like Esmail – Homecoming certainly boasts that desirable contagious element: the need to keep pressing play, and binge the intrigue till the end. Having Roberts (and James, and supporting players such as Sissy Spacek and Bobby Cannavale) helps, but like the most successful series, it all stems from the storytelling strength of the source material.
“There’s a reason development people are looking outside their normal streams,” said Bloomberg, who along with Horowitz joined the Amazon series after developing the podcast. “When we started working on the show, it wasn’t about how to make it like a normal TV show – there’s hundreds of those out there. We had to remind ourselves of what got us here in the first place: this strange, outsider piece of storytelling.”
But Jeff Bezos has not become the sort of man who can buy and sell the world by only betting on the strange and weird. So, Homecoming will likely have to act as just one of many planks – albeit a plank featuring one of the most recognizable celebrities on the planet – to convert curious audiences into passionate consumers.
“It’s a mix: You do need a massive tentpole, a get-everybody-talking program. But the audience does scatter a bit, too, and Amazon has customers all around the world, all different demographics,” said James Farrell, head of international originals for Amazon Prime Video, in an interview the week after TIFF. “We need the licensed content, the content coming in from overseas, to round out a diverse offering. There are tentpoles that everybody wants to watch, but we have a lot of customers to keep happy.”
Asked what he’s most looking forward to watching, though, Farrell offered little hesitation.
“Oh, Homecoming. It’s my kind of show: It starts off, and right away you’re engaged and have no idea where it’s going,” he said, before adding, “And, I just love her.”
Homecoming starts streaming Nov. 2 on Amazon Prime Video.