Amazon Studios has put into production three comedy pilots as the online retail giant deepens its investment in original content for its Prime Instant Video streaming service.
The studio struck deals with several established Hollywood writers and producers — including Jill Soloway, producer of the Emmy-nominated HBO series "Six Feet Under," and writer Roman Coppola, who received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay for "Moonrise Kingdom" — to develop the latest pilots.
It also is believed to be in talks with Chris Carter, creator of the Emmy-winning series "The X-Files," and Eric Overmyer, co-creator of the acclaimed HBO drama "Treme."
The pedigree of the creative talent recruited for the new round of original TV productions — and those still in discussions — sends a signal to the entertainment industry about Amazon's seriousness in creating shows. It needs to match the high bar set by rival Netflix Inc., which earned considerable prestige when David Fincher won the best director Emmy Award for the streaming service's drama "House of Cards."
"Seeing what Netflix has done early on has redefined the brand, in the consumers' eyes," BTIG media analyst Richard Greenfield said. "In order to really differentiate what Amazon has done, they need to have some unique and creatively impactful programming."
The Internet retailer has been spending significant sums to bring exclusive movies and TV shows to the Prime Instant Video service. Indeed, the Seattle company posted a second-quarter loss — its second such loss in the year after nine straight years of profitable operations — as it invested in a range of initiatives, including expanding its streaming service and developing its line of Kindle tablet computers and e-readers.
This year, Amazon greenlighted 14 television pilots, including "Betas," a comedy about a Silicon Valley quest for nerd fame, and "Alpha House," in which actor John Goodman portrays one of four senators who live together in Washington.
The company asked viewers to critique the pilots and, based on the response, opted to develop two pilots into full series, due out this fall.
"We were thrilled by the performance of Pilot Season 1.0," said Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios. "We got millions of views and pieces of feedback, so customers really responded to the opportunity to check out the new shows and share their opinions of them."
Now, Amazon is financing new half-hour pilots. Customers will again be invited to offer reactions.
Director Coppola joins with actor and musician Jason Schwartzman ("Saving Mr. Banks" and "Moonrise Kingdom") and Tony-nominated writer and director Alex Timbers ("Peter and the Starcatcher") in developing "Mozart in the Jungle." The project is based on oboist Blair Tindall's memoir, which explores the world of sex, drugs and classical music behind the curtains at a symphony.
"The Outlaws," written by Jeremy Garelick ("The Break-Up") and Jon Weinbach ("30 for 30"), explores the ins and outs of a professional football team from the perspectives of the players and coaches. The creative team also includes producers Matt Alvarez and Michael Strahan, a former New York Giants defensive end and current co-host of "Live With Kelly and Michael."
"We're looking for shows that are going to bring something interesting and new to people's TV and entertainment choices," Price said. "In this case, we're excited to be working with a group of really talented creators who have a passionate vision for their shows and are trying to do something interesting."
Soloway said she pitched the idea for "Transparent" to several networks, including HBO and Showtime. She said she selected Amazon because of its promise of creative freedom for her pilot, which is set in motion when a father (played by Jeffrey Tambor) reveals a secret to his adult children.
"Coming from 'Six Feet Under' and watching a series start off with a father dying, the patriarch dying, how cool would it be to start off a series where a new family member is being born?" Soloway said. "Where the patriarch is actually being reborn as a matriarch."
Soloway said other television shows had sought to mine comedy from cross-dressing — ABC's canceled series "Work It" being the most recent example.
She was intrigued by the idea of "genderqueerness," in which people fall outside of the narrow definitions of male and female. The pilot explores family secrets and parents who aren't aging as gracefully as their adult children might want, she said.
"It's about a dad who feels like he wants to experiment with his gender," Soloway said. "I hope that everyone who watches it can see it as a metaphor for all the different ways that parents don't fit exactly where they're put."
Tambor, who has made a career out of playing memorable comedic characters, said he was drawn immediately to the role.
"It's unlike anything I've ever seen before," Tambor said during a recent break in production. "And yet it's so human.... Everybody can relate to this. It's about families. It's about boundaries. It's about love. And it's really funny."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun