RS West ’18: Amazon Studios’ Heather Schuster talks #MeToo, Meek Mill and money

Amazon Studios’ head of unscripted programming, Heather Schuster, took to the stage Tuesday (June 5) for a keynote conversation with Wheelhouse Entertainment founder Brent Montgomery during Realscreen West in Santa Monica, ...
June 6, 2018

Amazon Studios’ head of unscripted programming, Heather Schuster, took to the stage Tuesday (June 5) for a keynote conversation with Wheelhouse Entertainment founder Brent Montgomery during Realscreen West in Santa Monica, California.

Montgomery was quick to ask Schuster about her opinion regarding the sexual harassment focused #MeToo movement which swept the world in 2017.

Former Amazon Studios head Roy Price was suspended, and later resigned from the company after allegations of sexual harassment were made against him last year. Following his exit, the digital streaming giant tapped ex-NBC president Jennifer Salke for the post in February.

“What is it like now?” Montgomery inquired.

Schuster, who joined the company as a senior creative director, said that she has always valued a diversity of viewpoints that make her ask tough questions about culture; both in the workforce or in content creation.

“Multiple viewpoints always improve a project – regardless. Having people who are smart and come at it with different points of view and challenge you is a good thing. We have an incredible team right now that is extremely collaborative and supportive,” she explained.

Moving onto the discussion of how to pitch a project to Amazon, Schuster maintained the thread of collaboration as being central in working with production companies. The unscripted team, she said, is open to meeting new production units from different territories.

“We are eager to meet people who we have not met before, and sourcing projects from people who are passionate, excited and who maybe just haven’t met us yet.”

When looking at projects, Montgomery asked Schuster how much data is used in the decision-making process.

“So much data,” Schuster quipped. While data isn’t the sole factor in the process, Schuster said working at Amazon provides her team with a large swath of customer data and feedback which aids in figuring out what worked and what didn’t.

In terms of what Schuster is looking for in premium documentaries, her team is interested in projects that focus on a story that sparks a social and political conversation that will entice audiences to learn more about the subject. She noted Amazon’s project about Philadelphia-born rapper Meek Mill from The Intellectual Property Corporation and rapper Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. The untitled six-part series will look not only at Mills’ private life, but also the different elements at play that kept him in  Philadelphia’s criminal justice system for over a decade.

Amazon also has two other documentary projects in the works that Schuster highlighted: Lorena, a four-part series that re-examines the trial of Lorena Bobbitt from content creator Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions – which yesterday inked a first-look television deal with Amazon Studios; and an untitled docuseries from Academy Award winner Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and Adam Davidson set to look at global corruption and greed.

On the other side of unscripted, Schuster said her department is looking to “ramp up formats” that feel special – whether that means reinventing a genre like the singing competition series The Voice  accomplished, or, citing the culinary global hit MasterChef, finding something that feels like it was “well produced with great talent.”

“We want formats that feel like, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing that,’” she said.

And in terms of how much money Amazon Studios has on tap for its unscripted programming, Schuster said they are “very open for business” as the studio looks to build out their premium doc and format slate. “The budgets are healthy and competitive,” she said. However, Schuster exercised caution, saying, “We don’t want to get a budget for US$2 million to make a $500,000 show.”

Schuster told delegates in attendance that she is not only interested in projects for the U.S. market, and noted that Amazon is looking to create localized originals that cater to Amazon Prime subscribers in international territories. She added that production is currently underway in Japan and India as Amazon looks further to European Union territories, Latin America and Mexico.

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news editor at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joined the RS team in 2015 with experience in journalism following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and with communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.