Downtown Seattle Flirts with Greatness

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For decades, Pier 57 owner Hal Griffith dreamed of building a Ferris wheel at the end of the historic landing he owns. But it wasn’t until he thought the Seattle waterfront faced real peril in the form of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel that he put his money where his dreams were.

“We thought this was the perfect time to make a project like this work,” says Griffith, who owns the recently opened Seattle Great Wheel with his sons, Troy and Kyle. “The waterfront businesses will benefit from the new tunnel, but first we have to survive the construction.”

The 17-story-tall, white observation wheel is either a multimillion-dollar Hail Mary or a harbinger of things to come, a new jewel in the crown of a vibrant downtown.

There’s no denying downtown Seattle is on the verge of the big time. Home to the city’s fastest growing neighborhoods during the past 20 years, downtown has also defied recent regional and national business trends. “Through the teeth of the worst recession of any of our lifetimes, there were thousands of jobs that were created, six million square feet [of commercial/office space] created and an additional $5 million in tax revenue,” says Stephen Johnson, director of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development.


The new Seattle Great Wheel on Pier 57, photograph by Amanda Wilson

These positive trends are only the beginning. In the pipeline are several large projects that will significantly reshape downtown, including the mixed-use Stadium Place development just north of CenturyLink Field, the possibility of an NBA/NHL arena in SoDo, the public-private redevelopment of Yesler Terrace on First Hill and Amazon’s three-million-square-foot headquarters complex in the Denny Triangle. Add to these a multitude of civic projects, including the University Link Light Rail connection, First Hill streetcar, Mercer Corridor improvement, redevelopment of Seattle Center, Bell Street Park project and, of course, the massive, superlative-evoking viaduct/tunnel/seawall/waterfront project. All of which promise to make a good thing even better.

But those with their hands on the wheel are cautious, realizing everything could go south in a heartbeat. “The one word that best describes what we have downtown is ‘fragile,’” Downtown Seattle Association Chair Jack McCullough said during an address at the DSA’s annual meeting earlier this year. “The line between success and failure for retailers, hoteliers, residents, restaurants and employers downtown is so thin. It’s why we show up every day to fight for the vitality of downtown.”

It’s a fight that matters because a successful downtown drives a successful Seattle, which, as a regional powerhouse, helps drive the Puget Sound region and beyond. And while Seattle sometimes competes with other cities in Washington state, more often it helps to attract new business and trade to the entire area. More than 220,000 people work downtown, which represents nearly half of all employees in Seattle. Downtown retail supplies 40 percent of the city's sales tax revenue. And, like it or not, the urban core, with its iconic views and graffiti-covered parking meters, is the physical and symbolic gateway to Seattle—it’s where our reputation is made or ruined.

The economics of vitality

Downtowns are vibrant when street-level retail, a diverse commercial/business base, residential density and cultural institutions support each other in a positive feedback loop. More people living, working and playing downtown add more than bustle to sidewalks. A dynamic urban core also fuels retail, attracts business and helps squeeze out pockets of crime and street disorder, which, in turn, draws more investment, energy and people—especially the all-important under-40 knowledge worker.

“When we recruited Russell [Investments] to downtown,” explains DSA President and CEO Kate Joncas, “the CEO said, ‘I need to be someplace were I can attract the best financial graduates in the world.’ He could have been anywhere but he said, ‘I think that can happen in Seattle.’”

In other words, “live-work-play” is a more than a marketing tag; it’s a real economic asset.

Jim Hendricks, president of Seattle Children’s Research Institute, one of the country’s top five pediatric research institutions, says he can recruit the world’s greatest researchers from any institution. “I can compete with Harvard, Stanford, you name it, because of this place. It’s exciting.” Not only for the lifestyle but also the synergy created by a critical mass of life sciences companies. Situated in the Denny Triangle, the institute rubs shoulders with Amgen, ZymoGenetics, Seattle BioMed, Novo Nordisk, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington and more.

“Historically, cities have always been and, I think, are returning to the place where people get stimulated and energized, and we know that innovation advances occur when you mix things up. Your chocolate bar falls into the peanut butter, so to speak,” says Johnson.

He cites as an example the collaboration between PATH, the global health nonprofit that moved from Ballard to South Lake Union in 2010, and Cascade Designs in SoDo. PATH paired up with the family-owned camping supply company to efficiently and cost-effectively bring to market a device for sterilizing water.

“That synergy wouldn’t happen if Cascade Designs was located somewhere out in the suburbs,” Johnson says.

It’s not just biotech on the north end of downtown that’s cashing in on the buzz of interaction. A lively economic story is unfolding on the upper floors of Pioneer Square, despite the papered-over windows and “for lease” signs at street level.

Mike McDevitt, principal at Foundry Interactive, is a typical case. He moved his web development agency from Fremont to Pioneer Square shortly after Elliot Bay Book Company relocated to Capitol Hill. Although “the neighborhood [Pioneer Square] had been declared dead,” McDevitt was lured to the historic district by convenient transit—his employees commute by bike or bus—plus great restaurants, neighborhood character and the “density of startups and startup-centric services.” Most meetings with clients and partners occur within walking distance of his building.

Foundry’s offices back up to Nord Alley, a reclaimed space between Occidental Square and First Avenue South, where art and activities bring together workers from Isilon Systems, ING Direct, Zynga, Onehub, Discovery Bay Games, Ratio Interactive and Spring Creek.

 

Strength in diversity

Although service and government jobs make up 61 percent of downtown employment, the urban core is home to a variety of business sectors that are well positioned for future growth. Such companies include interactive media and casual gaming firms in Pioneer Square and Belltown, life sciences and global health in South Lake Union, finance in the urban core and health care on First Hill.

Plus, the downtown area is home to several major corporate headquarters, including Starbucks, Nordstrom and Amazon.com. While Amazon has been criticized for its virtually invisible civic role in Seattle, its 10,000 employees in north downtown are a rising tide that can’t help but lift nearby boats.

Nordstrom’s influence downtown reaches far beyond its flagship store and the Nordstrom Rack, which moved to a new 42,500-square-foot space in Westlake Center earlier this year. Nordstrom employs more than 1,000 people downtown; this number includes the recent addition of 400 employees “to help drive our growth online,” says Nordstrom spokesman Colin Johnson. Nordstrom leases space in five buildings downtown, plus an additional 300,000 square feet at 1600 Seventh Avenue this fall.

Even Boeing is back, in a way, with a full floor in Russell Investments tower, the former headquarters of Washington Mutual.

Another sign of strategic importance of these downtown business sectors is the expansion of education opportunities geared specifically to them. In May, Boston-based Northeastern University became Washington state’s first private research university. Still looking for a downtown location at press time, Northeastern will offer 16 graduate degrees in line with many downtown sectors, including cybersecurity, computer science, digital media and engineering. In addition, City University of Seattle is moving to the Denny Triangle from Bellevue and will open in January 2013.

“I think Seattle’s strength is its diversity,” Johnson says. A more varied mix should better position the city center to absorb negative hits, like the collapse of Washington Mutual in 2008. That event subtracted thousands of jobs from downtown and left Seattle with no bank headquarters, a vacancy that has yet to be filled.


Amazon’s new headquarters  complex will encompass three blocks in the Denny Triangle. Courtesy of NBBJ.

 

A family-friendly groove

During the past two decades, Seattle’s downtown population grew by 72 percent. In contrast, the fastest growing Seattle neighborhood outside downtown was the Central District, with a growth rate of 29 percent. More than 3,000 downtown apartment units were under construction at the end of 2011. Yesler Terrace alone is projected to add 3,000 more units in 10 to 15 years. The Seattle City Council is currently reviewing the land-use code to encourage still greater residential density in South Lake Union.

But one piece of the density puzzle hasn’t fallen into place: families. Downtown-based parents migrate to leafier neighborhoods and suburbs as their children get a little older. Downtown has the highest attrition rate for children under 5 of all Seattle neighborhoods.

“I think the one thing that downtown lacks as far as vibrancy goes is more families,” says Speck Gallery owner Alex Landes, who raised her daughter in Belltown. “To me, the pulse isn’t down here as much, due to the lack of families.”

Seattle has long waved its banner as unchurched and childless, but the latter reputation isn’t good for downtown. Almost everyone agrees that families are a net-plus for neighborhoods. “If families and kids want to be here, everyone wants to be here,” DSA’s Joncas says. “It makes it a real place. Otherwise, it’s just a sterile, go-to-work place.”

A key culprit from Landes’ point of view is a lack of playgrounds. “It’s weird to me that in a city this size there isn’t one playground right downtown,” she says. “Not one.”

The DSA’s five-year strategic plan includes making downtown more family friendly, starting with a two-year pilot project for a fenced play area between the tree grove and See’s Candies in Westlake Park. Demonstrating business support for the idea, Seattle Children’s Research Institute made the inaugural donation of $40,000, nearly one-third of the play area budget.


An artist’s rendering of the Westlake Park play area. Courtesy of Mithun.

A second front in the family-friendly movement is a downtown school. Earlier this year, DSA partnered with the city and Seattle Public Schools to research the need for and feasibility of opening a public school somewhere in the downtown area. Comparable cities—San Diego, Boston, San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver, B.C.—all have public or charter schools in their downtowns.

“Parents who live downtown are drawn here because of the ease of lifestyle, the ability to walk to most places and the opportunity to expose their children to an urban environment,” says Jon Scholes, vice president of Advocacy and Economic Development for the DSA. “So the neighborhood school model that the district has adopted is particularly important within a dense community like downtown.” Scholes moved downtown from Madison Valley with his wife and 3-year-old twins in June.

If the numbers pencil out, the DSA hopes the school district will consider incorporating funding for a downtown school (age ranges and exact location to be determined) in the February 2013 levy.

 

Revitalizing retail

A variety of interlocking pieces make a downtown vibrant. Take away one and the lights go dim. Think back to downtown’s dark days in the early 1990s, when the Frederick & Nelson department store vacated its Fifth Avenue and Pine Street flagship—sucking the energy out of the retail sector.

“When [then-mayor] Norm Rice made the decision to help keep Nordstrom downtown, he effectively saved the retail district,” says Craig Kinzer, CEO and founder of Kinzer Real Estate Services, about the controversial deal that launched Nordstrom’s move into the old Frederick & Nelson building, the construction of Pacific Place and the concession to reopen Pine Street to car traffic. “I don’t think people understand how incredibly important that was.”

Kinzer, who brokered Russell Investments’ move from Tacoma to the empty Washington Mutual tower on Second Avenue as wel as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters near Seattle Center, has been active in downtown real estate since the late 1970s. He says, “Having a strong retail presence downtown is as important as almost anything I can think of. Everyone will talk about transportation and safety. But where you’ll see a huge difference in cities is your retail.”

Even as the Pike Place Market prospered during the recession and Seattle was selected as one of only five cities for Target’s new urban concept store (which opened in late July at Second Avenue and Pike Street), many downtown watchers think retail in the urban core needs a jump-start.

When she came to Seattle 18 years ago, Joncas says, “Seattle was still the regional center. Everything came here. It was like a pizza with all the pepperoni piled in the middle. Now,” she notes, “it’s a typical pepperoni pizza with pepperoni everywhere.” Competition comes not just from suburban malls but also from urban villages and neighborhoods, which can offer the city experience without the perceived problems of traffic, street disorder and expensive parking.


Kate Joncas, CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, with Jim Hendricks, president of Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Photograph by Matthew Williams.

The strategy to protect and support downtown’s special position is twofold: actively managing the retail mix and improving the street-level experience.

Retail leasing expert Midge McCauley says the focus needs to be on what distinguishes downtown: the independent stores that you won’t see out in the malls or neighborhoods, everything from Pike Place Market producers to Utilikilts, Filson and Urban Hardwoods. McCauley is principal and founder of Downtown Works, which helps business associations and developers design retail strategies. She lives in The Olivian, on the eastern edge of the retail core.

Tailoring the merchandise mix takes proactive recruiting, notes McCauley. She helped The Alliance for Pioneer Square hire and train a retail recruiter to tackle that neighborhood’s vacancy glut head-on with a mix of demographics, psychographics and shoe leather.

Solutions will also require landlords and brokers to find creative approaches. As McCauley points out, downtown landlords have an advantage over mall owners in that they can count on upper stories to help underwrite retail experiments. She’d like to see more of that variety. For their part, she says, “Cities need to think about balance.” Zoning that requires pervasive street-level retail can result in vacant storefronts, which is far worse than first-floor residential.

Meanwhile, McCauley, Joncas and others say the all-important experience needs to be improved, and property owners have recognized they must fill the gap if they’re going to stay competitive.

For more than a decade, DSA’s Metropolitan Improvement District has deployed crews in blue-and-yellow uniforms to act as ambassadors and to provide cleaning and outreach services for downtown. Last year alone, they removed 20,426 graffiti tags and stickers from public structures. Belltown business owners are currently exploring the possibility of creating their own business improvement district.

Hand in hand with issues of attractive sidewalks are concerns about crime and safety. Many downtown advocates and business owners were dismayed when Mayor Michael McGinn vetoed aggressive panhandling legislation in 2010. Since then, they’ve beat a steady drum about security in areas like the International District, the Third Avenue transit corridor and Belltown.

A pilot project in Belltown that allows police to refer drug offenders for treatment rather than jail time and an undercover drug sting in the transit corridor in June are signs of a newly energized approach to the open-air drug markets that plague these problem areas. Interestingly, King County Metro’s decision to discontinue the downtown ride-free zone (projected to yield $2 million) could inadvertently deter transit-hub crime by taking away an easy escape for troublemakers.

Cleaning up and activating streets is also a priority. The City Council added $500,000 to the 2012 budget for street improvements and more frequent cleaning in the transit corridor, as well taking steps to streamline the process for opening outdoor cafés and encouraging street food vending. Downtown/Center City Parks are deploying everything from public art (such as the blue tree trunks in Westlake Park) and concierges to concerts to moveable furniture to reverse the parks’ reputation as magnets for trouble. (Sound trivial? Keeping graffiti off subway trains was a key first step in restoring New York City’s vitality.)

Ultimately, the public-private revival designed to assist retail will probably require a few pioneering retailers to establish robust outposts in these trouble zones.

 

Tweaking the balance

The future is bright if city and business leaders can keep recalibrating the balance of forces that make a downtown vibrant. Currently, the city sees its role as proactive.

“What the recession really taught us was not to take [the economy] for granted,” Johnson says. “The city tended to think its role was more managing growth than helping facilitate it and being a partner. That’s the transition that’s occurred under Mayor McGinn.”

With the line between supporting/interfering and success/failure so thin, the future on Seattle’s downtown through a period of enormous change depends on getting the balance right.

“I think [Seattle] is on the cusp of reaching a whole different level,” says Maud Daudon, CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. “We need to seize that opportunity.”

The Amazing Rise of Amazon Studios

The Amazing Rise of Amazon Studios

A few years ago, no one was streaming new content from the retail giant. Roy Price has changed that dynamic.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
When the 89th Academy Awards celebration begins on February 26, Roy Price is sure to be in the audience. If early predictions are accurate, he will be anticipating an award or two for Manchester by the Sea, a film that’s been the smash hit at all four major North American film festivals this season.
 
A huge comeback for writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as a lost soul forced to contemplate adopting his reluctant teenage nephew. With Manchester receiving six Academy Award nominations, Roy Price could be a happy man on Oscar night. And Amazon.com shareholders, who have seen Amazon’s stock price rise 340 percent in the past six years, would likely be giving a standing ovation. 
 
Price, 49, who until recently lived in Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood, is chief of Amazon Studios — the arm of the Jeff Bezos empire committed to revolutionizing entertainment. Based partly in Seattle but mostly in a new 85,000-square-foot Santa Monica production facility, Price’s team of renowned Hollywood execs and industry veterans has been responsible for more than 100 prestige movies and blockbuster shows. They now make and acquire original films and TV series, which are streamed via the company’s on-demand video service. 
 
Amazon is likely second only to Netflix in total streaming customers. And Manchester by the Sea is its first big Oscar contender. Even if Oscar snubs Amazon, its Hollywood profile is at an all-time high. Back in 1998, when Amazon began selling DVDs, Hollywood studios actually refused to make DVDs of their films available for sale online. Now, Hollywood returns Amazon’s calls, and Price can hire talent like directors Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, and Manchester producer Matt Damon.
 
It’s a coup for Price, who started planning this Hollywood invasion in 2000, when he quit Disney after six years as animated-series VP to become a digital media consultant. He then joined Amazon in 2004, launching its video-on-demand service in 2008. When archrival Netflix started making its own shows, like the popular and critically acclaimed House of Cards, Price got the green light to launch Amazon Studios in 2010.
 
Netflix spends about $6 billion a year on 1,000-plus hours of original programming. Amazon’s production is ramping up sharply — in the second half of this year it said it was spending twice as much as  in the same period last year — but its attitude toward releasing actual numbers on its business is a lot like the secretary who defies Javier Bardem’s nosy killer character in No Country for Old Men: “Did you not hear me? We can’t give out no information!”
 
Regardless, Price is happily gobsmacked at how fast Amazon Studios has taken off. “Our first show, Garry Trudeau’s Alpha House, came out three years ago,” says Price, who has a mind sharp as a bear trap and a jaunty, quirky personal manner. 
 
Alpha House earned some applause, though no Emmys — something that changed in Amazon Studios’ second year, when it nabbed five Emmy Awards to Netflix’s four. Amazon’s first hits — Transparent, a noble, exquisitely trendy comedy-drama about a transsexual dad, and Mozart in the Jungle, about a madcap orchestra conductor (Gael García Bernal) and a young oboist (Lola Kirke) — won four Golden Globes in the past two years, plus an abundance of the industry’s most prestigious other prizes. 
 
Price plays everything close to the vest, but these days he doesn’t conceal his glee. In his first time at bat in the Oscar race, he has hit what could be a home run with Manchester by the Sea.
 
“We only came out with one movie last year,” Price remarks. “We’ll have 15 this year.”
 
And while he is all smiles about Amazon’s entry into the movie world, his ambitions for TV are just as energetic. He spent a reported $70 million for an eight-episode series from Mad Men creator Matt Weiner and $160 million for 16 episodes of a David O. Russell drama starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore.
 
Amazon hasn’t said yet when the programs will air. 
 
Amazon’s successes are catching the attention of media watchers.
 
“As soon as Amazon entered the awards race, that scrappy media player zoomed to the front of the pack,” says Tom O’Neil, editor of the Gold Derby awards-prediction website. “Transparent won Best Comedy Actor for Jeffrey Tambor at the Emmy Awards in 2015, the first time a streaming service won a top Emmy category. Amazon not only proved it was a serious player, but it’s playing for the long haul ahead.”
 
Amazon is betting big money — O’Neil estimates about $2 million — on the Emmy and Oscar races. In December, as part of the studio’s marketing campaign, Damon and Bezos hosted a party under a big tent at Bezos’s Beverly Hills mansion, stocked for the occasion with the best scotch, plenty of shrimp and lots of stars.
 
Bezos spoke to Anne Thompson of the independent-film website IndieWire, who reports, “[Bezos] wants to build a brand that means taste and class, and the person he leans on for advice is pal Harvey Weinstein.” Weinstein is the legendary Hollywood mogul whose films have earned more than 300 Oscar nominations. The Hollywood Reporter notes that not since Weinstein’s 1999 battle for Shakespeare in Love against Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has there been a dramatic, bragging-rights Oscar contest like Amazon’s Manchester vs. Netflix’s 13th, a hot Oscar contender in the documentary category, which would be Netflix’s fourth Oscar nomination.
 
“Amazon is following the same strategy HBO pursued at the Emmys back when it was the New Media Kid in Town,” O’Neil explains. “In the 1980s, HBO craved the approval of its peers and so campaigned aggressively to win Emmys. … Now, HBO is The Establishment and it’s facing hungry new foes like Amazon.”
 
To O’Neil’s point, HBO, which dominated the Oscars and Emmys for two decades, didn’t make the Oscar documentary semifinalist list of 15 contenders this year. Netflix, with 13th, and Amazon, which acquired the U.S. rights to Gleason, did. Clearly, back in 2000, Price guessed right about the future of internet entertainment.
 
In 2008, Amazon’s digital video sales generated revenues comparable to that of a neighborhood Blockbuster store. How on Earth did Roy Price turn this modest digital store into a rocket ship to Emmy and Oscar acclaim?
 
It helps that he is Hollywood royalty. Price’s mom, Katherine Crawford, was an actress who appeared on the 1970s Seattle-set show Here Come the Brides. His dad, Frank Price, ran Columbia and Universal studios, and his namesake maternal grandpa, Roy Huggins, created and produced breakthrough TV shows like The Fugitive, The Rockford Files and Maverick
 
Perpetually clad in jeans and a black leather jacket, Price can swim with Hollywood sharks, speak their upbeat lingo and still talk digital business jargon with the nerdiest of nerds. His parents tried to steer him away from too much show biz, but after graduating from exclusive East Coast schools (Phillips Academy Andover and Harvard University), he went to USC’s Gould School of Law, worked as an assistant for an agent who grew up to run Hollywood’s top talent agency, CAA, and went into the family business.
 
He is irreverent, puckish and infinitely bolder than most Hollywood execs, who live in fear of making a mistake and getting fired. Price takes entertainment seriously — he actually rewrote the story of Bosch, Amazon’s adaptation of the Michael Connelly crime novels, but he isn’t self-important. The Disney film The Barefoot Executive, about a chimpanzee that’s adept at picking TV hits, is one of his favorites.
 
“That is an awesome, awesome movie,” says Price, who loves monkeying with Hollywood tradition. “You’re not going to find the most interesting new show on TV by being easily put off by risk. You have to be sort of bold. In today’s competitive environment, the conservative path is the riskiest path.” 
 
Price doesn’t seem to need a chimp to pick hits. Like his forebears, he is a maverick with an analytical streak. His grandpa’s show, The Fugitive, which became a $387 million movie, broke all the rules of its day. “Every network passed on The Fugitive at least once,” he says. “You couldn’t have a guy wanted for murder as your protagonist! The whole concept was offensive! But it was a huge hit, and the offbeat protagonist has become very popular.” 
 
Offbeat protagonists are the foundation of Price’s empire: trans dads, madcap maestros, Nazis running half of America in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, and a Vietnam-era writer who sells out his talent in Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes. As with The Fugitive, he notes, “Every studio passed on Transparent.”  
 
Price also doesn’t fret about industry headlines, which note that shows by Netflix, FX, HBO and Hulu often get more viewers than Amazon. Though he’s in competition with traditional studios for viewers in theaters, on TV and on devices, he’s in a different position because Amazon’s business model is unique. He needs to grow viewership, but he doesn’t make money from ads whose prices are based on viewership ratings, which (natch!) Amazon won’t disclose.
 
Instead, he must grow membership in Amazon Prime, a service that costs Amazon customers $99 a year (or $10.99 a month), for which they get free two-day shipping on products purchased through Amazon and streaming of all the Amazon shows they can watch. Analysts say Price drove much of Amazon’s 53 percent growth in Prime membership in 2015 to an estimated 54 million (it’s now over 60 million). Prime members effectively subsidize all the shows Price is busy creating, whether or not they watch anything.
 
“Their strong belief is the more time you spend in the Amazon ecosystem, the more money you spend with Amazon,” media analyst Richard Greenfield told The Los Angeles Times last year. “The key for Amazon is how do they get you to spend more time in that ecosystem — and it’s with having a deep catalog of movies, TV and music.”
 
Much more important than ratings, then, is converting casual customers into Amazon Prime members — who buy three times as much from Amazon as non-Prime customers — and breaking through the noise of the vast landscape of entertainment options.
 
“You’ve got to make it interesting and worthwhile and buzzworthy to stand out in a crowded market,” says Price. “What you’re really looking for is that really ambitious, completely addictive, binge-worthy show that’s in the top 20 or 10 — or one — that people are talking about. In 1977, you could get a lot out of a show that simply retained the audience of a previous show. But today, it’s on demand — they have to demand it. So you’ve got to earn that.”
 
Audience habits are changing at warp speed, something Price and his boss, Bezos, who devotes serious time to Amazon Studios, are obviously factoring into their plans. Most Hollywood programmers live or die by ratings and first-weekend grosses. Bezos and Price play a longer game. Their goal is to retain audiences for years, not weekends, and they have the benefit of the world’s largest database of consumer behavior. 
 
Instead of relying on Nielsen polls of viewers, who can lie about what they watch and are increasingly hard to reach as people ditch their land lines, Amazon and its tech rivals can tell exactly what its customers are watching, and algorithms tell an informative story about particular products they might like. Netflix mined data showing its customers loved the original British House of Cards and Kevin Spacey before shelling out $100 million for the United States version, but Amazon has even more customers and data (just not more streaming customers—yet). These tech game changers are making Hollywood nimbler, less irrationally traditional, more customer-driven. Cable companies give you mostly channels you don’t want; Amazon, ever more cleverly, gives you what you do want. 
 
The key question is whether the ability of Amazon and Netflix to observe individual customer behavior gives them an advantage over broadcasters’ Nielsen survey data, says Michael D. Smith, a Carnegie-Mellon University information tech and marketing expert, “and so far, the answer seems to be ‘yes.’ As Amazon and Netflix emerge as competitors, it will be interesting to see whether Amazon’s ability to observe both retail purchase data and video views gives it an advantage over Netflix’s video-only data — and the jury is still out on that one.”
 
There’s also no telling what else Bezos will take over. But it’s worth remembering that the bestselling bio about him is called The Everything Store and his original name for Amazon was “Relentless.com.”
 
An Oscar could provide an altogether different type of boost in visibility. Guests at December’s Manchester by the Sea Oscar campaign bash say Price and Bezos’s hunger for the gold doll was absolutely palpable. Yet many — maybe most — people have no idea Amazon is in the movie and TV business. So if a $2 million Oscar campaign can catch the eye of 300 Academy voters, it could produce recognition for a movie that might then be watched by one billion people.
 
Even for the famously frugal Bezos, whose Amazon executives fly coach, that kind of return is definitely worth a $2 million investment.