Inside the Amazon Upfront: An A-List Gauntlet Is Thrown

At the Amazon upfront, Reese Witherspoon appearing in character as Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods wasn’t even the actress’ best effort of the morning. That came about 45 minutes before her presentation wrapper, when she scolded her You’re Cordially Invited co-star Will Ferrell for bragging about his romantic comedy prowess.

“I’m the fucking queen of looking cute while sleeping,” said Witherspoon, referring to that moment in every rom-com when one actor lovingly looks at the other while their eyes are closed. This delighted the crowd at the tech giant’s first-ever upfront presentation, as did much of star-packed show — once they got in, of course. Slow lines stretched down South Street, prompting a half-hour delay for the Pier 36 event.

More from The Hollywood Reporter

“Thank you for whatever you went through to get in this room,” said Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon MGM Studios, when she finally took the stage. “I know it was a lot.”

But if hassle was in abundance, so was star power. Amazon breezed through the 70-minute spiel with very little ad-speak and a lot of talent. Alicia Keys kicked things off with her buoyant, Jay-Z-free rendition of “Empire State of Mind,” before the highest concentration of A-list actors currently west of Cannes paraded across the stage. Jake Gyllenhaal was on hand for a victory lap of his Road House remake, announcing plans for a sequel for the rapt crowd, before fellow action (albeit on TV) stars Alan Ritchson (Reacher) and Aldis Hodge (Cross) hyped their respective series. Witherspoon and Ferrell shared a teaser for their previously mentioned film, now premiering in January. Hannah Waddingham and Octavia Spencer described their own yet-to-be-named action comedy series to media buyers. And, after the traditional film and TV portions had wrapped, Roger Federer received maybe the biggest applause of the morning. His retirement documentary, Twelve Final Days, bows on the streamer in June.

Amazon’s entry to the upfront market is unique. Juxtaposed to NBCUniversal and Fox presentations the previous day, each including jokes at the other’s expense, the Amazon pitch so clearly didn’t position itself in competition with the other media companies vying for advertising commitments this week. The only mentions of competitors were flattering, as worldwide head of Prime Video and Amazon MGM Studios Mike Hopkins acknowledged that Max and Paramount+ were among the myriad offerings on his own streaming hub.

Instead of making any distinction between film and TV efforts, the two were fused and then broken up by genre: action, comedy, young adult, unscripted, sci-fi and fantasy and sports. Young Adult was a notable point of emphasis with The Summer I Turned Pretty showrunner Jenny Han earning the distinction of being the first writer to get stage time this week when she joined the cast of her show. The series, for what it’s worth, also had the most packed activation during the reception with women lining up to take photos at a branded booth. It was, perhaps, a bit too early in the day for a “Bloody Dalton” at the Road House cabana bar.

Original content, be it A-list fronted films or Thursday Night Football, took the bulk of the attention because it’s sexy and, in some cases, talent were beholden to share in the promotion. (The only notable cameos the company didn’t secure for its presentation were Super Bowl champ and Are You Smarter Than a Celebrity? host Travis Kelce and powerhouse YouTuber MrBeast, who recently set a competition series at the platform.) But the pitch from the everything store, appropriately, included everything — Amazon music, Wondery, Twitch, movie rentals, all of it.

The advertising segments were, thusly, forgivably brief. The biggest point — at least outside of the sprawling subscriber-base that is now watching ad-supported streaming, care of a January pivot for the platform — was that advertisers needn’t have their products sold on Amazon to benefit from buying ads on Amazon. “It’s full funnel advertising at scale for everyone,” said ad boss Alan Moss. “It no longer matters if you sell on Amazon or not.”

Once Moss repeated this point for a second time, Salke returned to the stage with pink-collared chihuahua in tote. She was soon followed by Witherspoon, in full Elle Woods regalia, who helpfully picked up a pen Moss had dropped with a dramatic “bend and snap.” She was on hand to reveal the last of what turned out to be a great many programming announcements of the morning, a Legally Blonde prequel series.

“Before she became the most famous Gemini vegetarian to graduate from Harvard Law School, she was just a regular ’90s high school girl,” Witherspoon said to squeals of approval.

This week may be about advertising and open bars, but stars are ultimately what inspire people to wait in line for an hour in the shadow of the FDR.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter