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Amazon’s Entertainment Head Gets Second Chance to Find Its Own ‘Game of Thrones’

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(Bloomberg) -- When news broke in mid-May that Jeff Blackburn was rejoining Amazon.com Inc. to run the company’s entertainment division, industry observers figured big changes were afoot. Why else would Blackburn quit his job at a Silicon Valley venture firm after just five weeks?

Then the world learned that Amazon was looking to buy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The company on Wednesday announced it would acquire the legendary Hollywood studio for $8.45 billion, a princely sum for a catalog that includes the James Bond, Robocop and Rocky franchises.

Now Blackburn, who previously oversaw Amazon’s entertainment and advertising groups before joining Bessemer Venture Partners earlier this year, must integrate MGM, mine the studio’s catalog for new hits and help fulfill Jeff Bezos’s long-standing request for his own “Game of Thrones.”

As senior vice president of the new Global Media & Entertainment group, Blackburn will oversee Prime Video, Amazon Studios, music and podcast services, video games and the Twitch livestream platform. An Amazon spokesperson said MGM teams will report to Mike Hopkins, who oversees Prime Video and Amazon Studios; Hopkins will report to Blackburn when he rejoins Amazon next month.

Blackburn, 51, isn’t a Hollywood insider. But his years at Amazon have made him a familiar name among entertainment executives, and he’s known to sit in on the occasional pitch meeting for forthcoming TV shows and other deals, whether at Amazon Studios’ Los Angeles area headquarters or in Seattle.

In Blackburn, incoming Chief Executive Officer Andy Jassy gets an Amazon veteran to run an increasingly important business. With other retailers getting better at quick delivery of online orders, Amazon has been counting on its entertainment division to keep shoppers hooked on the $119-a-year Prime program, as well as introduce Amazon to new fans.

During Blackburn’s tenure, the original content group experimented with tech-inspired, data-driven vetting of new programs before settling on a more traditional model that picked out well-reviewed shows like “Transparent” and the Oscar-winning “Manchester by the Sea” that nevertheless fell short of mass appeal.

Blackburn was criticized for Amazon’s handling of harassment accusations against founding studios chief Roy Price. Price’s departure in 2017, two years after the allegations, set off debate and finger-pointing inside Amazon, the New York Times reported at the time.

“I don’t know that he’s necessarily Hollywood savvy, but he’s more Hollywood savvy than Andy Jassy,” said Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Securities Inc. analyst who tracks Amazon and the entertainment industry. “And he is trusted by Jassy and Bezos.”

Like many of Amazon’s first-generation of leaders, Blackburn moved from the East Coast to take a chance on the Seattle internet startup.

He was born in Maryland, before moving to Concord, Massachusetts, where he played football, basketball and tennis, the Concord Journal wrote upon his induction into the Concord-Carlisle High School Athletics Hall of Fame. The 6 foot 4 inch Blackburn stayed on the field in college, starring as an outside linebacker for Dartmouth, where he earned all-Ivy League honors.

He went on to earn an MBA at Stanford, before returning to the East Coast and the start of a career on Wall Street. In late 1996, while a junior investment banker at Deutsche Bank, Blackburn was assigned to Amazon’s initial public offering, writing excel models, portions of the prospectus and carrying the team’s heavier bags on the IPO roadshow, he said in a note to Amazon employees earlier this year.

Blackburn joined the company in 1998, the year after the IPO, and was never far from the company’s key initiatives. Early on, that included a failed effort to match EBay Inc.’s success in online auctions. Later efforts, such as helping to establish Amazon’s third-party marketplace and advertising businesses, were more successful.

Blackburn’s long stint running Amazon’s business development groups put him in charge of the merger and acquisitions unit, which in frugal Amazonian fashion has rarely shelled out more than $1 billion in a single deal. (A notable exception, the $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods Market, came after years of investment in groceries with little to show for it.)

“Jeff almost always prefers to build it” rather than buy, Blackburn told Bloomberg Senior Executive Editor Brad Stone in his best-selling book “The Everything Store.”

But Bezos clearly decided MGM would help Amazon take on Netflix and the other streaming services.

“This jump-starts them by 50 years,” said Pachter. “That’s really what it comes down to. They weren’t going to be able to produce enough content to ever get close to Netflix.”

Pachter said that Amazon’s studios produce a few hundred hours worth of television shows and movies a year. MGM adds a back catalog of 25,000 hours that Amazon could divvy up between its Prime Video offering, or its free-to-stream, ad-supported IMDb TV.

Figuring out how to breath new life into those assets now falls to Jeff Blackburn.

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