As COO of Amazon Studios, Albert Cheng leads all global creative and business operations for the $8 billion film and TV production and distribution company. Driven by a passion for the transformative power of storytelling, he built a career charging toward an unknown future, including his own.
“What excites me is to continue to reinvent the world of entertainment, to take customer engagement to the next level, and to imagine a digital future for entertainment that we can’t see now.”
—Albert Cheng, COO, Amazon Studios
Jessica Pliska: Most Americans watch television as kids, but few of us make it a career. Why was your early connection to TV more sustaining?
Albert Cheng: I was born and raised in Hawaii, and when you’re living on an island in a very different subculture within the United States, most of what you experience about broader mainland U.S. culture is through television. My many hours watching TV as a child became a huge part of my understanding of the world. And I grew up in a period when television had profound effects on how people think about the world.
Pliska: Can you recall, growing up, a television show that particularly impacted you in that way?
Cheng: Roots was huge for me. That was my first window into the story of African-Americans in the United States. Watching Roots had more of an impact on me than reading anything in a history book. It was the kind of storytelling that opens doors to different thinking or education or inspiration. That’s always excited me.
Pliska: So as a kid, could you envision your career path in television from there?
Cheng: No! I thought I was going to be a doctor, until dissecting a frog in 9th-grade biology, which turned out to be disastrous. In trying to get to the brain of the frog, I cut the head off entirely. That was one sign that I was not going to be good at that. Instead, I chose engineering, one of a few professions that were in my field of vision growing up. My father’s side of the family are all either engineers or in the sciences.
Pliska: Fitting that you went to MIT for college. Did that experience broaden your horizons?
Cheng: Not in the way it was intended! I spent four years at MIT, getting an engineering degree in science and engineering, and then realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I panicked—I could do the work, but I didn’t love it. I realized that technical proficiency was important, but you have to have passion, and I just didn’t.
Pliska: Young people often think the path has to be linear, but I know yours was not. How did you find what you loved?
Cheng: It took a long time and in some ways was a process of elimination. I spent months studying for the LSATs but walked out in the middle of the test. I literally folded up my LSAT, stood up, and walked right out. I just couldn’t do it. I tried business next. At Harvard Business School, I asked myself, “What do you really love?” And I realized it went back to when I was a kid watching television. I had just never thought of it for a career. So I tried summer internships in entertainment, where I learned how businesses work and how people consume entertainment. I genuinely loved it and that was the turning point.
Pliska: What do you love about it? What ignites your passion?
Cheng: I’ve always loved to build—a new studio, streaming service, or a business or show. Even things some people might find dry—new ways of organizing teams to come to a decision on how to improve how we make content. I’m also a person who loves to use both my left and right brains, to think critically in both creative, artistic ways and in more logical, structured ways. And I also love delivering what is essentially an emotional product that contributes to people’s state of being, mental health or enjoyment.
Pliska: What has been a standout experience for you in your entertainment career?
Cheng: Being the first to stream entertainment online when it was brand-new, at Disney, when we put Lost and Desperate Housewives on abc.com and iTunes. This was 2006, before Netflix or Hulu started to stream. That period of inventing how to bring entertainment to the digital consumer was the most fun I’ve ever had. No one had done it before and each successive thing we did was ahead of everyone else. It was so much fun watching Twitter light up with people ecstatic about getting it on their devices. And the engagement with our consumers was powerful. Someone would tweet, “I found a bug” and immediately our team would read it and reply, “What’s the bug? We’ll take care of it.” People were amazed.
Pliska: The competition for audiences is perhaps fiercer than ever. What’s your vision for storytelling at Amazon that can resonate at the scale it must?
Cheng: We’re creating a new mission for entertainment: connecting the world with stories that people have never heard before, stories that transform awareness across the world. They’re stories from different countries but they connect us; they make the world feel smaller and remind us we all live on the same planet. That’s never been done before on a global scale. We recently premiered Maradona: Blessed Dream, about the legendary Argentinian soccer player, in English and Spanish. That’s a story not just for a Latin American Spanish-speaking audience, but for everyone. That’s so exciting. And it’s what people want.
Pliska: Is another example Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, which you also produced this year and which just won a Golden Globe?
Cheng: Yes, that’s another story that needed to be told around the world. It’s a show that we all knew was going to be something that will sit in our library, that will stand the test of time. It’s a story people will continue to go back to when they’re looking at stories from that period. And that motivates me to make shows like that.
Pliska: The quest for stories that resonate with global audiences raises the question of the stubborn lack of racial representation across entertainment. In the context of your work, why does representation matter?
Cheng: It matters for the growth of our businesses. It matters for being able to tell stories to our customers that are made by people who represent those communities. It’s imperative to the quality of what we do.
Pliska: There is especially a lack of representation of people of color in senior leadership roles.
Cheng: Yes. We have to work twice as hard for leadership positions. We’re battling perception and stereotyping. We’ve fought through systemic disadvantages to get here. Yet having a voice in leadership positions is the single most important driver to move diversity, equity and inclusion. That requires effort by institutions to focus on how their biases prevent it. It requires executive leaders to acknowledge that mentorship is not enough without sponsorship—active investment in an individual’s growth, saying out loud “That person is good” and providing opportunities for them to identify their strengths and step into roles.
Pliska: What’s the most important advice would you give young people of color in entertainment?
Cheng: Focus on the asset of your lived experience in helping to tell stories. Learn to be your own best advocate: Don’t be afraid to say what you’d like to do. Work to understand the big picture of where the business is headed and be able to articulate how your work will drive that big picture. And think differently about milestones—it’s not titles or salaries. It’s about your character growth. Ask “What job will test me to grow into the person I can be?” When a new opportunity scares you, do it. Don’t take the safe path.
Pliska: What’s your next challenge?
Cheng: The same it’s always been since the early days of my career: What excites me is to continue to reinvent the world of entertainment, to take customer engagement to the next level, and to imagine a digital future for entertainment that we can’t see now.
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