New spy series 'Citadel' is Amazon Studios' most ambitious — and riskiest — bet ever

New spy series 'Citadel' is Amazon Studios' most ambitious — and riskiest — bet ever
Anthony Russo, a producer on "Citadel," and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, one its stars, spoke about the ambitious upcoming series at Fast Company's 2022 Innovation Festival in New York.Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Fast Company
  • "Citadel," Amazon Studios' ambitious spy series, is on track to be one of the costliest series ever made.
  • Amazon hopes the show, premiering April 28, will set it apart from Netflix and other streamers.

"Citadel" is an example of the kind of programming Amazon hopes will set it apart — tentpole entertainment that can attract a global audience. Since the project was announced in 2018, it has become one of the most expensive TV series ever made.

Pitched as "Mission Impossible"-meets-"This Is Us," "Citadel" is an ambitious spy drama that attempts to replicate the universe-storytelling pioneered by Marvel, with local language spinoffs being produced in places like India and Italy. It's set to premiere April 28 exclusively on Prime Video.

There's no shortage of talent attached to the project — it involved star directors Joe and Anthony Russo of "Avengers" fame as producers, along with writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, known for "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." "Game of Thrones" actor Richard Madden and India-born actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas would star.

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Amazon Studios early on was known for prestige shows like "Transparent" and "Maisel" as well as action hits like "Jack Ryan." Like the $1 billion "Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power" before it, "Citadel" is widely seen as a show that will be a defining moment for Amazon Studios as well as for its head, Jennifer Salke.

But "Citadel" has been plagued by cost overruns, partly due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, and creative clashes that led to the firing of Appelbaum and exit of others, according to a report in the Hollywood Reporter.


Costs ballooned from an estimated $165 million for 10 30-minute episodes to $300 million for six, a person with knowledge of the production told Insider, though a source familiar with company thinking said the total was under $200 million.

Amazon also spent big on "Rings of Power" and said it found 100 million viewers. But that series was based on beloved IP, which laid a foundation for its success (while also bringing criticism from J.R.R. Tolkien purists and others).

Some insiders wonder if the "Citadel" risk will pay off.

"'Citadel' never should've been made when it was made — it's a $300 million spy show based on zero IP when the tail that's wagging every dog in Hollywood right now is IP," a second source with knowledge of the production said.

Amazon Studios' Head of Global Television, Vernon Sanders, told Insider that "Citadel" is new territory for the company. He added that Amazon Studios' biggest swings have generally been the titles that bring the most people to the service, so it wouldn't back away from ambitious projects.


"We've made big series before, but what we haven't done is create a universe that spans multiple series and multiple countries with different creators," he said. "It is ambitious on another scale. We are so grateful to everyone that has contributed to the vision that has grown and evolved over time, and yes, we needed to course-correct a bit, but that's to be expected for something this significant."

Anthony Russo echoed this comment in a February interview with Vanity Fair. "We're dealing with a very big show," he said. "Moving it and morphing it and changing it and evolving it can be difficult because there's so many people involved. It was a massive amount of time because of the scale of it and the complexity of it."

The challenges of "Citadel" speak to how Amazon is trying to forge an entertainment brand that stands out from Netflix, Disney+, and others — an effort that's been fraught with challenges as all players now face increasing competition and obstacles in making streaming as profitable as the legacy television business it has largely supplanted.

Inside and outside of Amazon Studios, there are concerns about a lack of clear creative direction as well as the division's future role in the larger Amazon ecosystem.

Insider spoke to 21 current and recently departed Amazon Studios executives, Hollywood agents, and other industry insiders about the opportunities and challenges.


Read more about how Amazon Studios is making big swings and facing big challenges as the streaming wars heat up.

This article was originally published on February 16 and has been updated.