A few years ago, not long after she took the helm of Amazon Studios, Jennifer Salke pitched an idea that she thought could set Amazon apart as a streaming destination. Salke envisioned an ambitious flagship series that could spawn local spinoffs and satellite shows to draw in a global audience across countries like India and Italy. But she needed to recruit show creators who could take that format and run with it—which led her to the Russo brothers, who had directed multiple wildly successful Marvel movies.
“My brother Joe and I have had an amazing relationship with Jen Salke for many years now,” Anthony Russo said during a panel at the Fast Company Innovation Festival on Thursday. “She called us one day and said, ‘Hey, I have this idea that I want for a show.’ And she goes, I don’t know what it’s about—but this would be the concept.'”
The result is Citadel, a sci-fi espionage series created by the Russo brothers and starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who also appeared on the panel. The series—which is reportedly one of the most expensive television productions of all time, second only to Amazon’s recently released Lord of the Rings prequel—is set in the near future and centers on a global spy organization called Citadel that Russo describes as “a defender of humanity.” (Chopra Jonas plays one of the top agents at Citadel, alongside Richard Madden of Game of Thrones fame.) “This agency ends up coming in conflict with a new rival agency that has been developed by the world’s elite to sort of protect their self-interests,” he added. “So it’s a global struggle between these two competing points of view about what humanity should be.”
The project is an extension of the “universe storytelling” that Russo and his brother are already doing through their production company AGBO, which grew out of their experience with interconnected narratives in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For Amazon, however, Citadel is a big bet—and an opportunity to gain significant market share as the largest streamer in the country after Netflix. Amazon already has more than 200 million Prime subscribers across the world (though about 150 million of them are reportedly American users). According to a 2021 report by analytics firm Digital-i, Netflix and Amazon have both seen an uptick in users consuming non-English language content.
Chopra Jonas, who has a first-look TV deal with Amazon Studios and a storied career in Bollywood, was the first name Salke thought of when it came time for casting. Beyond her background in Hindi films, Chopra Jonas is also investing in small budget, regional films through her production company, Purple Pebble Pictures. “When she brought up Priyanka, it was like a light bulb went off,” Russo said. “It was so intelligent and so smart because Priyanka represents the essence of what we’re trying to do with the show. The fact that she’s done such amazing work in India [and] internationally. She has this sort of dual identity—a foot in both worlds.”
It was an obvious decision for Chopra Jonas, who was immediately drawn to the show’s global ambitions. “You don’t have to watch the American show to understand; [the local language series] stands alone,” she said. “But if you watch all the other shows, they’re all connected—and that’s never been done in television. It’s such an interesting experiment, especially for a streamer like Amazon that caters to audiences across the world. To be able to offer a show which cross-pollinates audiences and languages is just so exciting to me. So it was innovative, and that’s what I loved about it.”