Screenwriters by nature are a cynical and skeptical lot and Amazon Studios was initially met with some jeering and incredulity. Major screenwriting bloggers such as John August, Drew McWeeny, and Julie Gray all seemed to think the whole project was "positively batty." (See John August's thoughts HERE).
However, unlike a traditional studio, Amazon spent a lot of time an energy listening to screenwriters and filmmakers, and the studio made adjustments and changes in their approach. To me, this in itself - a studio listening to the opinions of screenwriters - is positively surreal... and encouraging. A year later, those who signed up seem pleasantly surprised by both the quality of the screenplays and the usefulness creative feedback they get from other Amazon filmmakers. (See: An Amazon Studios Screenwriter) Naturally, those who are winning prizes seem more enthusiastic than those who are still struggling and revising, but for many writers and filmmakers with original ideas who feel shut out of the Hollywood system, Amazon Studios' "new way" is creating an exciting and ever-growing community. Despite the initial criticism, filmmakers are showing up, and viable projects are emerging. The initial skepticism about certain elements of Amazons' approach have not disappeared (See discussions in the comments section of Go Into the Story), but as one more sardonic, veteran screenwriter on Amazon put it, "They have money," and the New Way has a lot to do with how they are spending it.
I myself became interested in Amazon Studios because of its focus on original ideas (rather than remakes, sequels and adaptations) and its focus on unknown screenwriters from around the globe. In order to check up on Amazon Studios progress, and see how there "new way" is working out, I interviewed it's director, Roy Price. Here is what he had to say...
Sean Hood: In what fundamental ways is Amazon Studios different from a traditional Studio?
Roy Price: First, we have an open door to new ideas. Anyone can upload a script or a full-length test movie to the Amazon Studios site. By uploading your project to the site you can receive feedback, collaborate with others and can win money. We have had winners from Zimbabwe, London, Shanghai, Roswell, Georgia and, of course, LA. We turn the most promising scripts into early prototype movies to see how the story plays on its feet. Have you ever thought “if people could only see it on screen they would love it”? Well, let’s find out. We also share the test movies with audiences and the results significantly influence our development and production decisions. We’re really not about the guru or Irving Thalberg model of movie development. It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about the work, the audience and the numbers.
SH: If my script or test film is developed through Amazon Studios, does Amazon own the rights? Is this a good deal?
RP: When you upload, we get an option on the script. You retain ownership of the script. If it doesn’t go anywhere, you get it back same as it was and are free to take it somewhere else. If we make the theatrical movie, we have to exercise the option which means we pay $200,000 and then add a $400,000 bonus if the movie makes $60 million or more at the US box office. 34% of movies released by major studios with budgets of at least $10 million between 2005 and 2009 hit the $60 million mark at the US box office so there is a decent chance of getting the bonus. For a writer in the earlier stage of their career, that’s a good deal. Normally you wouldn’t get $200,000 up front and then you wouldn’t get any big bonus or other participation in success.
SH: Why is Amazon Studios a good step for an emerging filmmaker?
RP: First, we’re giving away over $150,000 per month in prizes, which is a lot of money for a script and movie contest. We are also a production company looking for new and original material. There is exposure and opportunity for the taking.
SH: How can more established and experienced filmmakers benefit from Amazon Studios?
RP: For anyone that has an idea or script they haven’t been able to get off the ground, they can use Amazon Studios to find out if people like their project. Or maybe this is just an opportunity to mentor and give others good advice. Amazon Studios is a great way to network and discuss ideas among a collaborative community.
SH: Why should Hollywood producers, agents, managers, and executives follow projects being developed on Amazon?
RP: It’s a great place to find talent. Several of our users have met with agents and managers and have signed with representation after they succeeded on Amazon Studios. If you’re an agent Amazon Studios is a great place to discover new talent and award winning scripts. We do the filtering, you sign the clients.
SH: Most Traditional studios are focused on "pre-branded content" (adaptations, sequels, remakes, and franchises). Why is Amazon focused on original scripts and movies?
RP: We believe in original stories. Screenwriters and filmmakers come to Hollywood with original ideas burning to get out. We believe that screenwriters can come up with ideas for movies just as well as the novelists, toy designers and comic book creators who come up with them today. The risk aversion associated with pre-existing stories is financially understandable, considering movies have such high budgets, but we hope that giving original ideas exposure and testing them can make original content a viable economic proposition again.
SH: How will Amazon benefit me if I'm not chosen as one of the few "winners"? Is this just another script/film contest?
RP: If a project does not instantly become a semifinalist, we hope it will get lots of feedback from the community and improve. Amazon Studios can be like the world’s biggest writer’s group. We had a script that won in August 2011 after having been on the site for nine months getting feedback and being rewritten by the writer. It eventually made it to the top. That’s what we hope to see more of. We think we can all help each other along.
SH: What’s up with the mass collaboration idea?
RP: When you upload your script you can set revisions to “open,” “closed” or “by permission” so you can pretty much arrange collaboration however you want. We have had some people find great collaborators on the site and others prefer to go it alone. We want to enable any of those approaches.
SH: Will Amazon Studios expand to develop and produce other types of media like TV series or Webisodes?
I don’t have anything to announce today about TV series or Webisodes but it’s an interesting idea. We are always looking at ways to make Amazon Studios even more compelling for users.
SH: What is your background? What led to you heading up Amazon Studios?
RP: In 2000 I was at Disney happily running TV Animation series development (Kim Possible, Teacher’s Pet, Buzz Lightyear, House of Mouse).I became interested in the growth of the Internet and how it was going to revolutionize our consumption of TV and movies. I went to McKinsey & Co., and, a few years later, Amazon.com asked me to run their new digital video business, so I came to Seattle. A few years into that, we came up with Amazon Studios. Now our team is a fascinating mix of software engineers, interactivity designers, production managers and story analysts and it is just as exciting as I could have hoped.
SH: What are three exciting projects to follow at Amazon Studios?
RP: Well, I hesitate to name just three but I would like to know what people think of our test movies at the end of the year. Right now, 12 Princesses, Memory and Sky Pirates are strong test movies. Touching Blue, Super Bowl Sex Party and Zombies vs. Gladiators are a few of many promising scripts.
SH: How soon will I see an Amazon Studios film in theaters?
Soon we hope!
SH: How has Amazon Studios evolved since launch?
RP: Following the launch in 2010, we made revisability a setting so that you control who you collaborate with. Since then we have focused on making it easier for people to turn scripts into test movies. We added useful, free assets such as music and sound effects, and created incentives for people to contribute just parts of a film without having to make the whole film. At launch you had to upload a whole test movie lock stock and barrel to be eligible for a film prize, but now we have prizes for components that can be uploaded individually: best dialogue track, best actor, best trailer and we just launched a poster contest. We also made it possible to upload the dialogue track for just an individual character at a time; now, a director can go to a project page and “cast” the movie based on uploaded dialogue tracks without having to organize actors etc. We want people to be able to put in the amount of time they are comfortable with, and to work together without necessarily having to tightly coordinate schedules. We look forward to lots of great test movies.
Sean Hood (my final thoughts): Ultimately the success of Amazon Studios will turn on the movies it produces that actually make it to theaters, but for so many screenwriters and filmmakers who wonder what to do with their original ideas, Amazon Studios is one the few options out there. Hopefully, there will emerge a way for non-WGA screenwriters to join the union, should their work be produced, guaranteeing them residuals, health care and screen credit. The Devil is always in the details. However, unlike some of my peers, I am hopeful and optimistic about Amazon Studios.
Hollywood was once a dream factory, but it has become a recycling center. I for one, hope some unknown filmmaker far, far outside the system is able to emerge on Amazon and put up something original and unexpected on the silver screen.