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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Amazon Studios 2.0 - Another Interview with Roy Price

Last year I interviewed Amazon Studios Director, Roy Price, about Amazon's commitment to "develop movies in a new way" (see: Amazon Studios: An Interview with Roy Price.)  At that time there was still a lot of skepticism among screenwriters about Amazon's option policy, their relationship with the WGA, and the exposure of scripts (and ideas) to the public after uploading.

Never the less, the experience of writers and filmmakers who won prizes and entered the Amazon development and test-film process was mostly positive (see: An Amazon Studios Screenwriter.)  What I found interesting about Amazon was that they were willing to adjust their policies and the process based on feedback from the writers and filmmakers themselves, which struck me as unique in the closed world of Hollywood studios and production companies.

A week ago, Amazon announced additional changes to address writers' concerns, and as a result, "Amazon Studios 2.0" (as one blogger put it) has been met with cautious enthusiasm by several of its most prominent critics (Read the reaction of The Bitter Script Reader, and listen to John August's Podcast.)  

So once again, I spoke with Amazon Studios head Roy Price to gain a little insight on the studio's intentions...

SH: Last Friday, April 6,  Amazon Studios announced a major revision in the deal it is offering to screenwriters and filmmakers. Does this indicate a major shift in Amazon's core philosophy and goals?

RP:
Our core philosophy and goals have stayed the same--we still believe that an open door and a large scale feedback driven development process will help us make great movies that audiences will love. We received a lot of great feedback from writers last year, and we listened. The changes we have made were all done to present a more desirable offer to screenwriters and filmmakers.

SH: One of the major stumbling blocks for screenwriters had been the "18 month option" that scribes had to agree to just to upload their scripts. How has that option agreement changed, and why do you think it’s a better deal?

RP: Now, when you upload your script we automatically have a 45 day exclusive option and evaluation period, instead of the 18 months. After 45 days we will either pay you $10,000, or you can take your script back. You can also stay to get feedback from the community and exchange ideas with other writers on the site, but you can take your project down at any time. You’re not tied to us. I think people will prefer that.

SH: Previously, writers belonging to the Writers' Guild of America could not submit scripts, because Amazon Studios was not signatory. This caused a lot of criticism from writers worried about residuals, screen credit, and other rights protected by the union. Now Amazon has signed with the WGA, and members can submit. What prompted this change?

RP: At Amazon Studios we have an open door for all writers and we want to make sure that any writer can share their story with us. Making our production affiliate (People’s Production Company) a signatory to the WGA allows us to hear ideas from more writers. We’re about being open to everyone.

SH: Amazon will be no longer holding screenplay contests and giving away prize money. What is the reasoning behind this shift? Was Amazon Studios being confused with traditional "screenplay contests?"

RP: We found some great projects last year through the screenplay contests and met some great people; 14 of the scripts on our development slate were award winners. We realized that we could just have an open door and option things like a normal production company. It doesn’t have to be a contest.


Amazon Studios' New Deal


SH: Writers can now submit scripts to Amazon "privately." Do you expect most writers to submit this way in the future? Who would be better off submitting their screenplay "openly" so that anyone could see and comment on it?

RP: We don’t know how many people will submit privately versus publically but we heard last year that some writers would have preferred a private option, so we listened. The public submission option is great for any writer who wants to get community feedback on their script and get additional insight on how it could improve. Over the last year, we built a community of involved and active writers and they can be a great resource for someone working on a new project idea. But some people would prefer not to share their ideas that broadly, in which case the private option is for them.

SH: What is the best way for an aspiring screenwriter to get noticed on Amazon. Do positive community reviews and feedback help?

RP: The best way to get noticed is to write a great script. Public reviews and ratings are meant to give the writer feedback so they can improve their script. Good reviews can't hurt, but public reviews don’t drive stage one.

SH: A major focus of Amazon's initial approach was the "open screenplay," visible to anyone and revisable by anyone, and "test films." Have you abandoned the "crowd sourcing" approach to developing screenplays?

RP: I think the key was always that our door was open to ideas and that we would be very focused on fan feedback in our development process. This hasn’t changed.

We still believe that there is the opportunity for writers to create great screenplays by writers working together; in fact, last year we had a script win a monthly award after being improved through community feedback. However, we want writers to have the choice on how to develop their work. So, in the public part of Amazon Studios (those scripts not on the development slate), writers can set their collaboration options to open, closed or by permission.

SH: How can a writer, whether aspiring newbie or WGA vet, land a writing assignment with Amazon Studios, and rewrite one of its scripts in development?

RP: Open assignments can be found at http://studios.amazon.com/opportunities and we hope people will visit regularly.

WGA writers should have their agent contact People’s Production Company to discuss these opportunities. Non-WGA writers can upload their rewrite proposal through the site according to the instructions there. We have two open assignments now and I am sure there will be more to come.



SH: Has Amazon decided to switch its focus from "test films" to "trailers?" Are trailers a more effective way to sell the film's concept and workshop its visual design?

RP: Actually, we’re still very focused on test films. We plan to test all our movies before we make them. That’s the way we do it. But in 2012 we’re going to commission test movies rather than soliciting them through contests, meaning that we’ll provide the filmmaker with the budget. This worked well last year. We will announce commissioned test movie opportunities on our Opportunities page as Open Directing Assignments as they become available and we hope filmmakers will reach out through those listings and express their interest.

Trailer contests are our opportunity to meet new filmmakers who may be interested in future open directing assignments. But it goes a bit beyond that, too. Trailers present interesting opportunities to explore creative ideas for a project. You can look at movie ideas in different clothes by seeing different visions for the movie in trailer form, and you can test those with audiences early on. So that is useful for development. Right now we are having a contest inviting people to make a trailer for I Think My Facebook Friend is Dead, reimagining it in a more comedic vein. I hope that will be fun for filmmakers and I think it will shed light on the project.

More broadly, we believe there are many other many ways to test ideas -- trailers, posters, premises, comic books -- and we plan to use all these formats throughout the year to approach stories in different ways and learn. We are currently testing a storyboard of Zombies vs. Gladiators prepared by the great Neal Adams with audiences, and we are delighted to announce that we are working with Ron Marz, Matthew Dow Smith and 12 Gauge Comics to develop a comic book based on Blackburn Burrow, which felt like it was an interesting world that could stand to be explored in greater depth in another narrative form. The comic book will be distributed for free and we expect that Ron and Matthew, and the comic book community in their feedback, will really help give this world dimension. So we have a lot of ways to get audience feedback and we have a lot of interesting story experiments going on down in the story lab. Trailers are part of that.

You know, the other day I was speaking with a producer who said he or she had limited interest in original screenplays because the worlds of books and other properties tended to be much deeper and more thought through. We hope the process of working a story out very deliberately in various formats and media, including trailers, can help with that.

SH: This seems to be a major difference between Amazon and other film companies. Why, instead of relying on pre-branded concepts (remakes, sequels and adaptations), do you think that work-shopping original projects (via test films and trailers) will lead to more successful movies and movies satisfying stories for fans.

RP: At the end of the day people want to see great movies. They don't necessarily prefer to watch adaptations or originals. But the tough thing about making an expensive original is that the idea hasn't been tested at all. So studio executives look for signs of audience enthusiasm, and a fairly modest sign is better than none. For instance, it is not unusual to look to sales of picture books or comic books. Comic book sales are modest and it's a different medium, but it's some evidence. Evidence is good, and we think that because video production costs have declined in recent years, we can get some good evidence in new ways -- trailers, test movies, etc. -- and incorporate that into our development process. That could unlock a lot of interesting stories.

Look at the bold stories that were told and great characters created in the 70s, from Harold and Maude to Star Wars. It's not that writers can't think that stuff up anymore. The ideas are out there. Our job is to make the road smooth for them.

SH: None of the other major Hollywood studios and production companies have an "open" submission policy, allowing literally ANYONE with an internet connection to submit a script or to pitch a proposal for a writing assignment. Why are you committed to this "wide net" approach?

RP: We believe there are a lot of original ideas, but not everyone can get their work into the right hands. Good stories can come from anywhere and we can develop them. At Amazon Studios we are focused on creating opportunities for people worldwide to make better movies, a core component of making this happen is having the right story. So the more ideas the better.

SH: Many screenwriters who submitted to Amazon Studios felt that they "didn't know what Amazon was looking for." Do the changes respond to this criticism? Has AS gained clarity about just what kinds of genres and subjects they are interested in producing and will the new approach allow them to better communicate "what they are looking for" to writers?

RP: Amazon Studios is a fan-driven development process. Our Amazon.com and IMDb customers love all kinds of movies, so we don’t want to limit ourselves. Our goal is to make movies that fans love and we are open to stories from all genres.

But I would say that in the last year we have gained some clarity in a couple ways. First, we want to make movies that stand out—that really feel like they need to be made. For any movie fan, there are four kinds of movies: movies they think should not be made, movies they’re indifferent to, movies they think probably should be made, and movies that are awesome and MUST be made— we want to make that fourth movie. Taking a smart and fresh approach to a genre can be a good way to wind up with a movie that must be made. By smart by the way I mean fresh and new, not, like, intellectual. For example, I would say American Pie was a smart approach to the teen comedy.

Second, as you know we take customer feedback very seriously in development and I think we’re discovering that a large scale fan feedback system works a bit better for broadly appealing shows than ideas that attract an intense but smallish following. If you’re looking at feedback from 50,000 movie fans across several projects, it’s easier to spot broadly appealing projects like a Bridesmaids than to spot projects with narrow but intense followings like a Winter’s Bone. We’ll try to modify our system over time to be more sensitive to those projects, many of which, of course, are great.

So to boil it down: we hope to produce smart, broadly appealing movies.

Sean Hood (my final thoughts): Ultimately the success of Amazon Studios will turn on movies that actually make it to theaters, but for many screenwriters with original ideas, it is becoming a more viable and attractive option.

Here are the reasons that writers, both novice and WGA veteran, should consider submitting to Amazon Studios.
  • Amazon's Policies are Transparent, and in order for their system to work, the writer must be treated with respect.   The established studios, production companies, and producers in Hollywood don't publish their policies on websites, they don't read writer blogs and websites and adjust their deals based on what writers would prefer, and aren't interested if a writer feels "screwed over."  They don't have to. They work top-down on branded material like Hunger Games, and have no financial motive to cater to the financial or creative concerns of screenwriters (which is why so many bitter scribes whine about being the abused stepchildren of Hollywood.) Amazon's "wide net" business model, by contrast, necessitates that a large population of screenwriters (the 99% who aren't A-list writers working with the major studios) approve of the deal they are proposing and are willing to submit and engage in their process.  And when the final films are made, if writers don't like the process, or feel "screwed over" by the results, then word gets out, nobody submits, and the system collapses.  If nothing else, the policy changes Amazon keeps making based on screenwriters' feedback are reasons for optimism.
  • Amazon Studios is optioning and buying original screenplays; the others in Hollywood are not.  For the most part Hollywood producers and executives are looking to option novels or comic books, remake rights, and established "brands" like say, Battleship or Transformers.  There are still spec screenplay sales and options, usually from established A or B list writers, but the primary focus of the industry has shifted. Amazon seems to be looking to create brands, not recycle them.
  • Amazon will read unsolicited material. I'm often asked by aspiring scribes, "I've finished a screenplay. Now what do I do?" Submitting your script to Amazon is not a bad place to start.  Most screenplay contests don't lead to much, even if you win, and Hollywood production companies and studios won't read your script unless it is submitted by an agent. 
However, Amazon Studios is not right for everyone.  I would NOT recommend Amazon Studios for filmmakers who:

  • Are regularly payed more than double WGA scale and/or regularly get large payments up front for options, rewrites and flat deals.  By casting a wide net with the intention of building a large slate of movies, Amazon can't compete with the major studios for million dollar specs, but there are quite a number of struggling WGA writers who wouldn't turn their noses up at a $10,000 option on a $200,000 purchase price.  And with work hard to find, many would jump at the opportunity to do a rewrite for WGA scale.  
  • Who have original material that can be shopped directly to studios by established producers or agents.  If there is excitement brewing around your script, it makes sense to shop the major buyers first.  You just might hit the jackpot.  
  • Just want feedback for a script in progress.  Feedback and revision is an essential element of a "fan driven" development process.  I still hope that Amazon's screenwriting/community emerges as a place to get feedback on works-in-progress, but the Amazon screenwriters I've talked to have been lukewarm about the public "reviews" they get on their work.  For writers, it may make more sense to workshop the script at other websites like triggerstreet.com and only submit to Amazon's 45 day evaluation when the script is ready.  For Amazon, the fan-feedback loop may be more important for test movies and trailers than for rough drafts of scripts.
  • Auteur writer/filmmakers who work with unique, personal and/or difficult subject matter.   At present Amazon is a fan driven, not filmmaker-driven, development process, and they are looking for films with broad, not niche, appeal.  If you aspire to the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, you are probably not doing Amazon Studios Film.  While this could change in the future, the development slate does seem to bent towards crowd-pleasers like "Zombies v. Gladiators."  If you see yourself as as the next John Cassavetes and your favorite film in the last year was A Separation, then Amazon is not for you.
Ultimately, Amazon Studios IS experimenting with a "new approach" to development.  The fundamental insight  of "fan driven" development is that fans are often aspiring filmmakers, and struggling filmmakers are often dedicated fans.  In an industry know for it's elitism, cronyism and nepotism, Amazon is trying a "bottom up" instead of a "top down" approach to discovering, developing and creating popular entertainment.  This is the same "Long Tail" approach that has been so successful for them in other areas, and can't be dismissed as some kind of hair-brained experiment.  Amazon is a serious company with a lot of money,  a lot of interest in creating content for its instant video and kindle Fire, and a lot of patience.  This may indeed turn out to be a "disruptive" force in the traditional Hollywood system.  Anyone who hopes to be writing stories for a mass audience in the next couple decades should take notice.

Now, I'm not naive enough to think that Amazon is different than any other large corporation: there goals are ultimately profit, not art.  However, if their business model is centered on original material, created by and work-shopped by filmmakers, and if the success of that model means giving screenwriters a deal that most think is fair, then its reasonable to be optimistic.

And face it, that script sitting in the bottom of your drawer isn't doing anything for the next 45 days anyway.  Why not give it a shot?

7 comments:

Matthew Watters said...

andmenI really appreciate this blog, very insightful.

I think Roy Price and the Amazon Studio boys are on a winner with AS 2.0. Hollywood is struggling, their model of doing business is so last century.

New technologies call for new paradigms for doing business.

Creating new brands is a positive step, I'm sick to death of damn super heroes, aren't you?

Regan Clark, Calgary said...

Very insightful - if you'll appreciate the pun. Interesting internal comments on the "original script versus adaptation" I've never written a screen play but from the beginning seemed to have a penchant for writing very complete short stories in 25-2700 words. Further, should be an excellent venue for those of us 'foreigners' who, like those of us here in Canada, have such a small and limited market for our work. Often, at home, the only real money is realized through grants, bursaries and contest or other winnings - and yet the competition is extremely high.

Abby said...

Amazon seems to be offering a unique, firs-ever opportunity for individual screenwriters and series creators. I'm not passing up this opportunity!

Anonymous said...

My feeling is the thing that needs to be changed is making 'private' really private. I don't like the idea of them putting my idea out there in front of thousands of people. When they stop doing that, I will gladly submit to Amazon.

Anonymous said...

Don't waste your time. These guys are amateurs. I submitted three scripts privately -- and these scripts were completely polished, finished, super-professional, excellent scripts. The kind you could literally take out and shoot word for word. Forty-five days later the automated rejection response came. If you don't believe the scripts were good, you can sample them on www.auditionperfectplays.com.

drettworlb said...

Hi Sean - thanks for posting the great interview with Roy. I happened upon your blog while I was researching the latest information about Amazon Studios and found everything I was looking for here. AS 2.0 certainly is a step is the right direction to make Amazon Studio much more creative friendly. I guess only time will tell how successful their business model is. Kudos to Roy for being as honest as possible about AS and who it is suitable for.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous aka Ronald V. Micci,

to your post: "These guys are amateurs..."

(I know, a little bit late for an answer!)

Well I don't know if Amazon Studios are reading every skript that we give them, full of hope.

But I read the excerpts from your webpage and while they are perfect in a technical way, there are other things that matter for a screenplay:

Character, Theme, Setting, ...

Sorry to say, but I didn't find your skripts all that intriguing. They are a bit confused regarding theme and shoulld be heavily rewritten to succeed.

Yes, the other skripts Amazon Studios has on development slate are not THAT good as well, BUT they do share a promising LOGLINE (from the point of view of Amazon Studios, if not exactly from my point of view :).

Perhaps you should rework your skripts and try again. For example, your werewolf-parody-mashup is not really "getting to me" on the first pages. And if these are not grapping the attention, any professional reader will turn the skript away too. They had 20.000 skripts to read and I suppose they will not look further if logline and the first pages aren't convincing.

Please don't mock about my strange english cause I'm from Germany,

and I hope that your skripts will get better by time - it's not always the bad studios that make the mistakes (not ALWAYS).