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Monday, April 30, 2012

Adapting Your Own Work: An Interview with Ed Brubaker

Sometimes I do interviews on this blog in order to reach out to writers and filmmakers I admire.  This is certainly the case with Ed Brubaker, author of the award winning graphic novel series Criminal, as well as Incognito and the recent series Fatale.   He's one of those comic book writers who, as the cliche goes, "transcends the genre" and get's reviewed in the New York times.  If you are a fan of hard-boiled crime fiction and loved the movie "Drive," you should click on the links above and check out his work.

Hollywood has noticed him too, and much of his original work has been bought or optioned.  This is pretty common for popular novels and comics, but what interests me is that Ed himself has been hired to do the screenplay adaptation for one of his most outstanding stories Criminal: Coward.

Readers of Genre Hacks know that I'm obsessed with finding ways for storytellers to get their original work up on the screen.  Ed graciously agreed to answer some questions about the advantages and challenges of adapting ones own work from one medium to another.

SH: When you started writing your Criminal series, did you think of the possibility of any of the stories eventually becoming films? 


Ed Brubaker
EB: Coward actually started as a screenplay idea. But I could never find the time to work on it, and I kept having other ideas for the character and other ideas for crime stories, and really wanting to do a crime comic series. So I ended up taking the basic germ of it, and using that when we launched CRIMINAL at Icon. When I wrote it, finally, like most writers, I hoped someone might like it enough to make it into a movie. But I didn't write it as a "movie pitch on paper" like you often see in comics these past few years. I was building a world and exploring characters, and trying to make the best comic story, issue by issue, that I could.

SH: In my own career I been frustrated by the industry's focus on "pre-branded" material (sequels, remakes, and adaptations.) Many writers are now writing original books or graphic novels rather than original spec scripts. I'm thinking of David Guggenheim (Safe House) made a deal to co-write his first novel, and Andrew Pyper, who just sold his unpublished book manuscript for The Demonologist to Universal. Would you recommend that writers with original story should try to prove their concepts in another medium in order to build a following and prove that the story works?

EB: Boy, I couldn't say, really. I've been writing stories and comics for most of my life, so it's kind of all I know how to do. I always envied guys like Shane Black or Scott Frank, who got to write all these cool crime movies. I just always did comics, from when I was a kid, and always wrote fiction. When I was in my 20s, I wrote movie reviews and articles for a living, while writing and drawing my own comics on the side, because it was just something I had to do.

Coward - A graphic novel
It's odd that we've ended up in a place where comics, which is a fairly low-paying field (compared to film or tv writing) have become part of the larger pop culture in Hollywood, and I feel fortunate now that pretty much every studio or production company has a few executives that are into comics. But that's a real recent thing. I was coming down here 10 years ago, and that wasn't the case. Back then it would be someone's assistant, now it's the head of the company, sometimes.

But I've always thought, write the story in whatever medium you want to see it in. I did a pilot for Fox a year or so ago, and that was just an original idea I had for a TV show, not a comic idea or a novel idea. I think that's important, to respect the audience and the material. If you do a book or a comic that's just a movie pitch, its unlikely you'll end up with say a Megan Abbott or Joe Hill novel, or a Neil Gaiman comic. You know what I mean?

So I would say, if you have an idea, make sure it makes sense as a comic, or a novel, or a web-series, whatever. Don't just take your spec script idea and shove it into another medium. Novels and comics and movies have totally different languages, that make them all better at different things.

SH: Do you think we are reaching a time when it is common for the original writer of a book or graphic novel to also write the screenplay adaptation? (I'm thinking of Suzanne Collins are her involvement in the Hunger Games film.) 


EB: I don't know. I think I would've sold some of my books a few years earlier if I didn't want to write the adaptations. INCOGNITO sold fairly quickly, and there's been not even a hint of anyone wanting me involved in the scripting. Which on that one, I was fine with. But with Coward, and most of the Criminal books, I either didn't want them adapted, or wanted to be involved, so I insisted. But I still get the sense, outside of independent producers, that screenwriting is this club that novelists and comic writers have to break into, through force of will. It's certainly not something most producers or studios will suggest. They'd always rather have their own people or a writer they know, doing that adaptation.

But you look at someone like Will Beall, who got his start as a cop writing a novel, then adapting that book - LA Rex - and then got hired on Castle, and now is a fairly hot screenwriter just a few years later. So it does happen.

SH: Your characters are seedy, complex, realistic, violent and yet morally conflicted. They are not the kind of people we usually see in mainstream Hollywood movies. This will excite many movie fans, but does it make your producers and executives nervous? 


EB: Not so far. The biggest thing I kept running into early on, when having meetings with studios about Criminal, was that they weren't "high concept" enough. I remember when we had a bunch of actors and directors interested in Coward, originally, and we were taking it around, it was the same time the last Die Hard movie was a huge hit, and all the notes were - love the character and the world, but the heist isn't high concept enough, can it be about national intelligence or terrorism?

And then a few years later, you see movies like The Town or Drive get turned into fairly faithful adaptations of their source material, and do huge business. Affleck isn't stealing the Declaration of Independence or stopping a bombing plot in the The Town.

SH: Some of the best crime stories are showing up on cable TV, not in movies. In particular, I'm thinking of "The Wire" and "Breaking Bad." There seems to a greater opportunity to write three dimensional characters, long story arcs, and creatively inspired scenes of violence and sexuality. What do you think of trying to take your work and, like George R.R. Martin with Game of Thrones, creating a cable series? 

EB: I would love to, or to even create an original show for cable. With Criminal, I'm pretty far down the road on it as a films, but yeah, agreed. The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, those are probably all among the best writing in the US in the past decade. If HBO or Showtime had come knocking for Criminal a year ago, I'd have happily said yes to a George RR Martin-style arrangement, where I got to be involved.



SH: You are working from a medium, sequential art, that is very analogous to cinema and TV. You already have dialogue, action and structure worked out in your script for the comic/graphic novel. Your partner Sean Phillips, has already created an outstanding visualization. What is involved in writing the screenplay? Are you faithfully transcribing what you've already written/created or does a movie adaptation require you to make substantial changes to elements of story, characterization or dialogue?


EB: That's the struggle I'm in, and why I'm not going to want to adapt all my own material, I think. With Coward, the basic structure of the book is very much, straight-forward three act structure. And the director is a huge fan of the book and the way the story is told. He actually wants to be more faithful than I do. The things that change are, in the comic, there's lots of first person narrative explaining the world and the characters and the backstory, even their internal thoughts. You don't want that in a movie, not so much. You can do it, certainly Fight Club did it beautifully, and others have, as well, but for a crime movie, today, not so much. And some of the locations change, of course, and there are characters that are in the book that aren't in the screenplay, and some that aren't in the book that are in the screenplay.

And the main difference I've found from comics to screenplay with dialog is, in comics, you fake it. You try to write dialog that when read, seems in the readers head to feel realistic. But if it's said outloud, it isn't. Because you're limited by space in the panel. You don't want huge balloons or tons of them all over the page (although it works for my friend Brian Bendis) so you fake it. But with film, the dialog can be more real. It's still not actually real, because that would be really boring, but you can expand it, and find different rhythms and take more time with it. Something like In Bruges, what makes that film work, or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (to name two of my favorites for dialog) would never work in comics. And that's why when in Watchmen, the film, when the actors said the dialog directly from the comic, it didn't sound right. Because those words were meant to be read, not spoken.

SH: Do you worry that the elements that made Criminal: Coward so effective and popular could get lost in the translation to film? What have been the biggest struggles in moving from one medium to another?

EB: The biggest struggle is second-guessing myself on every decision I made 6 years ago when I wrote it the first time. In some ways, I'd like to just pretend I never did the other version, and sometimes I'll be writing a scene, and then look at that part of the comic, and realize I did it better there. I think another screenwriter might not second-guess, and might just take the stuff directly from the book that works, because they aren't as close to the material.


My feeling is, I just want it to be a good movie. I already wrote the story one time the exact way I wanted to. Now I want the director and producer to help me realize it as a film, the best way it can be. The struggle there, of course, is they both love the book, and want to be faithful. It'd probably be easier for me if they didn't. Because I worry I'll turn in a script that's TOO faithful, and someone will think I haven't spent months agonizing over every scene. That I just cut and pasted the comic script.

And I also worry that part of what makes my comics what they are, my voice or whatever, comes in those narratives, which is what we're leaving out. I know it's not true, because Gotham Central was my voice, on my issues, at least, and we didn't use narrative on that series at all, but you know, I fear it anyway. I never want to write something that doesn't sound like me. At least, not anymore.

SH: It's extremely common for screenwriters to be rewritten by other screenwriters, especially as the project nears production and directors and stars are attached. Do you worry about your material getting changed in the development process? 

EB: I do, but I'm not totally opposed to that, depending on the circumstances or the writer. My first screenplay was something I did for David Goyer about ten years ago, and after three drafts, another writer stepped in to do a pass, and it was weird. The story and dialog were all still there, but there was some new stuff, and he amped up the action and tension. I then did another pass over his pass, to make it more mine, and I learned a lot in the process.

But you know, once I'm done with my part, I know that's a possibility, at least, if not a likelihood. On Coward, I am involved heavily and working closely with the director and producer, so I haven't worried about it as much. I figure if they need to replace me, it'll be because I failed, not because they need Scott Frank to do a dialog polish.




SH: While working on Conan The Barbarian I spent a lot of time re-reading old pulp stories by Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. I'm also a fan of crime fiction, particularly Chandler and Thompson. Tell me about how these pulp authors have inspired your work. 

I grew up on that stuff. My dad was a big reader, and loved mysteries, and my uncle was a well-known screenwriter, John Paxton, who wrote The Wild One, and Murder My Sweet, and On The Beach, among others. So from a young age, I was always seeing old movies based on Chandler and Hammett books, and reading Conan comics.

As I developed as a writer, I drew from my own life, as well as all those pulp influences, to create whatever the hell it is I do. My real lightbulb moment was reading the Lew Archer books, by Ross Macdonald, because he was clearly writing about himself, while writing crime stories, too. And with Lovecraft, that's just the best kind of horror, isn't it? The kind Hitchcock would've done, where the anticipation is what drives you nuts, not the actual monsters themselves.

SH: Was the Criminal series inspired by any particular movies? Do you have any Film Noir favorites? What about current hard-boiled crime films like "Drive?" 

EB: Out of the Past is probably my favorite movie. In recent years, yeah, In Bruges, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Drive, Yellow Sea, Chaser, Memento. A lot of others I'm forgetting.

But Criminal wasn't inspired by anything in specific, just a desire to have a place to tell all kinds of crime stories in comics. I was jealous of what Frank Miller had done with Sin City, but wanted to do something realistic, not over the top, and just wanted to write character-driven stories. With each Criminal story, there's a bit of trying to do my twist on a genre trope of noir, but I don't put too much thought into that side of it, honestly. I just let the characters tell their stories.

SH: One of the major reasons for Crimal: Coward's success was the outstanding art of Sean Phillips. Is he involved in the film?  Do you think that graphic artists could be a benefit to film production by supplying storyboards and production illustration? 

 EB: Sean isn't involved at this stage, but it may be something to discuss if and when we move to production. I'd hate to take him away from our comic work, on Fatale, but I do want him to have the excitement of seeing this stuff being brought to life, that he drew. If we actually get this movie made, I'm sure we'll both be on set as much as they let us.

  
FINAL THOUGHTS:  

Besides being a Hollywood screenwriter and USC filmschool teacher, I'm also a fanboy, and I love Ed and Sean's work.  It has all the visual storytelling, complex characterization, and tension-filled plotting that I aspire to as a filmmaker.  The adaptation won't be easy, but its one I'm eagerly looking forward to, and the producers made a smart move in hiring Ed to do the script.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Filmmaking Master Class This Weekend: April 28th and 29th

I want to put in one last plug for the Independent Film Master Class that is happening this weekend.  It's a great way get some new skills, propel your project forward, and network with other like-minded filmmakers.  I'm donating my time just to support the cause of indie filmmaking.

Presented by The International Academy of Film and Televisionin association with Filmmakers Alliance

REGISTER NOW!!

When: Saturday, April 28th 2012 - 10 am to 5 pm
and Sunday, April 29th 2012 - 10 am to 5 pm

Where: International Academy of Film and Television
635 S. San Fernando Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91502

Filmmakers Alliance's INDEPENDENT FILM MASTER CLASS is the complete, a definitive, step-by-step, two-day seminar for independent filmmakers giving you the KEY information you need to get your film MADE and SEEN. The INDEPENDENT FILM MASTER CLASS is a clean, clear, concise and complete independent filmmaking blueprint for your film project that will allow you to sustain your life as a filmmaker!!

DAY 1

Concept, Story and Script Development - Developing ideas and concepts that work! Then, writing that script in a way that will get your film made without compromising your vision.

Web Tools For film - New tools and programs are developing almost daily to help indie filmmakers manage every stage of a film’s life and maximize time/money. Find out about some of the best.

The Legalities - What needs to be done to get your production up and running and to avoid any legal issues at any point down the road. Private Equity Financing, Grants, Crowdfunding and Tax Credits - Where to find the money and what you need to do to get it.

Distribution Planning - What you need to do at the front end (and throughout) to prepare for the back end success of your film.

DAY 2

Pre-production and Production - How to get the most filmmaking bang from your budget - creatively and cost-efficiently managing your project. Also, how best to work with actors, crew, locations, unions, guilds, crafts to ensure your film not only gets made, but looks exponentially more than its cost.

Post-Production - New technologies and methodologies are making it easier to high end work with a low end budget. Find out what they are and what you need to do give a stunning, world-class finish to your film and how to prepare for it long before you reach post.

Festivals, Marketing Distribution - Understanding the festival circuit and how to use it to your film’s greatest advantage. And devising and executing a distribution plan that will give your film it’s best shot at success and sustain your filmmaking life!

Speakers include:

The seminar also includes filmmaker case-studies and open Q&A periods, so come prepared with your specific filmmaking questions - the ones that most have you stumped - so that we can take you to the next level.

REGISTER NOW!!

Ticket Prices:

$199 - General seminar fee.

$149 - Single Day seminar fee.

$274 - Includes seminar fee plus one year of Filmmakers Alliance membership.

$224 - Includes Single Day seminar fee plus one year of Filmmakers Alliance membership.

REGISTER NOW AND TAKE YOUR BEST FIRST STEP TO GETTING YOUR FILM MADE AND SEEN!!

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?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Filmmaker's Life: THE INDEPENDENT FILM MASTER CLASS - April 28/29 in Burbank

I'll be joining Jacques Thelemaque and others speaking at an Independent Film Master Class later this month.

 I will be covering topics on screenwriting (at the beginning of the the seminar) and then joining speakers on online tools and New Media (later in the seminar.) It's a chance for me to donate my time for the benefit of emerging artists. Check out the details, and all the other fabulous speakers by following the link below.

A Filmmaker's Life: THE INDEPENDENT FILM MASTER CLASS - April 28/29 in Burbank: complete, a definitive, step-by-step, two-day seminar for independent filmmakers giving you the KEY information you need to get your film MADE and SEEN.