Tuesday, March 10, 2015

How To Write Screenplays For Amazon

As I dig into yet another semester teaching at USC, I am showered with questions from students, recent graduates and other emerging writers:

Is indie cinema dead? Are original movie specs, scripts not based on a YA novel or Marvel comic book, a waste of time?What should we be writing now? What will movies and TV series look like in the future? What kind of original content are companies like Netflix and Amazon looking for?

In order to answer some of these questions I caught up with the current head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price. His answers to these and other questions were inspiring for anyone who has been frustrated by the current climate in Hollywood. To give our discussion so context:

Emerging writers and filmmakers often complain that movies can only be made at monster budgets (100 million and above) or micro-budgets (500 thousand or less.) Many iconic filmmakers, like John Waters and David Lynch, have bemoaned The Death of Mid-Budget Cinema (movies budgeted from $5 million to $60 million.) For the last decade, major studios seemed to have (mostly) turned their backs on sophisticated movies for adults, and indie cinema was moribund.

However, Amazon's announcement that producer Ted Hope (21 Grams, In The Bedroom, The Ice Storm) has been hired as its head of production is an exciting and "hopeful" turn. Any writer/filmmaker who has not checked out Hope's blog, read his book Hope for Film: From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions, or watched "independent films, classics, silent films, foreign films, documentaries and shorts" on his film site, Fandor, should do so now

Amazon itself has won golden globes for its sophisticated and edgy comedy, Transparent, and is now developing a TV series with Woody Allen. What could all this mean for original (but unknown) filmmakers? I spoke to the man who should know.

SH: Most screenwriters hope to write an original screenplay and see that screenplay made into a movie. However, nearly all of the movies that were released in 2014 were based on underlying material (sequels, remakes, or adaptations of books). Of the few original screenplays that were nominated for awards, almost all were penned by well-established writer/directors. Especially now that Ted Hope is working with Amazon and Amazon is developing features both for theatric release and streaming, will original spec scripts come back into fashion?

Roy Price

RP: It’s always going to be easier to get your movie made if you’re established and people are dying to work with you or finance you, which is one of the benefits of getting some acknowledgement and recognition. But it’s no illusion that the business is more oriented around sequels and properties today than it was in 1979 or 1959. I’ve heard people lament from time to time that American cinema is not as idiosyncratic or creative as it was in the 1970s. I could quibble with that -- Guardians of the Galaxy was fantastic and kind of whimsical, and I would argue that The Lego Movie has a very distinctive voice that comes from Phil Lord and Chris Miller -- but on the whole, perhaps it is a fair criticism. And it’s not because people are less creative of course, so there should be some awesome ideas out there to unleash on the world.

"At Amazon Studios, we don’t have any properties and we haven’t made any movies, so we won’t be doing a lot of comic book movies or sequels. We’re going to be very filmmaker-driven, looking for interesting, unique films."

SH: Many inspirational filmmakers (David Lynch and John Waters) have called Art House Cinema dead. The studios seem to have stopped making mid-budget films (anywhere from $5 million to $60 million.) This leaves students and emerging filmmakers with no options other than micro-budget films. Will Amazon be making mid-budget movies?

RP: Yes, we will. Part of the problem with the mid-budget movie is that the distribution windowing fails to maximize revenue associated with those titles. For many “prestige” or “specialty” titles, they get a small theatrical release and some marketing. Some reviews come out. Then it’s in theaters for a few weeks and then it’s gone. Maybe two months later it is available for rental. Maybe seven to nine months after that it might be available in a subscription video service. The audience for many of these movies is older (in movie audience terms -- so like 35+). That audience typically goes out to the theater 3-4 times a year and not usually on the first weekend of a movie’s release. But that’s a lifestyle issue not an interest issue.

Many people in that group love movies and have money to spend. But if you live in Issaquah, Washington, it’s not always going to be convenient to make it into the city to see the movie. So what happens is that demand is created through the reviews, trailers and the (limited) marketing at a certain time, but the product is not made available until after that demand has dissipated. So the film is distributed in a way that is guaranteed to minimize the economic returns for financiers and filmmakers – in this segment, the windowing has backfired. We think that for these more mature movies for this specific audience, home video windows should be shorter. We also think we as can help these films find their audience in both the theatrical and home video windows.

Some people have tried to set us up in opposition to the theatrical chains, but actually I think we can find a happy, middle way together in this segment. There is still something special for customers and filmmakers about the theatrical experience. It is the best way to see a movie holding all other things equal. So we want to support as robust a theatrical run as a movie can support. We think these mid-range specialty titles need to be more broadly available sooner, but not necessarily immediately. We want to support a strong theatrical run.

So that’s what we plan to do. We think it will be better for filmmakers economically, and we think it will be good for film fans who would like to be able to follow up on great reviews they read about or great trailers they see. I mean ten months later, it can be hard to remember which trailer you loved – was it Puffy Chair or Tiny Furniture? Was it Jeff, Who Lives at Home or Listen Up, Phillip? Too much time has gone by.

"If independent films become more available to film fans when they still remember them and want to see them, opportunities and economic returns will increase for filmmakers and it will be much better for fans too. We expect that this will support more mid-budget features." 

SH: Television series like Amazon's Transparent seem to occupy the space that indie films once did in the '90s. Many of my students are inspired by Lena Dunham and the Duplass Brothers. Even in feature screenwriting courses, students most often talk about premium cable series instead of films. Should screenwriters developing sophisticated, character-driven drama and comedy be writing TV pilots instead of features?

People should do what they have a passion to do and what they have original ideas for. There is certainly great work being done in television. But I think the next 10 years will be good for independent cinema, and it is common today to move back and forth between film and TV so it would make sense to be open to whatever form excites you.

Some stories just need to be movies. Other stories call for a longer treatment. And there is a sophisticated at home audience who are eager to support imaginative, nuanced, challenging and original series. I would definitely consider both TV and film. 

"We have had thousands of scripts uploaded to our site and evaluated. We have made three pilots and one actual series from scripts submitted to the site."

SH: To what degree is your development slate dominated by established writers (Jill Soloway, Woody Allen) and what percentage of the projects that come to fruition originate from emerging writers (via your website, for example.)

RP: I think that there is a tendency in TV history for game changing shows to come from new networks or networks that are down on their luck (we’re in the former category!). And I think this happens because these networks are are hungry and open minded. Now that we have had some success in our first efforts, having all our shows hit number one on Amazon, Transparent winning the Globe for Best Comedy and Tumble Leaf winning the Annie for Best Preschool Show, the key for us is to stay open and not just only work with established writers or try to repeat ourselves tonally. We want to stay very open to new ideas and new talent.

We have had thousands of scripts uploaded to our site and evaluated. We have made three pilots and one actual series from scripts submitted to the site (Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street). Great show produced for kids 6-11. Check it out. So I am happy we have that pipeline and it’s not just a source of ideas. We put a great team around David Anaxagoras (who created and uploaded Gortimer) and he worked on that show every day. Great for him and for us. 

SH: Instead of primarily using traditional network series and classic films as models, should students and younger emerging writers be studying content produced for Amazon, Netflix, Vimeo, and other digital providers to understand the kind of projects that will dominate in the future?

No one knows what will be cool in the future or how narrative forms might evolve. People will tell you to devour the films of the past and that’s definitely helpful, but you can get into a mode where you’re too influenced and you’re copying a bit -- where you’re not influenced by Sullivan’s Travels or whatever, you’re actually basically just redoing Sullivan’s Travels. So you have to see all those older titles and then bring to it your fresh perspective. 

My view is that whatever you’re watching, the advantage you have is that you are the only one that has your perspective. Writers of the past didn’t have the opportunity to write in 2015 or 2016.

" have to understand the essential, permanent, Aristotelian elements of storytelling, etc., from the old movies, plays, novels, etc., but then put your own bad self into it."

SH: Paul Schrader was quoted in Variety “My feeling about Amazon and Netflix is that they are probably going to be even more brutal than independent equity money, because they are at heart number crunchers, not filmmakers.” Yet, series like Transparent seem to suggest a willingness to take risks. Is Amazon going to allow more creative freedom? And if so, should emerging filmmakers be focusing more on original and challenging subject matter instead of developing ideas that seem commercial or marketable?

Well, bear in mind that we’re in this to create really distinctive and memorable work that people will care about and that will live on our site for a long time. So these aren’t one off economic propositions for us as they may be for strictly financial players. We’re only interested in doing great work so we are going to create an environment where great work can be created. I would point out that Mr. Schrader’s concerns have not been borne out so far on the TV side.


"Creating great work requires creating a great environment for filmmakers."

SH: Since the "typical" TV series is a thing of the past, can students and filmmakers play with the form? For example, I know a student developing a series with 90 minute episodes and a four episode arc. Others have considered 20 minute episodes or episodes of varying length like chapters in a book. Streaming seems to allow for all sorts of creativity when the episodes are confined to time slots and airing dates. What do you recommend?

Mozart In The Jungle
People should do what moves them and this is a great time to do something unique. That said, there are economic reasons for making TV shows in standard formats (basically so you can resell them to other people later and defray investment). So there is an argument for doing something at a standard length. But the first priority should always be to do what works. So I would do that.

Roy's last words of advice were these...

"If you want to outsell Pat Boone you don't do it by being extra Pat Boone-y, you do it by being the Rolling Stones."

And who can argue with that?

Lastly, yesterday Apple announced that HBO will be available for subscribers on Apple TV. We've been hearing about digital streaming for decades, but now (finally) the game may actually be changing. This is good news for writers, filmmakers and artists.

Other Genre Hacks Interviews with Roy Price:


John&MareWashco said...

Good to hear that there is hope for an older husband/wife writing team with tons of real life experiences to fall back on during our writing process. Having been around to see B&W episodes of I Love Lucy when they originally aired to now being "Binge" watchers of House of Cards, and other shows, we are excited to involved in the current evolution of features and TV. Although our vast amount of life experience is a definite advantage, it still takes a tremendous amount of hard work, time, and dedication to master this craft of screenwriting.

Karrpark said...

Will now become a regular reader of Genre Hacks. Great to hear Roy Price's point of view on what Amazon is looking for. Thanks.