Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Amazon Studios Screenwriter

So what's it like for a screenwriter (and a director) to work with Amazon Studios?

Since its launch, Amazon Studios has been looked upon with curiosity and suspicion by screenwriters and filmmakers. Just uploading a script commits the writer to an 18-month free option, and many veteran and aspiring scribes have raised red flags. Amazon Studios is a non-union and non-signatory company, so members of the Writers' Guild of America cannot upload scripts, agree to options, or win prizes. For non-union writers, even if their script is purchased and the movie made through Amazon's deal with Warner Brothers, there is no guarantee they would be allowed to join the WGA and receive residuals for the movies they wrote. There isn't even a guarantee for screen credit. Veteran WGA members worry if this will lead to major studios bypassing the union and purchasing non-union Amazon scripts. For these reasons alone many have called it a "bad deal."

However, as Amazon gives away more and more prize money, funds test films, and builds their community, more and more writers and filmmakers who are frustrated with Hollywood are giving Amazon a shot,and the experience of those actually working and succeeding with Amazon Studios has belied much the suspicion and paranoia. Amazon Studios have shown that they are willing to listen to feedback, test and revise their system in exactly the same way that Amazon filmmakers listen to feedback, test and revise their screenplays.

For example, Alex Greenfield, who has toiled for a decade trying to get his scripts sold and movies made in the traditional way, decided to give the Amazon approach a try. He has become a kind of Amazon "poster child" for success. The many projects he is involved in have won awards for best script, best storyboard, best table read, and best test film. For Alex this adds up to nearly 40 grand in prize money, and for his collaborators this adds up to nearly $160,000 to divide between them. Most of all, it means money to make films. Beyond the cash, Alex seems to be having the best experience of his career.

I got a chance to interview Alex, and ask him about his experience.

What benefits in your career have you gained from your success at Amazon?

I've been extraordinarily fortunate in my experience with Amazon. Right out of the gate I connected with collaborators I know I'll be working with for the rest of my career. Christian Davis took a shine to the first script I uploaded and became a real creative partner on MEMORY, along with the tremendous cast of actors he put together -- Darin Cooper, Bess Harrison, Craig Woods and more. This is an ensemble I'll go to again and again. I wouldn't have met any of these folks were it not for Amazon Studios.

That AS responds to our work and has awarded us both some prize money and a production grant to make a film is pretty Goddamn awesome. I've written some movies and television shows for the paycheck that I'm... let's just say... less than proud of. But in the freelancer's life you just take the gig, you know? At AS, I feel like for the first time in my career I'm working with a group of people who really get my work. Who like it and rather than wanting to change it to fit some pre-existing template, and who are challenging me to further explore the territory that started me working in the first place.

As to the benefits to my career, that's hard to quantify in a direct way. Since Chris and I first won a prize [Best Table Read for MEMORY last January], I've booked an assignment and set up my pilot at Fox Television Studios. In both cases, the producers congratulated me on my Amazon success. In some ways, though, the best thing AS has done for my career is allow me the freedom to focus on work I want to be doing instead of hustling for day-rate production gigs or every assignment I can pitch on. I'm having a hell of a lot more fun directing THE TEMPLE and rewriting MY FATHER'S HOUSE than I would be trying to book a holiday movie-of-the-week.

Production art from THE TEMPLE motion comic

As a professionalism screenwriter, was the "18 month free option" troublesome for you? Why or Why not? Why not take the script out to producers and buyers in the traditional way?

It was absolutely a major issue and one I really had to think about. My buddy, Court Bauer forwarded me one of the first articles about Amazon Studios in the contest and it looked interesting. Then I read Craig Mazin and John August and some of their criticisms. I was really on the fence, you know? To take something out of the marketplace for a year-and-a-half is a pretty daunting prospect.

Then I thought about MEMORY. It's a script that had been sitting in a proverbial drawer since 2005. I'd always loved it and knew there was an awesome movie in there somewhere, but I never quite cracked it. My manager at the time didn't respond to the project and I was at the beginning of spending a couple of years writing and producing television for WWE. The script kind of fell through the cracks.

It was actually one of the criticisms of AS that attracted me to enter the script. I was busy and couldn't revise a script -- maybe somebody else could. Needless to say, that paid off in spades with Chris Davis. He injected life into the project. He brought it to life. I'm as proud of the film he made over the course of this year as anything I've ever been lucky enough to put my name on. Once I started collaborating with Chris and realized the reason for the eighteen month option (to ensure that a filmmaker has time to, you know, make a film), it was an easy decision to really invest in the process.

Both of my collaborations with Michael K. Eitelman on the site had been shopped a spec in the traditional way. THE TEMPLE and THE ROOF each went out wide and both came pretty doggone close to getting bought. Trying them in the Amazon process has answered some of the reasons as to why -- the test film process particularly has shown what works and what doesn't.

MY FATHER'S HOUSE, on the other hand, is brand spanking new. Our agent/manager shopped it to four producers since we finished it in February. Two passed. One made an offer and we negotiated for a month before coming to terms. The other wanted to attach and go out to directors and talent to put together a package, and we've been down that road before and know how long it takes. Ben and I talked a lot about it -- this is a big, ambitious project that doesn't fit into an easy box -- and came to the decision that the eighteen month risk is far outweighed by the potential reward. MY FATHER'S HOUSE is a very visual film -- that latter producer called it a "director's piece" -- and the test film process might be just what it needs.

Still from MEMORY, awarded Best Test Film and $100,000

How was the collaborative process been so far? How was the feedback you received on the website?

Creatively, the process of developing both with my peers through both "official" review and through superlative forums like Scott Mullen's Script Club (somewhere between a poetry slam and a colloquy where the whole community plays spitball with a given script) has been tremendous. Like you, I've developed material with producers and writers and managers and agents and studios and all the traditional forms. The AS process has been different, and thus far I'm happier with the results.

I feel like the work my writing partners and I have produced through this experiment -- from seeing what plays in the MEMORY or TEMPLE test films and adjusting the script accordingly to Ben Powell and I having one of the best development meetings we've ever had with the AS Story Department on MY FATHER'S HOUSE -- has been some of the best we've ever done.

Still from THE TEMPLE motion comic

Have "test movies" been made for your screenplays? How was the process of collaborating with directors?

The whole process of watching Chris Davis make MEMORY was tremendous. The guy's a machine. He didn't need to hire artists or photographers or green screen technicians, Photoshop experts, editors or audio engineers or After Effects magicians (all of which Ihave done on our production of THE TEMPLE). From breaking down and developing the script to creating the final credit sequence, he did it all himself. In the midst of directing a project myself (on Amazon's dime with an amazing crew and no day job or child to raise), I'm a little in awe of the guy. With not much more than sweat equity and dint of will, what he did on his own over the course of ten months blows my mind. To meet someone as simultaneously talented and creatively in sync with me through AS is pretty tremendous, and I'll work with Chris and his team again and again. When AS announced the competition for a production grant to make a test film, his was the first I listed in my production proposal to direct the voiceover session (and what I like to call the Davis Ensemble forms the spine of the cast).

Still from MEMORY, awarded Best Test Film and $100,000

What's it like to win a prize? How does Amazon compare to more traditional screenplay contests?

We've made a good spot of cash through Amazon, for sure. Every project that's won has been a collaboration. Chris's film of MEMORY has picked up Best Table Read, Best Photo Storyboard and ultimately Best Test Film -- and yes, it's been awesome to watch the film develop into what it is now. He won Best Dialogue Track for his work on Eitelman and my script, THE ROOF (Bess Harrison's preposterously good performance in the lead elevating what is essentially a creature feature into something more was a big part of that). Eitelman and I took Best Script honors for THE TEMPLE, and the production grant Amazon gave us to produce the motion comic is due in no small measure to the work of a whole lot of people not named "Alex Greenfield."

It's been really, really cool to be part of a team to receive this kind of acknowledgement both financially (which, yeah, kinda rules) and for the creative validation. I don't think Amazon Studios is really analogous to any other competition I'm aware of. The "Studios" part of the name is not a gimmick or a branding effort. It's real. Price, Lewis and the whole team are all about making movies in a new way. Their development people are passionate about the material they're working on. They are going to make movies. Frankly, they already are. The way the contest has inspired people to work is pretty absurd. I look at the stills I've seen from Marty Weiss & Hive's production of THE ALCHEMIST AGENDA and the Amazon-financed productions of L. Norgard's NEVSKY PROJECT and TOUCHING BLUE by Scott Mullen (and not to sound like a dick, but what we're getting on TEMPLE), and the line between "test film" and "movie people want to sit down and watch" is already being blurred. That's something new. I like new.

Concept drawing for the "Wall of Flesh," THE TEMPLE.

A WGA screenwriter residuals and health benefits if your script is sold. What happens if a non-WGA writer's work is made? Are they on their own?

You've just described the freelancer's life, my friend. I'm not in the WGA and since leaving WWE in 2007 (I was an employee as opposed to an independent contractor), I've had to buy my own insurance. Thing is, this is true of any writer not in the union... or a writer in the union who doesn't book enough. It's no different than budgeting in any line of freelance work.

THE TEMPLE - Voice Over session

Do you think the average writer gets a better deal at Amazon than they would at a traditional production company or studio? How do you respond to writers who have called Amazon Studios a "scam?"

I dunno, man. I listen to this criticism and it sounds naive. Who didn't do a free if/come option at some point in their career. I had this script called CHILDISH THINGS that was optioned for free by a company for eighteen months, then optioned again for free by a different company before we finally sold it for actual money. Almost every writer I know did a free option at one point or another. That's not to speak of low-pay/fifteen free rewrite assignments, of which I have done plenty. A free option is not a scam; it's a common occurrence. When you get offers like that you decide if it's worth it or not. Here's the thing: when you decide that, you know for damn sure you're not going to win thousands of dollar in prize money. At Amazon, you might. I have. I've also gotten a movie I'm proud of made and am working on another. None of that happened in any other free option I ever did.

By uploading your script, you are allowing anyone and everyone to read it. Do you worry that your ideas will get stolen?

Not at all. I *want* folks to read my script. That's why I do this: to entertain people. As to the concern about "stealing," that's always struck me as a silly concern in this business. The script I mentioned earlier -- CHILDISH THINGS -- came *this close* to getting bought by New Line. Like, meet-with-Toby close. It's a really fun horror script about an imaginary friend who turns out to be all kinds of bad. Great concept. Then New Line passed out of the blue. See, Fox announced that they were going into production on HIDE & SEEK... a movie about an evil imaginary friend. Bummer, but nobody stole anything. Our Amazon script, THE ROOF is about Yeti. The month after it made the Best Script finals and won Best Dialogue Track, Disney announced production on MATTERHORN, which features Yeti as the monsters. No theft there; just people having similar ideas.

THE ROOF, concept art

Which of your Amazon projects are you most excited about? What's the story? Where can somebody read it if they are curious?

That's like asking which of a man's kids he loves the most! It'd be hard not to say that I'm most excited about THE TEMPLE since it's pretty much consuming my life at the moment. The team of artists and technicians and magicians creating this movie are really exceeding my expectations and the whole process of making the film is really a blast. It's still gonna be a while before the film is done, but anyone interested can find all manner of production stills, art and other goodies on our Twitter, @TempleMovie. Thing is, from a purely visceral perspective the project at Amazon I'm most excited about is MY FATHER'S HOUSE.

Every breakthrough we make on TEMPLE, every new technique we refine or discover... in my head, all I can think is, "We could totally use this on MY FATHER'S HOUSE." The genre films I love the most are the ones that bury weighty issues inside deceptively simple, entertaining packages. Of all the projects I've been involved with, MY FATHER'S HOUSE is the one that I think comes closest to really tapping that vein. Ben Powell and I met as Freshman in college and have worked together off and on for twenty years. With MY FATHER'S HOUSE, I think we've found something really unique and the way we're developing the project with AS is going to make it ever better. Yep: definitely the AS project I'm most passionate about; I think it's one of the two or three best pieces of writing I've ever been involved with. If anyone's inclined and would like to check it out, they can find it here.

THE TEMPLE motion comic.

Does anyone uploading screenplays on Amazon check the box to allow ANYONE to make changes to it? What do you think of this experiment?

While the notion of other people finding ways to crack a script I couldn't was definitely one of the things that drew me to Amazon Stuios, I did like their introduction of a "By Permission" component. I love meeting and working with creative people, but hey... I also want to *read* someone before they rewrite me! A traditional studio certainly wouldn't give me that chance.

My Take On Amazon Studios

Currently, the three major concerns that writers have with Amazon Studios are the 18-month free option, the exposure of their "idea" to the public before the script is sold, and Amazon's relationship with the WGA. I should remind readers that I myself am a WGA member. So, I can't participate directly in Amazon's experiment. I have not projects with Amazon, and for now I look upon the Studio as a [mostly] neutral observer.

As to the 18-month free option, I would not be surprised if Amazon revises this policy in the future, since it spooks so many aspiring scribes who might otherwise upload their scripts. However, only the screenwriters who win prizes and accept money actually sign a written option agreement, and without a signed physical document the "18 month free option," is more of a gentleman's agreement to commit time to the Amazon development process than a binding legal contract.

If a script doesn't get attention, doesn't get a prize, and no actual document is signed, there is really is no reason a screenwriter can't delete their (registered and copyrighted) script from Amazon and go elsewhere, even before the 18 months is up. The idea that Amazon would track down and legally pursue such a writer, or that another buyer would decline to option or buy a script because it had once been uploaded on Amazon for a month, strikes me as absurd and a bit paranoid. Also, aspiring scribes should understand that even if you do take prize money and sign a written option agreement, that does not mean Amazon "owns" your script. That just means that Amazon has the option to purchase the script for $200,000.

However, I am not and attorney and I am not qualified to give legal advice, so every writer should make his or her own judgment and decision before uploading. I wouldn't advise uploading unless you are willing to commit to trying out the Amazon process.

Concerning exposing a brilliant movie idea to other screenwriters who might steal it, I would direct those concerned to my blog "Does your idea mean nothing?" and suggest that the answer to that question is [mostly] yes.

Concerning union membership, it remains to be seen what will happen when and if an Amazon film actually goes into production, but since Amazon has been so responsive to writers and filmmakers, and because the whole business model relies on their enthusiasm and engagement, I personally think that once a project does get set up at Warner Brothers, that the script will be bought through a signatory Warner's company, and that the writers and director involved will get the option to join the WGA or DGA. There is no advantage to either Amazon or Warners to NOT allow the filmmakers to do so. Given that the purchase price of scripts is 200,000 and given the way Amazon is dishing out so much prize money for screenplays and test films, I can't imagine that Amazon or Warners will try to "screw" writers and filmmakers out of union membership, residuals or screen credit if the film actually goes into production. Amazon is perhaps the only film company that actually has a stake whether the general pool writers and filmmakers are happy with their process.

But again, as with any non-signatory film company, the rights protected by the WGA - to residuals, to heath insurance, and to screen credit - are NOT guaranteed. So non-union writers should judge for themselves whether or not they are willing to take the risk.

So, while I still have nagging concerns, I am not nearly as skeptical as many of my peers. To me, Amazon isn't yet "making films in a new way" so much as experimenting with the way movies are developed. Once Warner Brothers gets involved in a particular project the traditional machinery of film production, marketing and distribution kick into gear. Furthermore, Amazon's approach to development is not new. In its emphasis on community feedback, table readings, test films, and workshops with actors and artists, they are just mirroring the creative process of an independent film. But, they are doing it on a massive scale online, and building a worldwide film community.

However, in another sense, their approach is indeed radically different from most Hollywood Studios (although not new) in that they have turned away from "pre-branded content" (sequels, remakes, and adaptations) in favor of original screenplays. What is truly new about their approach is that they are targeting the mass of writers, filmmakers, actors and artists who Hollywood generally ignores, using the power of mass collaboration and mass curation to allow the best content in this gigantic online ocean to rise to the surface. This is "bottom up" development rather than "top down," and nobody else is even trying it.

I myself think that Amazon will, eventually, completely disrupt the studio system. All traditional studios and cable companies are built on a 20th century distribution model, and right now, that distribution model is still dominant. This is why Amazon must have a deal with Warner Brothers, just like any other production company. However, once a movie or TV series can be uploaded and streamed instantly anywhere - to a theater with a digital projector, to a TV,to a laptop, to a smart phone or to a Kindle Fire - then nobody who has the money to fund a movie will need to go to a traditional studio or cable company for distribution. Amazon has the money, and they have their eye on long term trends instead of short term profits. If Amazon Studios positions itself as a world creative community center, where original stories are tested and developed, they could emerge as the studio where brands are created instead of just recycled.

NOTE: You may also want to read the comments section of this blog, where other Amazon filmmakers discuss their frustration with the process. One screenwriter called it "the youtube" of bad screenplays. The issue of curating, rating, and encouraging writers to give each other feedback is a problem that Amazon has yet to solve. Solving this problem of how to FILTER the wash of mediocrity and use the mob/audience itself to identify the best talent may well determine if the Amazon Studios experiment works.


Sean Menzies said...

Thanks for covering the Amazon Studios effect, Sean. For my part, it's been a lousy experience. I uploaded the first day they went live, then was crushed under the ensuing deluge of material uploaded by every single "writer" on earth, and their mother. My script, which people in the land of the living have read and really liked, has only been downloaded a handful of times on Amazon Studios.

The trailer I made for the script, a mock feature trailer, has had a better time of it, but no one has commented or emailed or posted notes about my project. I thumb through the ENORMOUS amount of material on Amazon Studios and my heart breaks, for so much of it is just awful, god awful. Very few titles stand out as anything that would make you want to trouble to download to read them, and yet a lot of those generic titles are making it to the finalists list.

For me, Amazon Studios is the YouTube of screenwriting; the only way to stand out from the crowds of mediocrity is to stand out from the crowds of mediocrity - I'll make my film myself.

Sean Hood said...

Thanks for your comment Sean.

The issue of curating, rating, and encouraging writers to give each other feedback is a problem that Amazon has yet to solve.

Solving this problem of how to FILTER the wash of mediocrity and use the mob/audience itself to identify the best talent may well determine if the Amazon Studios experiment works.

Brian Smith said...

Sean (Hood), thanks again to you and John August for keeping the dialogue going about Amazon. I joined recently after friend Sean Tracy won for "Black Hat." I too had my reservations last year when it started, but I've have had some decent experiences with Project Greenlight/ over the years, so I figured why not.

The Premise Wars section on the Amazon site really helps to filter out what may work as a story. It's a useful tool when looking for new projects to review.
Sean (Menzies) I checked out your logline and trailer and added your script to my "to-read" list. Looking forward to it.

Glenn said...

My experience with Amazon Studios has been fairly positive. I wrote the screenplay, "The Alien Diaries" It has made the semi-finals every month since February. The frustrating part is not making the finals (yet) but the positives are such that it makes Amazon Studios a worthwhile experience to grow as a writer.

At first, I was reluctant to upload "Alien Diaries" because they require it to be an "open submission" - something I was not too keen about. Others would say the same. When Amazon announced that they were offering to keep your submission closed, I jumped on the chance.

The 18 month option did give me pause but then again what do I have to lose? It was previously optioned for free by a producer who couldn't get it going.

As the months went by, I started thinking how can I make this better? I already incorporated suggestions after having it reviewed by Carson Reeves Amateur Friday. Then Scott Mullen threw it into his Script Club - the feedback I got was terrific. I followed some of their suggestions. Then Amazon Studios threw in their studio notes. Those notes combined with Script Club notes and general feedbabck opened up a floodgate of creativity and allowed me to improve the script.

I think the script has potential. It opened as the number one logline when the premise wars has started and has remained in the top 50 since its inception. I have plans to work on a sequel and jump into some of Amazon's rewrite competition to keep the creative juices flowing.

The folks and the forum members have been an incredible bunch of people. I'm sure there is some negativity on the boards but if you go in with a positive attitude and take your licks when you get feedback, you'll emerge as a much better writer.

Sean Hood said...

Thank you to Brian for your comments on the premise wars...very interesting.

Glen, its good to hear that you are finding a group of collaborators with whom to share ideas and feedback..

Danielle said...

I hope I'm not coming at this too late. I have been looking for reviews of Amazon Studios before sending a sitcom pilot I've been working on. There are plenty of reviews out there, but almost none of them are recent, and there have been significant changes...for instance the addition of sitcom pilot projects, as well as kids' shows. The optioning period is 45 days rather than a year and a half, but it starts over when changes are made to a script and you don't have to collaborate anymore if you don't want to.

Do you think it's a decent deal now that changes have been made? Or, a better deal?