Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Would I Recommend Amazon Studios to a Friend?

I wanted to write this in my current state of mind instead of whatever I’ll be on Thursday 28th April.  I am now a finalist in the Amazon Studios monthly contest, and the winning decision is not made for another two days.  If I write this as a winner, I will no doubt be elated and waxing lyrical about the land of milk and honey that is Amazon Studios.  If I don’t win, I’ll possibly be fuming about whatever script beat me. 

So, a quick recap: Amazon Studios want to make movies.  They are starting a movie studio from scratch and want the development process to be an inclusive exercise, with film fans pitching in with feedback, rewrites of members’ work, making their own test movies of scripts they’ve written or simply enjoyed… essentially a whole new way of making developing and - ultimately - making movies. 

It’s come in for a lot of flack from established and respected names such John August and the Writers Guild of Great Britain

And although I am writing this purely as a participant, not as a marketing exec or some sort of freelance copywriter for Amazon, I wanted to clear up a few of these issues, and explain why I don’t really think they’re that bad.

Let’s start here: as soon as you upload your work, you sign over your script, for free, for 18 months to Amazon Studios


Yes, a free 18 month option.  Well, 36 months if they pay you $10,000 before the option expires, but yes, even if your script is utter shit, they will hang onto it for 18 months, whereby you cannot sign the option over to any individual or company. 

So why would any sane person do that?  

Simply put, because Amazon are trying to be different.  You get feedback, you rewrite; get more feedback, and rewrite again; repeat as much as necessary until you see progress in your reviews, maybe even sneaking into the semi-finals and eventually the finals.  But more pertinently, Amazon wants the community to read your script and maybe – even if it really is a stinking piece of no-good crapola – maybe a more experienced scribe will rewrite your badly-executed good idea to a professional level.  Then, when it makes the semis or even the finals, perhaps someone would like to take a crack at making a storyboard test movie to show how truly groundbreakingly brilliant that shitty script you uploaded ten months earlier could actually look.  It may not resemble your horrendous original, but it could have netted you upward of $30,000 so far, and that’s without anyone buying it yet.

This, I’m sure you can imagine, takes far longer than three months, or even six, which is to what various sources have suggested changing the option period. 

At the end of it, though, if Amazon still aren’t interested, you walk away.  I mean, for how long HAVE you been trying to break in?  Five years?  Six?  Ten?  When you have the opportunity to get your script developed draft after draft, month after month, and potentially walk away with $200,000 ($600,000 if it takes $60million at the US box office), a free 18-month option doesn’t sound like a lot to me.

As I said, I don’t work for Amazon.  I’m writing this as a participant, as a WRITER, not as a cheerleader.  So I should point out, all of the above is the intent of the site. 

Sadly, so far, the reality isn’t quite there.  At least, not for an outsider, looking in. 

The forums started life as a pretty vibrant place, full of support for one another, and people really feeling quite high that they’d taken the chance.  It was kind-of a siege mentality.  With so much negativity out there, it was the forums’ duty to make the site work.  The energy was impressive, the reviews were flowing, the rewrites were coming thick and fast, and around 3000 projects were uploaded in the first couple of months. 

Fast forward six months, and the forums are somewhat desolate.  A small handful of people, of which I am one, try to keep the forums alive with some positivity, some questions, some suggestions.  I review as much as I can, and I know a number of people over there do too.  But it’s a dwindling number.  I get the feeling many people only post there to promote their scripts in the hope of getting reviews, and most have little interest in rewriting others’ work, and even less in being rewritten themselves. Since my rewrite made the finals, though, I’ve noticed a few mentions of people opening their projects to revisions, which is a really positive step, but I haven’t seen much publically that suggests massive enthusiasm for it.  Which is a real shame.

My finalist script, Return Fire, is a rewrite of someone else’s, and it’s a major rewrite.  I thought the story had potential (who wouldn’t want to see time-travelling Army Rangers fighting Nazi special forces in the Jura Mountains?), and wanted to embrace this side of the Amazon site, whilst also allowing myself some distance from my latest original work.  I ploughed through the characters and rewrote the dialogue entirely, ramped up the action to a hard-R status and basically had fun with it. This is its first month in the contest and it went straight to the finals, and although there are a few typos due to my rush to get it in before the deadline, the readers have always stated this sort of thing doesn’t put them off a decent script. 

That’s one of the things that I like about Amazon’s concept. They are not looking at scripts the way established studios and major production companies do.  Currently, the establishment system is to go through the slushpile, looking for reasons to stamp the script “PASS”; Amazon looks for reasons to carry on reading.  A conventional studio reader may get pissed off with poor sluglines or feel personally insulted at the continuous use of camera angles, but an Amazon reader will not. 

So, one of the best things about the site leads to one of the most frustrating things from past six months: Amazon’s perceived lack of communication.  I’ve lost track of the times I’ve asked, and seen asked, “WHAT DO YOU PEOPLE WANT FROM US?” only to be annoyed by the simple mantra, “We’re looking for good stories.”

But now I’ve realised: they’re looking for stories.  Preferably well-told, but they’re not asking for storytellers to master the craft of writing studio-ese, that language that readers require you to write in if you want to that elusive “CONSIDER” or even “RECOMMEND.”  Sure, it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth for those of us who have spent a long time learning how to condense 10 lines of action into four (or preferably three) and how to avoid parentheses at all costs, but so what? 

They’re new. 

Ah, then I hear the cry, “Does that mean a piece of amateurish crap can win the monthly contest?” 

Well, apart from the obvious reply - that "crap" is all a matter of subjectivity - I don’t think out-and-out crap will win the monthly contest, and I really doubt any behind-the-scenes development that may be occurring will consider it either.  I know a lot of people out there saw Animal Heads (one of the March winners) as a real aberration, a poor indie script with little commercial appeal, people both on the forums and out in the blogosphere mystified at the decision.  

Not having read the whole script, it's difficult for me to comment, but I suspect Amazon are simply looking at the potential in that script.  A movie that could be made for $5-10million about a stoner BMX slacker investigating his brother’s suspicious death?  Not something I would personally pay to see at the cinema, but I’m sure it has enough niche appeal to make its budget back, if not at the cinema, then certainly on DVD or via Amazon’s streaming service. 

And let's not forget - they’re backed by a multi-billion dollar corporation.  They don’t become a multi-billion dollar corporation by making dumb choices.  They have a plan, and that plan seems to be coming together.

They’ve advertised for a marketing manager, which I’m hoping will attract some fresh blood to the forums to reinvigorate things, and I’m hoping people will get involved with each other’s work a lot more, and maybe produce a script (or test movie) that even Amazon's harshest critics cannot poo-poo.

In addition to a marketing manager, they've advertised for script editors who specialise in particular genres.  To me, this indicates they already have a pile of scripts with potential, which they actively wish to develop -- although of course this is just speculation on my part, it's a popular theory around the forums.  Perhaps those perennial semi-finalists will be getting a professional rewrite shortly, or perhaps those script-eds will be in touch with the “maybe” pile with specific notes for rewrites to get them started down the path to greenlight.

Whatever the reason, this proves there is a definite plan, a direction in which the site is headed. 

So am I recommending Amazon? 

Yes.  No.  Okay, I don’t “recommend” anything as broadly as this.  I’m saying it has mostly been a positive experience for me, and I can certainly see what they are trying to achieve.  Anyone considering submitting there should read the development agreement very carefully.  Educate yourself about the small-print, eg, if someone rewrites your original, you retain all rights to that original, but Amazon own the rights to the rewrite forever.  But also, as part of educating yourself, ignore the doom-laden bullshit myths out on the net, eg, no, there is no part that suggests Amazon can take your work and release a DVD without paying you a penny, as suggested early in Amazon's inception; the development agreement is very clear they can’t do that.

There are concessions you may not be entirely comfortable with, sure, and although Amazon isn’t the land of milk and honey, it’s certainly a long way from being bad-for-writers.  In fact, it has the potential to be one of the most impressive advances in movie-making this century.  

If enough writers will trust in the process. 

And you know what?  I think it's worth the risk, just to be there on the ground floor.  


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Amazon Studios are EVIL! EVIL, I tells ya!

So, Amazon Studios are evil.  They exist solely to extort ideas from people’s brains like some sneaky corporate sequel to Inception.  They want scripts, they want you to produce movies for them, they want you to actually make an effort and put some passion and hard work into promoting your script, while they sit on their thousand-dollar suited backsides, sipping cocktails and laughing at the little people who are making them even richer.   

Not only do they own the option to your script for 18 months but they can also:  

  • make a movie from your script without paying you
  • hire other writers to rewrite your script without paying you
  • remove one of your kidneys and keep it on ice just in case an Amazon executive needs it in the future
  • in the event of a worldwide Armageddon, force you to hand over your children for the purposes of mining or working the fields
Okay, I may have made some of those up. 

But the vitriol spilling in the direction of Amazon Studios is truly impressive.  From John August, who I admire greatly and seems to have warmed very, very slightly to the venture, to the Auditors of Amazon, who as far as I can tell are really quite miffed, it seems there is nothing but negativity aimed at the venture. 

Sure, it may not be as good a deal as Shane Black or Terry Rosio could negotiate for something they knocked out in a three-month stint, but it’s a lot better than most WGA-backed first-time writers get for their first deal with a studio.  $200,000 for your first script?  Yes fucking please, guvnor.

So what is the sticking point for many people?  Why are they so apoplectic?  What is this evil that permeates the Amazon development deal? 

“You grant us a worldwide, … non-terminable, … transferable right, during and after the License Period (without exercising the Option), to (a) copy, transfer, stream, sell, rent, make available for download and otherwise exploit and distribute any Original Property you contribute to Amazon Studios and all Derivative Works created during the License Period [meaning those "Revisions" that anyone was able to make to your work] in any and all media, formats and modes now known or later invented, including, without limitation, via all online and digital formats” (from the Amazon Studios development agreement)

This has been interpreted a number of ways, but the prevailing way seems to be that Amazon can take your uploaded script, or any version of it, and develop it themselves.  They can distribute it electronically, replicate it, make a movie from it which can be shown anywhere, and, well, do pretty much anything any studio can do when they option a script.  Except Amazon don’t pay for the option, so this is all interpreted as “Amazon owns you.” 

Or “Amazon can take your script and do whatever the fuck they want with it, and you can do nothing about it, son.”

Or “You are an idiot for uploading your script.”

But let’s take this one step at a time, shall we? 

Amazon CAN do this.  They COULD do that.  They MIGHT do the other. 

But the question has to be asked: will they? 

Take a scenario: 

I upload National Security Dad to Amazon Studios.  It’s a finalist in the January contest, then my far superior polish/rewrite (which is almost ready) goes on to win in February.  I’m $20,000 richer, my wife has the new kitchen & bathroom she’s been cooing about, while I replace all my DVDs with Blue Rays and add nine inches to my TV.  Maybe I even build myself a small writing den.  So I’m happy.  My wife is happy.  My daughter and unborn progeny are probably pretty chuffed too.  I’m so happy, in fact, that I upload my entire back-catalogue of U.S.-based screenplays, regardless of whether they are high-concept or not. 

Then, six months later, I get a call or email.  Amazon presented National Security Dad to their partners at Warner Bros, who have ummed and aahhed, but they’ve decided they want to make it.  They want to make my movie!!! 

I think, “Great, I’m now $200,000 richer.”  Well, as I understand it, it’s $180,000 richer since they deduct prize money already won.  But hey, it’s better than working for a living.  I’ve made money on my house, I can sell up and move somewhere bigger – yes, even in this economy.  Life is finally coming together!

But the money never materialises. 

I call, but the execs are always busy. 

I email, but no replies are forthcoming. 

A further two months, and eventually, someone gets back to me.  “We like the idea but we’ve got Shane Black to rewrite you.  We’re paying him $2million, and since his version is a long way away from your original script, we’re not giving you one dime.  Nothing personal, you understand.  It’s just business.  Thanks for all your hard work.  Good luck in the next contest!” 

Now, what do I do?   I don’t have a legal leg to stand on.  I’m standing in the living room, phone stuck to my ear, numb from shock, practicing in my head how I recind the notice I just served on my insanely dull day-job... because some big fucking corporation has my script which they’re not going to pay me for. 

What do I do…?

So I limp meekly into my den and try again with another script.  Maybe I'll send out some query letters to agents, see how far that gets me.  There is, after all, nothing I can do. 

So I close the door, fire up the computer, log onto the internet…

Wait a moment…

Oh, there IS something I can do.  I can write my blog.  I can Twitter.  I can write to any number of people with high-profile influence – starting with the brilliant John Fucking August himself.  Then maybe the WGA, the Final Draft people, Var-fucking-riety.  Anyone with a blog or a publication even remotely related to the  film industry will be regaled with my experiences with the evil overlord of Amazon Studios.  I’ll even go on Oprah and jump up and down on the couch and declare my hatred of Roy Price.  I will not rest until every single writer in the world knows that Amazon Studios is intent on destroying the very fabric of our dreams. 

And I’ll make sure I state the facts only, too, so they don’t sue my bottom. 

So, in that scenario, exactly how many writers do you think they can rip off in this way until people stop uploading their scripts?  One?  Two?  Four or five if they act against all these writers within 18 months?  Who will then upload their scripts?  How many people will TRUST Amazon in the future?  Their talent pool dries up pretty much overnight.  Sure, they have an 18-month option on the last script that was uploaded earlier that day, but how many of those scripts are going to make them money?  And yes, me ranting about my betrayal is actually a pretty decent bout of free publicity for Shane Black’s National Security Dad. 

But is it good business?  Long term, I mean. 

For the sake of depositing $200,000 in my back pocket, is it really worth it? In an age where I can reveal the truth before the executive delivering the news of their triumph over the little man can mix himself a celebratory cocktail, is it really worth it to breach my trust in such a way?  To so blatantly rob me of, not just money, but my size-10 boot in the film-world’s door? 

Now, I don’t know why that clause is there.  I do not know why it exists, even if that really does mean that Amazon can act in the way I just outlined, and I’m not 100% sure it does, but it is more than likely it exists to protect the $70billion corporation from writers getting awkward, from nuisance lawsuits and the like.  Imagine if they take a script and the writer then gets a lawyer and starts wanting more, more, more, or starts defaming Amazon to try and squeeze more out of them, then maybe – IF the clause means what people think it means – they can use that as a threat to the writer, to protect their interests. 

Just a thought. 

But another thought (and I’m sorry I can’t link to it, I'll try and find where I read it originally) is that the clause relates solely to promoting the film to Warners.  To test it, if you like.  So they can't get sued for "making a movie without paying me".  If Amazon see real potential in a script, then why not create a fake trailer to show people and gauge their reaction, and present that to Warners?  Why not produce storyboards so the money-men can see how it will eventually pan out?  Why not film table reads with real actors?  Why not shoot an ultra-low-budget version of the script  and present that to a small test-audience… all without paying out $200,000 for a script that may never get made.  BUT... when they green light a project, then they have to pay you.  Earlier conditions in the agreement require it. 

Like I said, I’m no lawyer.  The two interpretations – as far as I know – are not 100% binding or advised by lawyers, so please do not take either as gospel based on this. 

And yet, after all my ranting and swearing, it all boils down to this: just because they CAN do something, doesn’t mean that they WILL do it.   

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Amazon Studios – why I’ve taken the plunge

Amazon, for those writers who have been living in some dark corner of Bongo-Bongo-Land for the past few months, have dived head-first into movie-making.  They have partnered with Warner Bros in order to host scripts that will be uploaded by members of the public and voted on, the most popular being eligible for the grand prize at the end of each month, to be judged by “professionals”.  It's called Amazon Studios

There was a lot of negativity at first.  Mostly from people like me, aspiring writers who stared indignantly at the terms and conditions, and the model the numpties running this “studio” seemed to have puked out of the bottom of their souls following a bad acid trip. 

The lowlights, for the uninitiated:

Anyone could download your script, rewrite it, then upload it to your project – with your name as co-writer, even if the re-writer was an illiterate ape.  This, however, has now changed, and you can select whether your project is “open” or not.  Wonder how many open projects there will be now?

Amazon hold an 18-month option on all scripts uploaded to the site.

Once uploaded you cannot remove your script.  It has to stay there for the full 18 months.

If Amazon like your script but want more time to decide whether they want to make it they can force an 18-month extension for a flat fee of $10,000 (not a lot in the real world).

If Amazon choose to purchase your movie, they will pay a flat fee (plus add-ons based on the movie’s success – if it gets made).  These fees are non-negotiable.

Amazon do not recognise WGA membership, so writers have no union protection when entering a script, which is absolutely unheard of in the Hollywood studio system (membership is mandatory).

So those are the negatives.  And I have to say, I baulked at this.  I thought, “I am NOT sacrificing one of my little darlings to these butchers.  It’s insane.  Why would any writer be dumb enough to fall for such a scam?”

Then I remembered something: I am not a writer. 

I’m an aspiring writer.  A wannabe. 

I write, yes.  But I also work a full-time day job in order to get paid.  I haven’t had a paid writing job in years, and those were all small-press prose fiction and guide-book articles. 

If I want to write movies for a living I have to get down and dirty.  I have to write and possibly direct a one-room thriller or low-budget comedy.  I have to get that movie seen and talked about, and I have to hope that talk is positive and is reflected in the financial take. 

So let’s look at the Amazon project again, without the bile:

A site where my script will remain active for 18 months.  I may not make it in the January contest, or the February one, but it’ll stay there, hopefully getting read and receiving good reviews.

The January contest alone pays $20,000 for the winner.  AND the runner-up.  So chaps called Marty Weiss and Richard Stern are both now $20,000 richer, with industry insiders judging their work. I read their script, and both are sound, commercial and I’ve read far, far worse in my time, and seen far worse movies.  Both, admittedly are somewhat derivative, but then what successful movies aren’t these days?  The script I entered is the bastard lovechild of True Lies and The Game Plan (that twee Dwayne Johnson movie), so no complaints there.  Good luck to these guys. They deserve it.

In addition to the contest’s prize money, there is that elusive chance of a film deal.  Now, a regular deal, backed up by the WGA, will probably net a new writer $60,000 up front, followed by another payment after you deliver the first rewrite, then another for the second and a small token for the final polish.  If – and it’s a huge, gargantuan IF – your movie then gets green-lit, you are usually due a further payment, followed by yet another on the day photography commences.  But, more than likely, they’ll hire someone else to rewrite your re-re-rewrite and you won’t see another penny. 

With Amazon, it’s simple.  If they buy your script you get $200,000 – flat fee.  Which isn’t actually that bad for a first time script.  And you get that whether your movie sees one day of photography or not.

But if they do make it, and it is a huge success (grossing $60million or more domestically) you get a further $400,000. 

I can think of worse things. 

Now, sure, if you have a corking agent they could probably negotiate a better deal with a major studio for an unknown and unproven writer.  But it’s unlikely.  Especially since I don’t have an agent.  Or a manager. 

So to take a chance on Amazon, on the small possibility that I could – maybe – impress a reader enough to have Amazon purchase my script or award me some cash, it’s just  a no-brainer.  If it weren’t for the ridiculous “any penis with a PC can rewrite you” clause I’d have entered long ago.  Now that’s gone, I’m in.

I went through my back-catalogue of scripts, dug out the one I felt was the most commercial, and gave it a little polish and shine.  Not a full rewrite, since I’m throwing all my energy into a pilot for a TV comedy, but enough to tighten it from 116 pages to 109, sort out a couple of internal logic issues, and snappy-up some of the turgid dialogue.  There’s probably still a lot of turgid dialogue, but it’s an early effort, so please forgive me if you snort out your coffee whilst reading it.

National Security Dad involves a special agent, recalled to NSA headquarters where he is ordered to take time off following the death of his ex-wife, leaving him the only relative to his two estranged daughters.  He is just getting to know them again when an old enemy returns, seeking information in the agent’s possession, forcing the agent to take action, whilst hiding his past from his suburban neighbours. 

Like I said, derivative. 

But that’s what gets made.  I wrote NSD following my first read of the book Save the Cat by the late Blake Snyder.  “The same, only different,” he says.  Okay, the book is for absolute beginners, and my first draft hit almost every beat on almost every page number as recommended, but I’ve learned a lot since then, and at least I got a script written out of it.

So there you have it.  A script, written an age ago, based on a very simplistic “method”.  Not one of my best, I have to say, but it was always supposed to a heavily commercial rather than deep and meaningful.  There’s no way it’s going to get made sat on my hard-drive, and with a plot requiring a huge budget, tons of explosions and – probably – a “name” actor to make it a success, why the hell not? Here you go Amazon, enjoy it. 

National Security Dad.  Read it.  Please?  And do let Amazon know it’s brilliant.