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.