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.