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?
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.
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.