Tuesday at 5 pm Pacific, Amazon.com launched Amazon Studios, a radical online approach to finding new screenwriters and filmmakers and developing movies. Inspired by the open source philosophy that has yielded rich results for Silicon Valley innovators, Amazon Studios director Roy Price (son of ex-studio chief Frank Price) will run this new operation, which plans to reward winning filmmakers and screenwriters with $2.7 million toward developing movies under a first-look deal with Warner Bros. “Our commissary is in your kitchen,” says Price. “We’re the first studio without gate guards.”
“This is an exciting partnership and we’re pleased to be in business with a business innovator like Amazon,” says WB spokesman Paul McGuire.
Amazon Studios invites filmmakers and screenwriters from all over the world to submit full-length movies and scripts, which will then get feedback from Amazon readers, who will be free to rewrite and amend. Based on reaction (“rate and review”) to stories, scripts and rough “test” films, a panel of judges will award monthly prizes. And eventually, Price hopes, Warners will want to make some of the movies that have proven their popularity–an important factor in risk-averse Hollywood. Price seems not to have heard of the Writers Guild. One of his judges, Film Department’s Mark Gill, says he thinks that submissions from emerging talent will be outside the Guild’s purview. “It sounds like a real mess,” says Richard Stayton, editor-in-chief of the WGA’s Written By Magazine. “Fasten your seat belts. It reminds me of the Oklahoma Land Rush. It could an intriguing experiment.”
Amazon Studios plans to offer a total of $2.7 million to the top submissions received by Dec. 31, 2011. If Warners doesn’t want to develop the top Amazon Studio projects as commercial feature films under its first-look deal, Amazon will look for other backers. Here’s Amazon Studios’ invitation to indie filmmakers:
Writers are invited to add scripts to Amazon Studios. Filmmakers are invited to add full-length test movies to Amazon Studios.Test movies may be made from your own original script or from any script submitted to Amazon Studios. Test movies must be full length (more than 70 minutes), but they don’t have to be “full budget.” While test movies must include imaginative stories with great acting and sound they don’t need to have theatrical-quality production value. Film fans can review Amazon Studios scripts and test movies, or even upload alternate, revised versions. Full-length test movies will introduce public test screenings to the earliest, formative stages of the movie development process; the Amazon Studios test movie process is intended to guide a film’s development and assess its potential. Amazon Studios has produced five test movie samples, in different styles and genres, which can be found on its Getting Started page.
It is the goal of Amazon Studios to produce new, full-budget theatrical films based on the best projects and it will give Warner Bros. Pictures first access to the projects Amazon Studios wishes to produce in cooperation with an outside studio. If a filmmaker or screenwriter creates a project with an original script and it is released by Amazon Studios as a theatrical feature film, the submitter will receive a rights payment of $200,000; if the movie makes over $60 million at the U.S. box office, the original filmmaker or screenwriter will receive a $400,000 bonus. If Warner Bros. Pictures is not inclined to develop a particular project, Amazon Studios can then produce the project in cooperation with another studio. Winning screenplays and full-length test movies will be selected on the basis of commercial viability, which will include consideration of premise, story, character, dialogue, emotion and other elements of great movies.
In the 2011 Annual Awards, Amazon Studios will award $100,000 to the best script and $1 million to the best movie submitted by December 31, 2011. To be eligible for the first monthly awards, test movies and scripts must be uploaded by January 31, 2011. Winners for the first monthly awards will be announced near the end of February 2011– $100,000 for the best full-length test movie and $20,000 each for the two best scripts. The rights payments associated with releasing a full-budget commercial film (the $200,000 referred to above) are separate from and come on top of any money awarded to top submissions through the monthly and annual Amazon Studios Awards.
Price put some time at CAA and in the TV production trenches before taking on Digital Product Development at Seattle’s Amazon (founded in 1995, the wildly successful online retailer is now at its height), including the early Amazon Unbox experiment, Amazon Video-on-Demand and Create Space, which allows filmmakers to upload movies and create DVDs. Amazon also owns the movie data resource IMDb and Without-a-Box, which helps filmmakers to apply to film festivals. “It’s a real challenge to get noticed in Hollywood,” says Price, who believes that full-length test movies will attract useful feedback at an early stage. “They introduce the whole test-screening concept. We can see which ones are working.” Price points out that Amazon will own script version 1, 2, 3 and ad infinitum–and the script that emerges the strongest might be the one, with several writers getting credit, that gets made. (American Zoetrope offers professional (private) feedback to writers; one who took advantage of it was Michael Arndt, with Little Miss Sunshine.) Amazon offered Warners the first-look deal because it was the biggest studio. “We do a lot of business with Warner Bros.” says Price.
The first Amazon Studios industry panelists include: Jack Epps, Jr. (Top Gun, Dick Tracy), screenwriter and chair, Writing Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts; Film Department producer Mark Gill (former exec at Miramax and Warner Independent Pictures); screenwriter Mike Werb (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Curious George, Face/Off, The Mask); and producer and chair, Production Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Michael Taylor (Bottle Rocket, The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper).
While finding new talent is not really a problem in the indie and studio sectors of the business–cream really does rise to the top–getting movies made in the mid-range is really difficult right now. Lists of great scripts that never get produced are only getting longer. Emerging indies can manage to raise some funding to start on a micro-budget basis. But continuing a career is tough for most filmmakers today. And studios are developing, producing and releasing fewer films as they put most of their money into tentpoles.
This Amazon experiment could offer some solutions to this impasse, while it raises hackles among folks who are used to doing business a certain way and will be threatened by a loss of control. One thing Amazon does, and has done throughout its history, says author James Marcus, who wrote a company history, Amazonia, is to learn from its mistakes. Launching a challenger to E-Bay failed, but the effective third-party seller system emerged from the ashes. If Amazon is planting its flag in Hollywood–as Apple and Netflix gain momentum as digitalization wreaks havoc on the entertainment industry–this is a dramatic way to start.