Amazon Studios: One Month In

I’d originally intended to do a 3-week recap, but between final exams and a nasty cold, I lost my steam a little bit. Maybe because of this, I’m projecting, but I feel like the Amazon Studios site hit a lull, too. The number of entrants adding their work to the site seemed to stall in the 1600s for a few days, although between yesterday (when I started this post) and today, the project number jumped from 1691 to 1758, so I guess that lull is over. At this rate, the site should easily surpass 2000 projects by the first deadline at the end of December.

Not that bigger numbers at this point means a lot to the casual viewer. 1700 projects is plenty for any reader to wade through, and also enough of a critical mass for determining the general shape of an online community of writers and developers.

But before I talk about that—a couple of interesting links tangentially related to Amazon Studios: From almost two weeks ago, this article from the Huffington Post, in which Adam Hanft takes issue with (among other things) the Amazon Studios marketing pitch: “Win money. Get Noticed. Get your movie made.” He laments the way companies cuddle up next to consumers and flatter them into thinking they are important. (This is a gross simplification, but you can take a look.)

Also, this LA Times piece came out a couple days ago: Ron Howard and Brian Grazers’ company is partnering with an Indian Media conglomerate to create a new “writers lab.” You can also read about it here. On one hand it seems really fun–like a TV writers room (depending on the TV show of course) for feature films. On the other hand, it raises (for me at least) all kinds of questions that aren’t so different from the questions people have raised about the Amazon Studios deal: How will credit be assigned if you have ten people contributing to a movie? Is the writing a “work for hire” arrangement, so that any characters, plotlines, key concepts that are generated within the lab belong to the company? Howard references architectural and advertising firms as models, and I believe that is the case in those situations. It sounds like there is some kind of bonus structure for films that get acquired, but it isn’t clear how those will compare to traditional WGA pay structures. I don’t have the depth of knowledge to truly locate what is happening here in the contextual landscape of what already exists, but I’m hoping to hear my favorite writer/bloggers comment on the concept.

The ‘writers lab’ paradigm has many obvious differences from the Amazon Studios experiment: Ten writers, not thousands. Experienced not hobbyists. Paid not unpaid. With a showrunner-ish type figure to refer and possibly defer to, not leaderless. But I think it’s relevant to look at in parallel with Amazon’s venture because it is occurring in the same time frame, and both springing from some of the same places of inspiration: Both seem to stem from the desire to get value for less cost. While Imagine’s project doesn’t want to strike down the gatekeeper for the proletariat, it does intend to banish “development hell,” which I think would involve keeping the internal gates open for this material. Both want to try creating a community and creating through community. Both are testing that theory that by using multiple people you can streamline the process of making product. Will the product be faster? Will it be better? Will it be art? Time will tell. Sometimes things that are created in the spirit of commerce are later regarded as art.

The only thing that I can say for the moment with any certainty is that there are ideas out there for moving through the creative and development process of a film in non-traditional ways, and that more people are going to be throwing them up against the wall. We’ll get to see what sticks.

I’d intended to talk about the “community,” but am realizing it will make for an overlong post–so I’ll finish with an update on changes to the site.

One of the judges has dropped off the site without explanation. He was a credited writer associated with a reputable university cinema program. He’s been replaced, for the first contest at least, with Linda Seger, a script consultant and better known as an author of instructional books on screenwriting. She joins Mike Werb, a screenwriter who also teaches at UCLA.

One of the forums recently had a wishlist of practical additions for the site, and some of these wishes have started to come true. The folks behind the scenes have been tinkering with top levels of the site navigation: “New and Notable Projects” featured area now has nine slots instead of three, and rotates with every refresh of the page, via a random generator. This makes it easier to shuffle through the vast amount of material on the site in a democratic fashion, but (if I’m correct that the projects are randomly chosen from the site at large,) also ironically renders the words “New and Notable” meaningless.

You can also now sort between the scripts and the movie projects, which is also an improvement.

But the deeper levels of the site are still difficult to manage.

On the second level (or the third, I guess, from the home page) the project information cites “reviews” but the word “reviews” does not link to reviews. Instead you must scroll down the page and determine that the tiny number in parentheses, next to some stars, under the world “recommendation,” is the path to the page where you can read or leave a review.

There is a huge, easy to use “follow” button, under the project screen, but no similar “download script” button. Instead, you must scroll down, past all the project forums to find the draft titles, and intuit that you should click these to download.

Can I figure these things out? Yes, but as a participant, I’m more invested than the average bear. My friends and my mom required direct links pasted into an email–and I still ended up with reviews pasted into completely unrelated forums. I have to believe that if there were money exchanging hands with each download, someone would have installed some big, yellow buttons by now.

Among the most frequent “wishes” I have seen, on the wish list and elsewhere in the forums are folks asking PDF upload capability and more “Amazon presence.” The latter was addressed today, here, with the introduction of “Studios Steph.” No cartoon logo yet on his profile, no photo of an actual person either. A little underdeveloped as a personality so far–he seems like a tick on the Amazon Studios “to-do” list–but, I imagine that their to-do list is long, and so will wait to see if Studios Steph fleshes out to be an actual conduit of communication.

As far as PDF capability–no love yet. I haven’t yet reviewed other peoples work—in part because I’ve been crazy busy, lazy, studying for finals, dealing with the cold, etc–but the BIG reason I’ve waited is that I have been operating on the assumption that PDFs were right around the corner. If I’m going to take my real-writing time to give someone feedback on a script, I’d like to be able to say, “and on page 15, blah blah,” and have them know what page 15 means. I’d like to even have a page 15 on a script I read (RTFs on my Mac read as one continuous document with no page numbers). To me, more than any other, this is the change needed to indicate that Amazon Studios might be serious about working with writers. The idea of sending Mike Werb and Linda Seger RTF scripts seems mortifying, so I have to believe something will happen by the end of the month.

That’s enough for today–future posts I’m contemplating: “Who is Amazon Studios for?” and “How Does This Contest Really Work?” Stay tuned.

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