I interviewed a spokesperson from Amazon.com's new online business, Amazon Studios to learn about the program's new business model for discovering and paying new filmmaking talent with an eye on making big motion pictures. But do they plan to expand beyond feature length-films, and offer these same business opportunities and incentives to web-based video producers as well? And is part"democratic revolution" in movie studios as they tout, and part big-studio sellout?
My Interview with Amazon Studios
Persevering a huge snowstorm pelting the Amazon headquarters in Seattle, the folks were able to have an Amazon Studios spokesperson get back to me. (Probably needed to finish shoveling all the snow out of their garage first. ;-)
Grant: Is the contest for fiction work only? Or can it include documentary-style videos (and scripts/screenplays)?
Amazon: The contest is not for fiction work only. Scripts or test movies can [also] be documentaries. The documentaries, like any script or test movies, must be original.
Grant: Are there different categories of awards – say for comedy, drama, documentary, etc – or is everything lumped into the same contest?
Amazon: At this time the awards include all categories of scripts and test movies but we are always open to suggestions regarding the awards process. Thanks for the idea!
Grant: Does the work submitted have to be something unique? Or can it have been published elsewhere before?
Amazon: Yes, Amazon Studios will accept work that has been in other festivals and contests as long as you still retain 100% of the rights in your work. We can't speak to anyone else's contest rules, but from our point of view you can enter your original work into other festivals or contests after you upload it at Amazon Studios so long as you do not give up any rights in doing so.
Grant: In your Content Guidelines is Amazon's "Process for Determining Best Movie," you have 3 categories for measurement: 1) Audience feedback, 2) Analyst review, and 3) A judging panel. Can you elaborate on each of these?
Amazon: 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. [For judging], the first Amazon Studios industry panelists will include: screenwriter and chair, Writing Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Jack Epps, Jr. ("Top Gun," "Dick Tracy”), producer Mark Gill (former president of 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”).
[Grant's note: On "audience feedback," I had inquired what exactly where the metrics for measurement. And for the actual "Analyst review," which I presumed took place before receiving the actual panel of judges, I had asked if the analysts were either in-house with Amazon or an outside party. Since I had only received a response about the list of judges, which are already made public on the Amazon Studios website, I'm left to assume that the first-tier of vetters are in-house Amazon staff. As for "audience feedback," if I had to guess for myself what that would be, I would assume for Scripts it's the number of downloads and quantity-quality combo of reviews; and for Movies, it's the number of plays and the quantity-quality combo of reviews as well.]
Grant: Will there be any consideration for future contests to include not just feature-film pieces, but web-centric videos and scripts? (For example, business-targeted videos and academic videos, which can have a different type of evaluation process and criteria?)
Amazon: 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. Amazon Studios test movie process is intended to guide a film's development and assess its potential for major movie success.
Why Amazon Studios?
Well, besides the fact that Warner Brothers has money? Here's a text excerpt I pulled from their video on their home page as part of their goodwill PR pitch:
"Great movies are made every year. But it's hard for new voices to break in; and it's hard to pick the right movies to make…. If we were going to design a movie studio for today's world, where we have computers, and communicate; and with so many people making movies, how would we do that? The movie studio of the future could be more open, and more collaborative. Anyone could upload a script or movie to add a project. They could get reactions from a global community while they still have time to change things, before their script has been accepted or rejected by anyone. Filmmakers could offer revisions and advice to each other, and bring something serendipitous that could take it to the next level.”
How Amazon Studios Works
Picture "American Idol" meets "Dancing with the Stars" meets crowd-sourced movie making meets big-studio corporate oversight. Basically, Amazon Studios serves as the platform and audience attraction for filmmakers and scriptwriters to submit their content for audience voting and feedback; with Warner Brothers' providing the funding and corporate oversight, towards getting a first-look deal at all content for the purpose of being considered for feature-length movies.
Here are some excerpts from their press release that outlines the program and business incentives:
"Through the monthly and annual Amazon Studios Awards, Amazon Studios will offer a total of $2.7 million to the top submissions received by Dec. 31, 2011, and will seek to develop the top Amazon Studio projects as commercial feature films under its first-look deal with Warner Bros. Pictures.
"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."
Benefits of Amazon.com's Virtual Studio Business Model
- Easy entry – Amazon.com explains in their press release: "While test movies must include imaginative stories with great acting and sound they don't need to have theatrical-quality production values. Film fans can review Amazon Studios scripts and test movies, or even upload alternate, revised versions.”
- Immediate audience feedback: Amazon.com says that "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.”
- Money – I like money. So do a lot of professional filmmakers and scriptwriters who now have an extra avenue for submitting their work and building buzz around it, which catches the attention of Amazon Studio's "Analysts" and judges.
Amazon Studios' Difference: Corporate Interests Over Populism
I should also be clear that unlike popular entertainment reality show contests on television, the winners in the Amazon Studios contest are all ultimately decided on by the esteemed judges, and not by audience votes. (Also, it's likely that all pieces first have to be vetted by their own "analysts," which I go more into in my interview with Amazon Studios.)
For more information on the Amazon Studios program, I encourage you to check out their Getting Started page.
Care for a Grant's Rant on Amazon Studios?
Check out my follow-up editorial over at the Video Commerce Consortium blog, Did Amazon Studios ignore its own customers for the big money?