Amazon Launches New Movie Studio Run by Roy Price, Son of Frank

by Anne Thompson
November 16, 2010 10:40 AM
9 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
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.

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9 Comments

  • ace | December 19, 2011 5:03 AMReply

    Terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE idea..."crowd-sourcing" may be trendy now, but it only leads to the lowest common denominator. It's going in the exact opposite direction that the film industry needs to go in. If movies are to get better, we need them to be singular artistic visions (one screenwriter, and much less "development"). Movies only get worse when they're written on committee; this guy wants to expand the "committee" into a mob.

  • Shadow Mihai | November 19, 2010 5:09 AMReply

    Like the other doubtful ventures... revver.com, (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revver), for instance (actually an idea which could have worked) Amazon hasn't a clue how difficult and expensive it is to make even the most rudimentary digital film, if you want it to be something someone would pay to watch. Witness the poor production of their own marketing video. Their idea is typical, however, as they are a website and not entertainment people... So much in the web world revolves around getting people to come to you and provide you free with content other people will find interesting, which lets you sell the other people... That is, of course, the Youtube model... This platform will attract some content but will it be any good? The platform certainly is not for serious film makers of any level, amateur or otherwise, who won't appreciate putting in the immense amount of work required to create something... when the real purpose is to attract traffic to Amazon rather than make them a star. This model follows the advertising industry's latest trend of getting amateurs and contest participants to create - for free - detailed marketing proposals, plans and "on spec" commercials which they can then pick and choose from. The carrot is offering a prize for a winner. It's one of the most cynical methods of gathering content created, here dressed up as a way of helping "discover voices that might not otherwise be heard" Well, Youtube will let you get your voice out there and get noticed, if you want to do it for free. And while the creator gives Amazon exclusive rights for at least 18 months, at the end of that time, Amazon only gives back non-exclusive rights - so they get to use the property themselves! While many aspiring film makers will come to Amazon, few in the entertainment industry are gladly known as "youtube" stars, and I expect serious talent will avoid this venue as well.

  • Jesse Harris | November 18, 2010 12:41 AMReply

    I think this is a really bad idea that mostly just takes advantage of filmmakers. Here's my full take on it: http://nffty.org/explore/your-say/amazon-the-movie-studio-yeah-right

  • Len Feldman | November 17, 2010 7:09 AMReply

    In my opinion, this is more of a promotional gimmick for Amazon than a serious business venture (or opportunity for screenwriters.) Competitions like this have come and gone for years, and very little meaningful production has resulted. Netflix had its own indie film distribution business (Red Envelope Productions) and shut it down two years ago. I doubt that Amazon is going to be any more successful with Warner Bros., especially given how its program will work.

  • Michael R. Barnard | November 17, 2010 4:14 AMReply

    I am very disturbed by what Amazon is doing. It's a weak, gimmicky bastardization of crowdsourcing from a company too important to be playing this way.

    The "everyone on the planet can read AND REVISE your script...a get 50% for revising it" is absolutely a deal-breaker, of course.

    It seems to be aimed at a "semi-pro" level, not the wannabe level. Yet, I can't believe experienced writers of any kind would post their best work online for no money for up to THREE YEARS of exclusivity (yeah, Amazon keeps the rights for 18 months, with the right to keep them another 18 months, too).

    To me, I consider it an insult to a filmmaking community that is sorely in need of something more valid and mature. Amazon is playing as if it's a new startup cooked up by some teens in their folks' basement.

  • XiMan | November 17, 2010 4:10 AMReply

    Ditto what Jon said.

  • Sean | November 17, 2010 3:16 AMReply

    This is the most insulting, ridiculous, unworkable, arrogant, idiotic scheme I've heard in a long time. Forget the Writers Guild, and how this is yet another insult to writers - the assumption that anyone and everyone can write, and what makes a script better is MORE writers. What about the fact that this adds yet another step to the process of getting a film made? Test movies? MORE test screenings? Good luck, morons...

  • Rondo Micheiser | November 17, 2010 3:12 AMReply

    What a totally brilliant concept! We have a movie industry whose mission is to find the lowest common denominator of public appeal for its products and then exploit it with "proven" formulaic tentpoles. It removes all financial risk for the studio AND saves on all development costs. The studios can simply sit back and watch and wait until the masses pick their flavor for the month. The capacity for innovation and artistry is unimaginable. I just can't wait to see "Saw 8" set in Hogwarts and starring Angelina Jolie!

  • Jon | November 17, 2010 2:48 AMReply

    Not sure I agree with the comments here, this kind of democratization of film making is going to happen, hell, its happening right now. I think its great that Amazon is providing a framework in which aspiring artists can really participate. Not everything needs to be Guild approved and status quo. All of you seem so caught up in the *way* movies are made today rather than what movies are made today.

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