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EXCLUSIVE: Amazon Studio's December $20,000 Script Contest Winners: The Alchemist Agenda and Villain

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 27, 2011 at 7:51AM

Amazon Studios chief Roy Price is thrilled with the first phase of his radical online movie studio experiment. So many submissions came in the first month, more than 2500, that he opened up a December script contest and his panel of judges has picked the first two winners: Richard Stern for action comedy Villain, about a bad guy who decides to switch sides, which also earned the most responses online, and Marty Weiss of the rollicking international mystery adventure The Alchemist Agenda. "It's Fool's Gold meets the Da Vinci Code," says Price. "Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt should definitely check this one out." Both winners will collect a $20,000 prize and can move on to the next phase of the Amazon Studios competition: test shorts and table reads.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Amazon Studios chief Roy Price is thrilled with the first phase of his radical online movie studio experiment. So many submissions came in the first month, more than 2500, that he opened up a December script contest and his panel of judges has picked the first two winners: Richard Stern for action comedy Villain, about a bad guy who decides to switch sides, which also earned the most responses online, and Marty Weiss of the rollicking international mystery adventure The Alchemist Agenda. "It's Fool's Gold meets the Da Vinci Code," says Price. "Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt should definitely check this one out." Both winners will collect a $20,000 prize and can move on to the next phase of the Amazon Studios competition: test shorts and table reads.

See more from my interview with Price, the full release, contest rules and interviews with winners below. Here's more info about Amazon Studios and script collaboration, and you can read the winning scripts.

Price says that 3000 scripts have been entered on the site, and the January contest is heading toward its end-of-month close. At year's end a panel of judges will pick the winning script for the big $100,000 prize.

One key change has been made in the most controversial aspect of the Amazon Studios format: as of January 27, screenwriters can choose whether or not they want site visitors to make revisions of their scripts online. They can continue to accept reviews, feedback and commentary in any case. Neither of the winning scripts were revised online. The key to Amazon is listening to feedback and making changes, says Price, who has made a first look deal with Warner Bros. and hopes to get some of these scripts produced, either at the studio or elsewhere.

Amazon Studios Announces First Winners; New Collaboration Rules

Amazon Studios today announced its first winners: Two $20,000 Best Script awards to “The Alchemist Agenda” by Marty Weiss of Los Angeles and “Villain,” by Richard Stern of Roswell, Georgia. The winners were chosen from more than 2,500 scripts uploaded by writers worldwide since the November 2010 launch of Amazon Studios. Judges for the December contest included screenwriter Mike Werb (Face/Off, The Mask) and screenwriting authority Linda Seger (How to Make a Good Script Great).

“We’re very proud of the enthusiastic reception Amazon Studios has received, of all 3,000 scripts that are now on the site and now of our first winners,” said Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios. “It’s great to bring attention to some of the best talent at Amazon Studios. We look forward now to filmmakers turning our best scripts into test movies for our $100,000 test movie prizes.”

Scripts that did not win but were eligible for the December contest will also be eligible for current and future contests. The January contests – which also include a $100,000 award for the best test movie and $10,000 to the top table read – close on Monday Jan. 31. Winners will be announced in February.

Also today, Amazon Studios launched a new feature that allows writers to control the level of collaboration on their original scripts. Writers, upon upload or thereafter, will be able to designate their projects as open (anyone can add a revised script to your project), closed (only you can add revised scripts to your project) or revisable by permission (only participants who obtain your permission can add a revised script to your project). This feature has been a top request of Amazon Studios participants.

“We make our products better by listening to customers,” Price said. “We’re happy to give writers the option to collaborate with the world, go solo or work with friends as they choose.”

Meet Amazon Studios’ first winners: One lives in Hollywood, one on the opposite end of the United States. Both studied film. Both are dads who adore their kids. Both appreciate the chance to share their stories with the world.

Richard Stern, December 2010 Best Script winner for Villain

So the Illinois guy with the Spielberg dreams finds himself 10 years past his film studies, with a wife he adores, three gorgeous children, a dog, a house and a successful marketing career in Georgia. Setting the big-screen dreams aside doesn’t seem so bad – until Richard Stern finds himself laid off from his day job.
“I was unemployed for the first time in my adult life,” Stern said. “You have this pause and you ask yourself these questions. … ‘How did I get here?’ … ‘What do I do now?’”
That was last September. Stern, 33, found himself scrambling to find work, then coming to the realization that he wasn’t going to find it quickly. “About two weeks into November I’m like, ‘This is terrible,’ and doing the white knuckling you do in this situation.”

And then a friend called about the launch of Amazon Studios. Stern thought it was too good to be true. But he uploaded a script called Villain anyway. It quickly became one of the most popular and best-reviewed projects on the site, and Stern became a pillar of the Amazon Studios community.

“I got this tremendous response, this outpouring of support,” Stern said. “It hit me at a time when I really needed it.”

Now Villain has brought him something else: time. Stern’s runway for finding a job just got $20,000 longer now that he has won one of the first Best Script prizes awarded by Amazon Studios. “The money is great and certainly needed and will get put to good use, but what I really want is for us to take this to studios together. I want this to be more than a check,” Stern said.

Stern said he’s written about a dozen scripts since college – comedy, drama, action – and that half of them are the quality of Villain. “Everything I write, for good or bad, is that kind of bigger commercial movie,” he said.

Villain became an action-comedy, but didn’t start out that way. Inspired by the duality of Martin Scorcese’s The Departed, Stern said he wrote “a much darker, grimmer movie about a good guy gone bad and the bad guy who knows him best going after him. The action was good, other things were good, but I just didn’t believe the story.” As a comedy, he said “it all made sense.”

He’s heard plenty of comparisons: “Your movie is like The Incredibles, like Austin Powers, like Megamind, like Despicable Me.” He views this as a positive. “They’re all great movies, crowd pleasers. Doesn’t that mean good things for my movie?”

In fact, he tends to view most things as a positive. He’s just that kind of guy. “I feel like I'm on a path to finally realizing a dream. And along the way, maybe I can play a part in helping 2,300 other people realize their dreams too. That's the opportunity we have at Amazon and that's where I want to put my energies.”

Marty Weiss, December 2010 Best Script winner for The Alchemist Agenda

For some directors, it would feel like a lot, maybe even enough: making award-winning ad campaigns, directing a couple of TV movies.
But Marty Weiss knew he still wanted more. He still wanted to do what he’d set out to do back when he was getting his MFA in TV and Film at New York University. He wanted to make major motion pictures.

“I did a couple of genre films,” Weiss said. “But the only way to make a better movie is to write it yourself. It’s so competitive and so hard, especially in today’s Hollywood. … Mid-level movies have totally gotten squashed. Everything is based on comic books or books, or really inexpensive but with no distribution.”
So he started writing. “In film school, they don’t teach much about screenwriting,” he said. “I read the books, but the best lesson is just by doing it. And rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. The more I wrote, the easier things became.”

One of the screenplays he came up with ended up winning him $20,000 in the first Amazon Studios script contest. It’s called The Alchemist Agenda, and it’s the story of a maritime adventurer who discovers a U-boat full of gold – and secrets. The story takes our hero and his ally, a female former Mossad agent turned professor, from Amsterdam to Prague to Venice. “The locations are places that I shot commercials,” Weiss said. “I did this campaign for Renault that was so much fun. It was a little story of a guy getting stood up at the altar, getting his friends and going from country to country chasing after the rock-star bride. … It was a great way to travel and see Europe.”

Weiss said that when he showed The Alchemist Agenda to people, they liked it, said it was “such a big-budget studio movie” – like that’s a bad thing. Weiss thought he might help his chances by writing his story as a novel. “I know it sounds stupid because it’s hard to get a novel published,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d enjoy writing the novel as much as screenwriting, but you can go in the minds of your characters … describe the places … that’s great.”

And in the year and half since his daughter was born, the 40ish dad has embraced his greatest production – he’s been home more, with more time to enjoy her, and to write. “I’m more sleep-deprived, but life is more delicious.”

This article is related to: Web/Tech, Stuck In Love, Digital Future, Amazon, Screenwriters


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.