What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Amazon Studios is only two days old, but already it’s being pounded on by a lot of people who either work in the film industry, or are at least reasonably informed about it. As of a few minutes ago, there are over seven hundred projects that have been created within the last forty-eight hours, all of whom have agreed to Amazon’s contest contract.

Haven’t heard about this yet? Head over to the Amazon Studio site and have a look around.

The handful of folks who’ve made an effort to actually understand the legalese of the contract (and yes, kids, it really is a contract, not just an entry form) have generally concluded that it stinks in that special way which only the most vile and moldering corpse can. I’ve read most of it and I’m inclined to agree. For those who enter, that contract guarantees that any intellectual property submitted will essentially remain susceptible to Amazon for the rest of eternity, not just those initial eighteen months. Subsequent revisions or contributions by others automatically cede all ownership and copyright to Amazon forever.

No professional writer will likely ever touch it, other than perhaps submitting something that’s lying in a trunk and which would otherwise never be looked upon again. I suspect there will be a few of those, but not many. At least one of the projects already posted claims to be a Nichols’ quarter-finalist, though I wonder if the writer realized how bad Amazon’s deal potentially is while rushing to post the screenplay.

The people who will dominate this arena will be amateur writers that have a lot of time available. Other attempts to create collaborative on-line screenwriting sites have all suffered from people who spend a lot of time up-ranking people in order to get others to up-rank their own material, and taking out the competition by down-rating anything that might possibly be better than their own stuff.

More than anything, the way Amazon Studios presents itself seems to paint a very clear picture that the company has done little or no research into those established collaborative sites, nor have they thoroughly considered the likely outcome of their “anyone can revise a project” philosophy.

Aside from the personality-focused circle-jerk community that will certainly rise to dominance, there is going to be an absolute rush by truly inexperienced amateurs to attach their names to the most popular scripts by providing rewrites. I wonder what that almost-award-winning script will look like after some fifteen-year-old in Sudbury has finished improving it. I will grant you there is a chance, a fractional-percentage-point possibility, that the results might genuinely be better. But let’s be honest. Folks, I’m not placing any bets on that horse, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t either.

In fact, my money’s going on this prediction – the entire thing will descend into a massive clot of rubbish from which it becomes nigh impossible to find the handful of promising scripts. The most popular projects will be those that most closely resemble existing, successful, and widely seen feature films. As someone else has noted about this (though I didn’t think to bookmark the page, but it’s too good an analogy not to use) if you crowd-sourced the invention of the perfect hamburger, you’d inevitably get something that was feature-identical to a Mickey-D’s Quarter Pounder.

Being original is hard work.

At the present time, it seems that about 2,000 films are produced annually for Western audiences, and about 450 of those are made in North America. That’s every movie, folks, not just Hollywood. The major movie studios produce far less than a hundred, though a precise figure is not easy to come by. Anecdotally it seems that studios only produce about one out of every hundred scripts that they option, and that represents only a fraction of the number of scripts that are actually pitched or submitted on spec.

And Hollywood is trying very hard to find product. Hundreds of people work as professional readers, slogging though piles of scripts so that a handful can be perused by time-challenged agents and producers. The kid in Sudbury wouldn’t even be able to get his script inserted into one of those piles – unsolicited scripts are legal nightmares waiting to happen, so if you’re not a known commodity, you’re not getting past the front door. This is, by the way, one of the reasons Hollywood seems like such an insular community to writers – were the floodgates opened to the 50,000 scripts that are registered with the WGA every year, there simply wouldn’t be enough time to read and review every last one. And let’s face it, those registered screenplays represent just a fraction of the total number of scripts that are out there right now. Folks, there are literally millions of un-produced movies sitting on dusty bookshelves around the world, and now there’s a place to show them.

With all the effort expended by studios to make profitable films, we see barely a handful of original movies come from within the ivory towers. Innovation is for independent production companies – studios have shareholders they must answer to and are fundamentally risk-adverse. Heck, the majority of those ‘original’ properties aren’t even being conceived by writers. They’re projects spearheaded by the studio to create product that fills certain niches. Writers are hired and told what the studio wants.

I suspect that the number of projects at Amazon Studios will quickly grow into the thousands, then the tens-of-thousands. Since they are apparently trusting the denizens of Teh Interwebz to determine the best stuff, the winners are all going to look a lot like that cheeseburger.

Warner’s isn’t going to be interested in cheeseburgers. Oh, and for those of you who don’t understand what a “First Look” deal is, it means that the studio gets the chance to look at projects before the creator/owner takes them elsewhere. Studios usually make First Look deals with extremely talented people who’ve made them lots of money already so they can call dibbs on that person’s new project. They usually pay a lot of money for that opportunity.

I doubt Warner’s is paying Amazon a dime – and if they are, they’re foolish to do so. Amazon gets to tout the deal in a way that makes it seem like a winning screenplay is absolutely going to get made. What it really means is that the script will manage to make its way into the pile of other scripts on an anonymous reader’s desk, a reader who already has to eat a lot of cheeseburgers every single day.

The only consolation for the writers is that Amazon probably won’t forward the rejection slips. Unless they post them in the project…

So can any good come of this?

Maybe, but not in any of the ways that Amazon is presently anticipating, unless they’re really as evil as some folks seem to think they are. There are plenty of horrible thoughts that have occurred to me, but rather than conjecture I’ll leave it to you to consider the possibilities.

I think it’s very unlikely that Amazon Studios will be taken seriously by Hollywood, but it does shine a brighter light on the kind of crowd-sourced productions that are starting to flourish. There are independent documentary filmmakers out there who, lacking the budget to travel, are eliciting the aid of others to film footage for them. Even the BBC adopted this model for portions of the doc series “Virtual Revolution” that aired early in 2010.

What differentiates these efforts from Amazon’s is fairly simple but fundamental – all of them are helmed by a “Benevolent Dictator for Life”, someone who has final say on the productions as a whole. Amazon’s biggest error is to allow users to force changes on others’ projects, rather than providing originators ways to moderate changes selectively, or focus the crowd’s efforts on specific areas that need work.

The Open Source software movement works this way, and it works well, primarily because of the tools that developers employ while cooperating. Systems exist to manage and approve changes, to give programmers varying levels of access, and to create virtual managerial hierarchies for large projects. If Open Source developers were forced to limit themselves to the tools that Amazon provides, the entire movement would be toast within a week.

Message to Amazon – Phone Google right now. Those folks have been working for years to build on-line collaboration tools, and you might want to consider licensing some of their technology before things have spun completely out of control.

Message to Google – Don’t answer that call from Amazon. Build something yourself – a toolset that can be used for Open Source art projects – anything from a sketch to a movie. Hire a bunch of those underpaid Hollywood readers and get them to cherry pick the best projects, then broker those projects to major studios for a cut. Heck, at some point you’re going to need content for that YouTube premium service. Think of it as an investment in your own future.

For Amazon Studios to succeed, it needs a way for project owners to manage their projects and the communities that will grow around them. I actually believe that a committee might be able to come up with something far greater than the sum of its parts given strong leadership and direction. But the only thing Amazon is currently providing is a big bin to dump stuff into.

I already have one of those – it’s under my desk and it’s not where I put things that are important to me.

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