The Morning Read: Why Amazon Studios is a very bad idea for writers

11.19.10 7 years ago 21 Comments

20th Century Fox

Welcome to The Morning Read.

Let’s kick off today’s column with a bit of a public service announcement.  Have you read about the Amazon Studios announcement?  Basically, Amazon decided to get involved in the production of content, and they’ve created a brand-new program that is part contest, part development fund, and all garbage.

I’ve gotten several e-mails from people asking me my take on this, several of which were from very excited writers looking at this as a way to finally get around the “no manager or agent” conundrum.  And I empathize with any writer out there with a script who can’t get people to read it.  I get what is attractive about the idea of a brand-new way of getting around the system, but this is not it.  Have you read the Development Agreement or the Contest Terms and Procedures?  They are fascinating and revealing and completely insane. 

I’ll put it this way:  if you upload your script or your movie to their contest, you are essentially kissing it goodbye forever.  Line after line of the legalese on these pages just confounds me.  “You agree to be automatically entered into any future contests for which your work is eligible.  The specific contest rules for future contests will be posted on this page when they are announced.”  And considering one of the rules of this contest grants Amazon Studios a free 18-month option on your work the moment you upload it, the idea that they can enter you in a contest later and tell you the rules after they do so seems positively batty.  The “development agreement” is a contract you’re signing, not an entry form for a contest, and in it, you grant them a free option on your work for a year and a half, and if they do end up producing your work, there’s a set fee.  Period.  That’s all it is.  A set rate.  The same no matter what the project is, and no matter what happens with it.  That is, simply put, immoral.

Beyond that, once your script is uploaded to Amazon, anyone can revise it.  Try to wrap your head around that.  Anyone can revise your screenplay.  They can do anything they want to it.  And if that revision ends up being what gets made, that person becomes part of that set price I mentioned earlier.  It’s a mind-boggling proposition, and runs completely counter-intuitive to the idea of giving writers a platform for their work.  The thought of some random person having the legal right to revise my screenplays makes me sick to my stomach, and I seriously believe that the people who created the Amazon Studios idea are either very stupid or very evil.  It is an idea designed to exploit and strip-mine creativity, and it sounds to me like someone’s idea of a social media experiment gone wildly wrong.  There’s nothing about this that sounds to me like it will result in good filmmaking.  The entire notion of a “test movie” is bizarre, especially when you’re talking about having people shoot entire feature films as tests.  That side of the contest is so much weirder than the screenplay side that I can’t even really understand it.

Look, collaboration is one of the key components of filmmaking.  I absolutely believe that.  But I also believe that you have to be able to pick your own collaborators based on their history, your history, common artistic goals, respect, and much more.  “Crowdsourcing” is a big buzzword right now, and under the right conditions, I can see how useful that is.  But for filmmaking?  This is poison.  This is very bad thing.  To me, this smacks of the sort of “let’s suck someone’s blood” mentality that marks the very worst of Los Angeles. 

I’ve spent the last few years entangled in a business arrangement with a producer who I will simply refer to here as “The Gimp.”  At the very beginning of our relationship, The Gimp talked a good game.  He promised easy access to production funds.  He spun fanciful stories of lands where tax incentives just fell of the trees, ready to be picked up and spent by any filmmaker who just happened along.  He told tales of the cast that was eager and ready to go, and he even went down the road of hiring a director and making premature announcements.  All of it was what I wanted to hear.  All of it sounded great. 

But the truth about The Gimp is that he is all talk.  Those production funds always managed to stay a week or two away from escrow.  The tax incentives only seemed to be opportune in states without soundstages.  Or film crews.  And that cast that was promised seemed to vanish into thin air when push came to shove.  And not just once.  Not just twice.  It was a cycle, a pattern, a twisted game of self-affirmation that The Gimp was playing at my expense.  And because of the option The Gimp had on the material, there was nothing we could do to reclaim it from him.  At that point, it’s a waiting game, but at least we’d been paid for the option, which is the way it should work.

In the end, the worst part is the feeling that The Gimp never cared at all about the story we were trying to tell.  Instead, what we offered was a film that could be made at a price just low enough that it would justify a padded budget that could be pocketed, an easy way out of potential bankruptcy, and until he actually made it, there were other ways to make money on our work, ways that had nothing to do with actually telling our story.  I’ve got stories stretching back twenty years about people indulging their own ego and greed at the expense of writers who genuinely just want to tell a story. 

Amazon Studios throws a ton of numbers at you up front, and it claims to be about giving power to the people, but it smells to me like one more case of the writer being the bottom of the pile.  Seriously… I implore you… if you believe your work is of any value whatsoever, don’t fall for this.  I’m curious to see if other writers or advocates for writers weigh in on this one.  For now, John August is the only one I’ve seen jump in, and he makes the point with elegance as usual.

The worst part of saying all that is I know how defensive some people will get, because they will want to believe that this is the short cut they’ve been looking for.  The truth is that there are no short cuts at all.  You’ve got to work to get your ideas in front of people, no matter who you are, and the business is getting more competitive as it contracts and changes.  There is nothing more important than a well-executed good idea, and if you’re looking for something to give you hope, then why not look at the example of “Clown”? 

Remember that?  A few weeks ago, I ran a piece about “Alma,” the animated film that Guillermo Del Toro is helping to turn into a feature based on an acclaimed short done as a personal side project by Rodrigo Blaas.  In that piece, I also included a YouTube trailer for a fake movie called “Clown.”  One of the things that was really ballsy about the “Clown” trailer was the way they threw on the title “A Film by Eli Roth,” even though they had no connection to him.  Well, now it looks like they do.  Roth is producing the film, with Jon Watts and Christopher D. Ford, who made the short, directing and writing the film together.  I have to say, I loved the “Clown” trailer, and I’m excited to see the film, and I love the way the film got in front of Eli, and then made the jump from joke to reality. 

There’s another film Eli also just helped set up that sounds great, the new one from Nicolas Lopez, a Chilean filmmaker whose earlier films “Promedio Rojo” and “Santos” both showed huge personality and promise.  The notion of Lopez taking his personal observations about the February earthquake in Chile and what happened afterwards and turning that into a horror film is exciting because this isn’t something born from somebody watching old movies and just regurgitation someone else’s ideas.  This is personal, and those are often the best films. 

That’s why I find that whole Amazon Studios thing so unsettling, and the way the media is just swallowing it without digesting it or analyzing it or looking at how it treats the people it professes to help is disturbing.  When you’re telling a story, it’s not just about putting events in a certain order or creating some clever gag or sequence.  It’s about voice and perspective and tone, and it seems unlikely you’ll get that from something anyone can alter at whim.  Explore alternatives, but be smart about it.  There are always new ways in, new ways to get attention for a good project.  Put your faith in yourself and your idea, not some horseshit Amazon Studios Ponzi scheme that will just use you as oil in their machine.

And now, to lighten the mood a bit… shadow puppets for the digital age.

I love this piece about bullying, “Star Wars,” and gender roles.  Heartbreaking in places, and really sweet overall.  And believe me… this is an important issue.

I am astonished by this.  I love “Fifth Element,” total mess that it is, and one of the things I love most is the performance by the alien diva in the film.  I have no idea how Devin Faraci found this, but it’s incredible.

And speaking of music and amazing things, how about a new Spike Jonze video?  It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve said that, and for him to end up shooting “The Suburbs” for Arcade Fire?  Bliss.


On that note, I have to cut it short today.  I’ve got two press days, and have to leave my house by about 8:30 AM to make it to the first one.  I’ll be back later today with a review of “Heartless,” which is opening in limited release today.

The Morning Read appears here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Except when it doesn’t.

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