Saturday, November 27, 2010

Amazon Studios: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Amazon Studios has been making a lot of noise around the blogosphere. Because there is so much information out there about it, I originally was not going to comment about it. But given that this is an indie film blog, I now feel I have to give my two cents.

If you haven't heard already, Amazon decided to launch an indie crowdsourcing venture called Amazon Studios. Writers can upload scripts in order to win cash prizes and possibly receive a deal through Amazon and Warner Bros. I'll just touch on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good: Uploading to Amazon Studios is free. Contests usually cost an entry fee. This option might be attractive to a struggling filmmaker or writer. Also, the contest is a monthly one, with cash as a prize. Who doesn't love that? Also, Amazon Studios seems serious about democratizing the filmmaking process. Amazon Studios forms a community and encourages collaboration. Also, scripts do not have to be in English, which is usually a requirement for many other screenwriting contests. Now for the caveat.

The Bad: I think this speaks for itself:
You grant us a worldwide, royalty-free, non-terminable, sub-licensable, transferable right, during the License Period, as defined below, to copy, use, edit, add to, modify and otherwise alter any Original Property you contribute to Amazon Studios and to create, develop and produce derivative works based on the Original Property on and off of Amazon Studios in the form of treatments, screenplays, writer 's pitches, trailers, videos and other written, audio or audiovisual works (each a "DerivativeWork" and these rights, our "New Content Creation Rights"). Our New Content Creation Rights are exclusive during the License Period and you will not grant similar rights in your Original Property to anyone else during the License Period. After the License Period, if we don' t exercise the Option, our New Content Creation Rights will expire and you may grant similar rights to others. --Amazon Studios Development Agreement
In order words: a free option. For 18 months, you cannot shop around the same script to others for a better deal. For free. Usually, when given an option, you would receive some cash incentive not to shop around the script, per WGA rules. I do not know about you, but to me this is a major deal-breaker. Working as a writer, unless you have an exclusive personal relationship with a producer AND you are receiving a co-producer credit, I would avoid the so-called "free option." Even if you do not have a free option, you would at least want a negotiable term option. At Amazon Studios, you would receive neither. In addition, when your screenplay is optioned, you will be eligible for the WGA. Submitting your script to Amazon Studios will not qualify.

If you are a filmmaker, you have to create a "test movie" in order to test the script's validity. The test movie does not need to be a full scale production. However, Amazon expects you to test the entire script. Here, Amazon should have just asked for a trailer or a scene from the movie instead. It seems pointless to make a "test movie" for a potential production. You would be making the movie twice. If I were to create a feature-length test movie, I might as well produce the film myself and call it a day. Plus, Amazon seems to forget that the internet crowd has a short attention span. Who is gonna sit at their computer and watch a semi-produced movie?

The Ugly: John August already pointed this out, but I would make another point. We writers are a paranoid bunch. Many of us are too paranoid. I'm not as worried about others "stealing" my ideas, because if a writer was truly afraid of that, he or she would be afraid to pitch ideas to others. You have to let that go in order to market your work. You must learn to protect your work in a legal way. That being said, losing your rights to your work by uploading to Amazon Studios is not the worst part of Amazon's terms. Amazon is very vague about its procedure facing copyright and attribution issues. Further murking that up, other users can add revisions to your original work, without your permission. And if Amazon agrees to the changes, you have to recognize Goompykid94 as a co-writer.

Whenever I send a script to someone, I send it as a .pdf. Amazon Studios likes the obsolete file format .rtf instead. Not .doc or .docx. Not any Movie Magic or Final Draft format. Not even Celtix. But the same file format used in Wordpad. If you are like me, you predict major formatting issues. Last time I used this file format for a major project, I was wearing butterfly clips and waiting for my dial-up internet to connect via CompuServe. It was also the same time I was allowed to turn in a paper written in Comic Sans.

Last ugly point: Amazon expects the winning script to make $60 million in the box office before they pay you any more money. You might as well bend over. I'm assuming that's Domestic Box Office. This is assuming your script is any good and the resulting film is worthy of a theatrical distribution and release. Also, what about ancillary markets? Foreign release? Digital distribution. Not only does this deal overpromises, the deal is bad for you regardless of how well the film does. Amazon comes out on top. Either way, you will be underpaid and screwed out of your true compensation.

I expected more from the company that owns IMDb. Maybe I expected too much. But I guess it'll be useful for some script you care less about. I would not recommend Amazon Studios for your really good stuff, regardless of the promise of a first look from Warner Bros. Just use Vimeo or YouTube instead.

Happy Filmmaking.

No comments: