Thoughts On Amazon Studios

As most of you know, I write a weekly newsletter that contains a letter that’s not usually posted on this blog. Sometimes it consists of thoughts that coalesce into an article or blog post down the line, and sometimes it consists of of-the-moment reactions to events just hitting the news. Often the newsletter poses questions that I’d like our readers to comment on. Yesterday I wrote about the newly announced Amazon Studios and solicited feedback. I hope to, in the next few days, write about the provocative new venture, which has good elements (a new financing source for independent filmmakers and an open, user-generated submission system) and bad (free options and crowdsourced development that will, I believe, obliterate all traces of the original creators’ voices). Here’s yesterday’s newsletter for those who didn’t receive it. And if you didn’t, why not subscribe? The newsletter is free, and it’s where you’ll hear about things like our Holiday Subscription Deal, which will launch December 1.

For much of the last year, the term “crowdsourcing” has been in vogue in the independent community. But it’s important to remember that just because something’s crowdsourced doesn’t mean it’s good, or that even the process of crowdsourcing is automatically a beneficial one when applied to a particular project or field. I’m a fan of crowdsourced funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo because they connect film production to the passions of a community while sidestepping the competitive dealmaking that can sour small projects. But what of other types of crowdsourcing?

Take for example, Internet Eyes. From security expert Bruce Schneier’s monthly newsletter, Crypto-Gram: “Internet Eyes is a U.K. startup designed to crowdsource digital surveillance. People pay a small fee to become a ‘Viewer.’ Once they do, they can log onto the site and view live anonymous feeds from surveillance cameras at retail stores. If they notice someone shoplifting, they can alert the store owner. Viewers get rated on their ability to differentiate real shoplifting from false alarms, can win 1,000 pounds if they detect the most shoplifting in some time interval, and otherwise get paid a wage that most likely won’t cover their initial fee.” Good, bad, or just really creepy?

In his You Are Not a Gadget, which really is one of this year’s essential books, the virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier is profoundly critical of much of web 2.0, crowdsourcing and the open source movement in general. One of the themes of the book is how behavior that is looked down upon in the offline world is somehow legitimized when it enters the digital space. Some quotes from his book:

“There’s a rule of thumb you can count on in each succeeding version of the web 2.0 movement: the more radical an online social experiment is claimed to be, the more conservative, nostalgic and familiar the result will be.”

“The people who are perhaps the most screwed by open culture are the middle classes of intellectual and cultural creation… They get nothing from the new system.”

“When you come upon a video clip or picture or stretch of writing that has been made available in the web 2.0 manner, you almost never have access to the history or the locality in which it was perceived to have meaning by the anonymous person who left it there. A song might have been tender, or brave, or redemptive in context, but those qualities will usually be lost.”

I thought of Lanier when reading last night the FAQ at Amazon Studios, the new open-source “studio” from the online retail behemoth. If you haven’t heard about this yet, here’s the deal. Amazon Studios accepts ideas in the form of scripts, writer’s pitches (delivered on video), and/or “test movies,” which are animatics or even scaled-down productions of feature-length scripts that should have “great acting, sound and music.” Once submitted, ideas are developed by the crowd — that is, other users who are free to suggest revisions, adaptations, rewrites, etc. At the end of the process, some great ideas may emerge, shaped by outsider voices whose creativity would never have gotten through the door of the Hollywood system. If Amazon Studio, which has a first-look deal with Warners Bros., makes the film, the creators even get paid — a not-too shabby $200,000, which is more than WGA minimum.

That’s one way to look at it. The other way is: would you give a company with a $74 billion market cap an 18-month free option on your original project? I decided to crowdsource my reaction this newsletter to Amazon Studio through Twitter and here are some of the responses I received: “Terms are a joke. You give up rights to original material in perpetuity and exclusive adaptation rights for 18-36 months.” “At first blush, contract seems to leave writer no room for negotiation, no WGA, and leaves credit to Amazon.” “I didn’t really get past the 18-month free option part.” “Understand submitting a script, but why would a producer want to make their film twice?” “We should just try to write some high concept crap overnight to try and get the $$.” “Open source style rewriting of scripts clause by Amazon is completely offensive. This is how they promote ‘original’ voices?” And, finally, “Contest is worthless to serious writers and filmmakers.”

I hate to come down on anything that provides new opportunities for writers and directors outside the system. And I will write a longer entry on the blog that properly goes through Amazon Studio’s terms and lists all the potential issues I see so far. (Like: what if you make a test movie that works on its own, like a Paranormal Activity, one that is acclaimed by the crowd, lives on the Amazon site, and generates buzz? You can’t take it down and monetize it for yourself, and Amazon gets those free streaming rights.) But I guess my initial reaction is one of disappointment that the potential radicalism of a large-scale crowdsourced development system is being used to simply generate ideas for exploitation by a studio and one of the richest companies on the planet. An idea as provocative as this one deserves to be married to a more imaginative and, yes, generous distribution system, one that finds a form more befitting the open source philosophy underlying the projects’ creations.

What do you think of Amazon Studio? You can email me at editor.filmmakermagazine AT gmail.com. And make sure to join our Twitter feed.

See you next week.

Best,

Scott Macaulay
Editor

P.S.: If you have been considering subscribing to Filmmaker, we’ll be launching at the beginning of December a great subscription drive with a load of free stuff. You might want to wait until then.