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April 24, 2012

Amazon Studios Backtracks: New Terms Give Fair Treatment to Writers

This story got swallowed up by all of the recent NAB coverage, but I think it's very important. Much has been said here about Amazon Studios, but it quickly became clear that it was not designed to help independent filmmakers, especially those without any ties to the industry. By industry standards, the terms that Amazon Studios were giving to writers was almost laughable. For 18 months Amazon had a free option on your script. No protection at all. All of the other positives of the initiative go out the window when you lose your script for that long without any option to do anything else with it. But Amazon has changed their mind and has decided to give some fair terms to those who submit scripts.

at Filmmaker Magazine had previously given a good summary of why Amazon Studios didn't make any sense for independent filmmakers. Now he's gone back and revisited the situation. The Bitter Script Reader gives a good rundown of what's different about the new Amazon Studios. Here's a little bit from their blog post:

What's gone:
Test movies
Screenplay contests
Million Dollar Prize
Semi-finalists
Finalists

What's new:
Screenplay "Opportunities"
Trailer Contests
PRIVATE submissions
45 day option
$10,000 cash money option up front (18 months)
$33,000 rewrite opportunities

Anne Thompson over at IndieWire also had a chance to look at the new Amazon terms, and it's clear they are going to be much more like a real studio and less like an online contest. Here's a quote from her post:

For one thing, readers told them that folks who submit screenplays online want to get immediate feedback--they don't want to wait as long as 18 months. So now they will get it within 45 days. Either a script gets optioned or rights revert to the writer.

I'd say that's good news. To have to wait that long for feedback from a company worth billions seemed a little ridiculous. Now you'll get (almost) immediate feedback on your script and you'll know very soon whether they are going to option it or you'll get all of your rights back. That seems like a much more sensible way to operate a business.

Here is the full list of changes courtesy of Indiwire:

Original scripts:

  • As before, writers can submit a script for review publicly on Amazon Studios, but now they also have the option to submit privately to the Amazon Studios team.
  • Following a 45-day option and evaluation period either:
  1. Amazon Studios will add the project to their Development Slate by purchasing the script or paying $10,000 to extend the option
  2. The writer gets back their rights to sell the script.  The writer can also choose at this time to remove the project from the site or leave it on the site to receive feedback from the creative community.

Open Writing and Directing Assignments

  • Amazon Studios will regularly offer open writing assignments for projects on the Development Slate. Currently paid writing opportunities are available for 12 Princesses and I Think My Facebook Friend is Dead.
  • Starting today, test movies will be funded by Amazon Studios.  Amazon Studios will occasionally offer paid directing opportunities for projects on the Development Slate.

WGA Agreement

  • People’s Production Company, an Amazon Studios production company, is now a signatory to the Writers Guild of America Minimum Basic Agreement.

One of the biggest positive is outlined here by The Bitter Script Reader:

There is no scenario where someone can claim any of your rights money by revising your original script or movie via Amazon Studios. If someone creates a revised version of an original script, they may be eligible to receive a share of any contest winnings. But rights payments are not shared. If a theatrical movie is released from an original script on Amazon Studios, the creator of the original script or movie gets 100% of the rights payments. People who are revising scripts or making video content (like trailers) based on scripts are going for award money and are helping someone else get their movie made. But they are not sharing in the rights money.

That's really the way it should be. If you create something, you should retain the complete rights of the script, and also be the only one to receive payments. The others who help refine and shape the script are only able to receive award money from Amazon, but will not be receiving any rights payments. It's still not a perfect system yet, but it's certainly much better than it was when it was first announced almost two years ago. It doesn't take advantage of amateur writers as it once did. I think it's a positive sign that they are serious about the business, and it still gives independent writers without any connections a fast-track to getting a script made into a feature film.

Link: Amazon Studios

[via Filmmaker Magazine & Indiewire & The Bitter Script Reader]

Your Comment

10 Comments

Great post Joe! No matter how many different options there are for amazing cameras and such, it all means nothing without great content to shoot. Without a great script, its all just a waste of time and money. Nice to see an industry heavyweight acknowledging this.

April 25, 2012

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Yea, if you look at breakout indie films, few are great looking film projects. "The Blair Witch Project", "She's got to have it", "Welcome to the Dolls House", "El Meriachi" , "Breaking the Waves", "Paranormal Activity", "Supersize Me", "Take The Money and Run","Straight Out Of Brooklyn" , "Permanent Vacation","Roger and Me" ," The Toxic Avenger", "Clerks" to name a few.

April 25, 2012

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Ric

Well, excluding the documentaries, along with Welcome to the Dollhouse and Breaking the Waves, both of which were professionally produced and funded productions, you couldn't say that the writing in these films was great either.

They were just in the right place at the right time, the same way, more recently, Tiny Furniture was at the right place at the right time. The film has to be watchable, but the other factors which lead to break-out success tend to mysterious.

April 25, 2012

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samDEE

Well it's not so mysterious, make em laugh, make em cry or scare the hell out of em. Break-out success takes a bit of luck, but focusing on creative impact of your story telling only takes time, energy and creativity. All free.

We can also look at other break-out films like “Return of the Secaucus Seven”, "Reservoir Dogs" or "Saw" where the film makers used 1 or 2 key locations and basically shot what could be a stage play to creatively stretch their budgets. My point being, it's the ideas and there execution which give you the edge. When Samuel Goldwyn picked up "Straight Out of Brooklyn" he told my friend, (John Rosnell the DP on the shoot)it was because the director was a19 year old black kid from Brooklyn,so he had a built in marketing angle. He sold Matty Rich as the youngest director to make a film. His original budget was about $75,000 before Jonathan Demi stepped in (during post).

I was running a non-union TV commercial production company in NYC when “Straight out of Brooklyn” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse” were shot and shared many of my crew guys with those films. I remember they were making about $ 150 per week on “Welcome to the Dollhouse”. My commercial projects kept them being able to pay their rent. I think they would be amused that you see that, as a professionally produced film. Although, there was a lot of talent on it in front of and behind the camera.

April 25, 2012

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Ric

I think a fair definition of "professionally produced" is "a lot of talent" in front and back of the camera, which most genuinely independent self-financed projects don't enjoy. The crew of Dollhouse probably wasn't amused to work for $150/week, but they no doubt considered the production professional -- after all, they were themselves professionals and were working on it.

"Return of the Secaucus Seven" would never advance today, and "Straight out of Brooklyn" only confirms my point: it's not the film itself which was being sold, it's the backstory. And for the life of me, I don't know why you're citing "Reservoir Dogs" or "Saw". The former had stars, etc. and fully professional production values, and the latter was an exploitation film.

Looking at breakout successes of the last 20+ years, how many of these films would you really care to watch today, as works of art or entertainment with claims independent of their origins? Maybe it's less "mysterious" than just very arbitrary, time and place being decisive.

April 26, 2012

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samDEE

I bring up the other films as they launched the film makers careers, and were produced on a limited budget. The film makers structured their projects around their budget limitations. All of these projects were ground breaking in some way. “Return of the Secaucus Seven” was ground breaking in it’s use of ensemble cast inspiring the “Big Chill” which launched several film careers. The impact of this film still ripples through our industry in every ensemble project. You can’t judge a ground breaking project, film or otherwise by whether it would be ground breaking today. It most be judged on the impact it had at its time. Would Elvis or the Rolling Stones be ground breaking today?

Look at your project. What’s amazing about it? Who will want to see it? Will it make them laugh, cry or hide under the covers? How will you sell it to people like your friends?

April 26, 2012

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Ric

I'm sorry, I should let it go, each to his own, but jeez -- I just can't buy the evangelical approach to indie film.

You can certainly listen to Elvis and Rolling Stones today and lots of people do. But I don't know anyone who watches (since we're talking about the oldies) Return of the Secaucus Seven, She's Gotta Have It, Pi, Clerks, Slacker, etc., for pleasure. American Indie films have always had an "American Idol" aspect -- who can make the closest approximation to a real or watchable movie, for the least amount of money and out of the most improbably back story. And that's the main interest. Judged as works of entertainment or art, independent of that promotional aspect and the indie festival/business scene, these films don't go very far. At least, not for me. And, judging by box office and sales, not for many others.

And let's be even more blunt. If people actually asked themselves what's amazing about their projects, these films wouldn't get made and the indie industry would collapse. For one thing, the writing in indie film is rarely adequate, much less accomplished. There should be no mystery why, given the way the business is organized. And yet the parade goes on year after year, and nobody ever points out that the desire to make a movie, absent a prior life-time of writing and interest in writing and literature and theater, isn't quite enough to write one, and that very few readers in this business know good from bad, for the same reason. Screenplays ain't literature, but you can't write or judge them without having the internalized the standard of literature. How many people in this business have? When they don't, you get something which looks like indie film -- a hodgepodge of commercial and art-house cinema conventions, which satisfies the demands of neither.

April 27, 2012

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samDEE

Very well said. I must say I agree 100% with every thing you've said. I do think that all filmmakers or story tellers should think about what makes their project interesting/ fun to spend time reading or watching..

While I agree that most of the films are not classics, I did enjoy many of them on first veiwing, although I agree, there are few on that list I would care to re-view.

April 28, 2012

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Ric

Glad *somebody* finally agrees with me. It's remarkably, the extent to which these matter are absolutely banned from discussion in the indie world. Whether at Sundance, indiewire or Filmmaker Magazine, or informal venues like this one, you never this kind of very basic and very obvious analysis.

It would seem too many livelihoods, and to many dreams, depend on denying reality.

April 28, 2012

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samDEE

Freelancers beware. Do not be fooled, this studio hires internally, and most of their full time workers and even freelancers are imports from Amazon's other studios. Once they get freelancers in, they eventually force them to teach full time employees to then later push out the freelancers. There is racism, sexism, and nepotism and no mediation for workers who feel violated. This operation needs to be removed. Though amazon.com provides a viable marketplace for the .com gen of consumers, the work culture stinks. Beware, beware, beware.

ARTIST DO NOT GIVE ANYTHING TO AMAZON. THEY WILL STEAL EVERYTHING. THIS COMPANY IS HORRIBLE. DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT. YOU RETAIN THE POWER THROUGH APPOACHING THEM AS DISTRO, NOT DEVELOPMENT.

March 22, 2014

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Andy Mill