On Tuesday, Amazon launched Amazon Studios, a crowd-sourced movie development engine. Screenwriters send in their scripts and others turn them into “test movies,” low budget mock-ups, all while “critics” help the stories improve. There are monthly and yearly prizes for top-voted projects. Amazon has a deal with Warner Brothers, and if Warners does produce a project out of the studio, the collaborators get some additional cash beyond the prizes.

I can see several flaws with this model: first of all, what is to prevent the system from being gamed? 4channers could probably get a script about Raptor Jesus voted best script.

Secondly, we’re talking about a lot of chaff to sift from the wheat. When I worked at Spike Lee’s development company, 40 Acres and a Mule, they were one of the few companies left that had an open submissions policy. (I believe they closed it shortly after I left.) As an intern, it was my job to read a lot of what came in over the transom. I never found anything worthwhile in the open submissions pile. The scripts that came through agents, however, were all at least readable. I have problems with the agency model, but it does save producers work by acting as a filter.

Thirdly, since the scripts posted on the Amazon Studios site are open to revision, a good script with a strong voice and original story can quickly be watered down. You think Hollywood scripts get spoiled by ‘too many cooks’? Wait until you’ve read something that has been written by committee. (And yes, I realize the King James Bible was famously written by a group of translators. However, I have doubts that the people with time to waste doing free re-writes on Amazon Studio will somehow have the same success as that elite group of writers. For more about why the King James project worked, read God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible.)

The final problem with this model that is immediately apparent is the lack of incentives for people to read all of the crappy submissions. I have no doubt that this is a task that is crowdsourceable. In fact, all of the readers and development executives in Hollywood collectively act as a crowdsourcing engine, as bad scripts are filtered out and good ones are passed on to friends at production companies that might be able to make use of them. A fair chunk of change is spent to maintain these legions of readers, and Hollywood is already aces at optioning movie ideas from novels and other sources that aren’t even public yet. This army of professional content evaluators with the ability to pay real money on the spot for a good movie pitch is going to be difficult to compete against.

I’m not the only skeptic. Scott Macaulay, editor of Filmmaker Magazine, did a survey on Twitter and found plenty of strong objections:

“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 $$.” And, finally, “Contest is worthless to serious writers and filmmakers.”

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So, if the terms are so bad, why would anyone enter? Easy, cash prizes and access. Amazon is dangling some serious money and a connection to Warner Bros. Plenty of wannabe screenwriters out there will submit, despite the unfair terms Amazon is offering for their intellectual property. And for all but a microscopic percentage, it will be a waste of time.

It might also be a waste for Amazon. I can foresee that those who do float to the top will be quickly gobbled up into the Hollywood system, before Amazon has really gotten a full chance to exploit their talents. I can also envision Amazon Studios producing a movie or two like The Battle of Shaker Heights and then closing their doors before the model has been given a chance to be tweaked, much less perfected. Other companies have trod this path before. We have to remember that Amazon is not doing anything revolutionary, as other companies have been using a similar approach for years, including Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope and Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street, just on a smaller scale.

Since so many of the Amazon judging panel have USC connections, I would not be surprised if USC screenwriting and film grads do very well in this competition. The problem is, this school and UCLA are the two that already have the strongest connections to Big Commercial Hollywood. Mark Gill, who is also on the panel, is a smart film executive who has championed building audiences for smaller, odder films. His connections will be useful to winners whose style is too quirky for Warner Bros. — if he is allowed to use them.

What are the bottom lines here? This is a pretty low risk play for Amazon. They will almost certainly get content out of this which they can exploit for a great profits if it works. Amazon wants content because they want to compete with Netflix, Hulu, Wal-Mart and others for the big streaming video pie. If it doesn’t work, Amazon has risked very little. (In the sense that a few million dollars is very little to them.)

Filmmakers, on the other hand, stand to lose big. It is not just their ideas but also their time which is being optioned away freely, of their own volition. I have the same issue with other film development endeavors structured as contests. That’s why I’ve stopped promoting such “opportunities” on this site. Independent filmmakers’ most valuable resource is time. Amazon Studios will be draining the time-banks of talented filmmakers that might instead be investing in actually making movie themselves, or better yet, banding together to form their own mini-studios. Amazon Studios is really no different than Hollywood. It coordinates the labors of many towards the profits of a tiny few. The only difference is that Hollywood pays a living wage (most of the time) to the people doing the labor. Amazon Studios proposes to pay their laborers nothing. There are good alternatives to Hollywood, but this doesn’t look like one of them.

Can Amazon Studios possibly work? It is up to you, the filmmakers. If you don’t participate, it won’t.

UPDATE: The recent Freakonomics podcast on the economics of lotteries has got me thinking Amazon might get wide participation due to “skewness.” I also talked about Amazon Studios with Four-Eyed Monsters filmmaker Arin Crumley. I’ll be posting that interview shortly.

2nd UPDATE: Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin have weighed in. August thinks it is poorly designed; Mazin that it is ‘disgusting’. Director Jim McKay calls it “another distraction for real filmmakers”.

3rd UPDATE: As an experiment, I went and re-wrote the first page of the top script, a project called Electric Sunset. It took me about five minutes. Because of network effects, I expect only the top few projects early on will get much development and therefore be in the running for prizes. You’d be mad to contribute to any others.

As far as how the process goes, it is very smooth. Like I said, took me about five minutes. It is odd that Amazon requires the scripts to be in .rtf format, which makes revising the dialogue a pain in the butt. Most of my time was spent fixing the margins on the dialogue I revised.

The script looked professional enough, but it wasn’t without punctuation and spelling errors, at least in the part I revised. By removing these, tightening the dialogue and toning down the f-bombs, I figure I improved the chances of this script getting read further quite a bit. Of course, I myself never read beyond page 3 because I’m not really interested in doing free work for Amazon and the uploading writer.

What I actually should have spent time on is reading Amazon’s terms. I just clicked through, like any software agreement. I did save the .pdf of their Development Agreement. Here it is, if you want to peruse it: Amazon_Studios_Development_Agreement

There was nothing in the experience that convinced me that Amazon Studios is worthwhile for serious screenwriters and filmmakers. You’re much better off putting your time and effort into something that you come out owning on the other end.