Testing. Testing. Over the last few years the online retail giant Amazon has been experimenting with a controversial new business model for producing original content. Amazon Studios was created to gather scripts, test projects, and determine whether audiences found those to be commercially viable. The studio claims they offer opportunities for new voices and promote the platform as open to anyone. However opponents accuse Amazon of developing a system that takes advantage of green writers, holds their intellectual property hostage, and eventually strips them of valuable rights to their material.
So how does it work? Writers pen a feature or series pilot and Amazon’s online community provides feedback. Participants serve as an enormous, crowd sourced test audience that evaluates content, informs development, and weighs in on which projects are chosen for production. Originally, Amazon required an eighteen-month exclusive option period for participating scripts and teleplays… that is until the Writers Guild of America stepped in to negotiate that window down to a more reasonable 45 days. Still, even after the original option period expires, Amazon Studios can retain nonexclusive residual rights to any work that participated in the process, in perpetuity.
Amazon Studios claims a large part of assessing a project is seeing it come to life visually and they accomplish this by hosting contests for trailers, full-length test movies, and pilot episodes. They’ve even taken a feature screenplay, Blackburn Burrow, and released it as a digital comic book to gauge fan engagement should it be made into a film. But if their intention is to weigh the story’s potential in the market as a film, why not hire filmmakers to produce a short of the concept and test that via the crowd instead?
The Blackburn Burrow comic has been released for free on several of Amazon Studio’s online portals. Whether it resonates with audiences or not, the studio will own a piece of the concept from here on out. This certainly gives legs to the complaint that Amazon intends to acquire a concept, potentially marginalize the content creator, and retain rights to make money from any future incarnations of the concept.
To date they’ve collected around 10,000 feature submissions and are approaching 2,000 series pilots. The bulk of content available for review are films, but the studio is purportedly shifting focus towards episodic entertainment, with a specific interest in comedy series and entertainment for kids and tweens. And while Warner Brothers has a “first-look” deal, Amazon Studios says they intend to create content of its own, for example producing original series for distribution on Amazon Instant Video.
So where’s the content already? The site itself is a confusing maze of activity, with scripts to review, ongoing draft revisions, and all those visual representations of projects. Competitions are underway for everything from posters to test movies. Still contests such as these have a reputation of paying participants pennies on the dollar compared to what it would cost a company to hire someone to do the same work. Plus there’s nothing stopping Amazon from picking and choosing from all those submission ideas to remake collateral a studio would pay heavily to develop.
For all this activity, the two-year-old subsidiary has yet to put a single project into production. This presents the quandary: Is the main intention of Amazon Studios to actually produce content? Or is this experiment about something entirely different?