Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tuesday Talkback: Does Amazon Studios have any idea what it's doing?

Long-time readers probably remember I took great exception to the original mission of Amazon Studios, which seemed to be attempting one of the most egregious exploitations of amateur writers that I'd ever seen attempted.  Beyond that issue, I had the distinct impression that the people behind the then-new venture had little understanding of the industry they were attempting to "revolutionize."  While it would be improper to go into any great detail about some off-the-record encounters I had with those behind the scenes, I will say that nothing I learned through any channel - both official and unofficial - dissuaded me from that feeling.

But as Amazon Studios seemed to give up on their attempts to seize rights to all the amateur scripts willing to dive into its maw, I found less motivation to focus on their dealings.  The rules for those amateur submissions seemed less draconian, and more importantly, they seemingly did a pretty thorough job of alienating most amateurs by so clearly focusing on projects from established writers.

And yet, even after two and a half years and all those changes to the program, I still feel like the guys in charage are way too naive about the TV and film business.  What makes me say that?  Quotes like this from Amazon Studios director Roy Price:

TV Guide Magazine: Why did you cast and produce these pilots during network pilot season, when competition for talent is fierce? 

Price: That was not intentional. That's just the way it worked out. I guess if we had really planned it by the calendar then maybe going off cycle would have been a good idea. Maybe we'll try that in the future.

Did Price just admit they didn't put a lot of thought into the timing of their venture? They they were completely ignorant they were competing with network pilot season? That would be like failing to realize that you accidentally scheduled your Great Britain Appreciation party for the Fourth of July!  You can't have more than 12 months of experience in this business and NOT have an appreciation for how all-consuming pilot season is.

It would be one thing if they made a deliberate decision to go head-to-head with the big boys. (I don't know WHY they would, but at least it would be an informed choice.)  Price's phrasing indicates that they're only focused on their venture and not accounting for it's position relative to the rest of the ecosystem they inhabit.

That's... troubling.

Addendum - 1:00am PST: Just to toss this into the mix too - compare Amazon Studios foray into streaming programming with Netflix's.  Netflix brought in people like Kevin Spacey, David Fincher and Eli Roth - creators with strong visions.  Those are guys used to having creative control and all indications are that Netflix gave them fairly close to a free reign in developing their shows.  Meanwhile, Amazon's method is more along the lines of test-marketing and focus-grouping the hell out of their pilots.

Netflix = few-to-no notes.
Amazon Studios = mountain of notes.

Which one seems more conducive to the creative process?  Which one would you rather be working under when you ascended to the rank of show-runner?

So what do you guys think? 


  1. I guess that could possibly account for the terrible casting decisions made for what should be Amazon's flagship property "Zombieland."

    The cast has absolutely no chemistry, this is even apparent when you just look at a picture of them. Also, why did they cast virtual unknowns when there's a lot of talent in Hollywood that would have jumped at a chance to be on Zombieland?

    But the issue is that some of these pilots should have never made it even to the pilot stage. Alpha Dogs is the worst offender in the lineup simply because it's a "Ha, ha, lets have a whole show where we make fun of the Republicans"-show.

    The problem with that is they automatically alienate half of any viewing audience, furthermore, who are going to be the rivals, the antagonists? It surely isn't going to be the Democrats, as those in Hollywood would never paint their home team in a bad light. They could use the "Tea Baggers" as an up and coming menace to the Republicans, but those jokes went stale after '08.

    They should have done an Odd Couple setup, in fact, I thought that what it was; two democrats and two republicans living together.

    But the most important thing is how is Amazon Studios going to get feedback on the show and then decide how to incorporate that feedback into the show's fates?

    Is A.S. going to listen to anyone and retool their pilots according to audience feedback, or just not pick certain failed pilots up? It's an interesting question as not many fledgling media companies have had to deal with the pressure of pulling the trigger, or the plug on their own pilots. Also, traditional television has never really been interested in what the audience thinks, outside of insular focus groups. So Amazon could break new ground there... perhaps.

    There's also been the sink or swim nature of the television ratings system, but now everything is fractionalized. What is the draw for a viewer to watch "Betas" or "Browsers" over any other content? People might not realize that it's even ON Amazon for YEARS if it were to even last that long.

    Ultimately, I am still puzzled at how cheap Zombieland was. The "Workaholics" season finale looked like it had a bigger budget. Zombieland looked like they spent less than $500,000 on it. Worse yet, there was no zombie action except at the start of the pilot, and at the end. People are going to tune in and go "Meh."

    Aint it Cool News should have been having an epileptic fit with their Headline for Zombieland, "Amazon makes the most awesome Zombie TV show pilot EVER!!!!!"

    Instead it's just "Meh."

    What's going to happen if/when the second crop of pilots (which mostly all have terrible scripts/premises) hit, and they are just the same level of "Meh," or worse?

    How many pilots can Amazon make before the money hose is turned off? Also, what would be the gauge of success? Amazon winning an Emmy? Dunno. We're entering a brave new world.

    I think Amazon Studios could do well if they picked up a hot property and then asked the fans exactly what they wanted to see in a t.v. series/movie. Other studios have sort of done this in the past.

  2. You nailed it with the Addendum.

    Beware the blowhard who advertises their product as "game changing." Alas, the trailers for the Amazon Studios projects play like bad UHF parodies.

    If there is a game changer between the two it's definitely Netflix. Unleashing every episode for a season at once so show-a-holics can consume it in a single weekend sitting like some epic 12-hour Lord of the Rings marathon is bold. And it worked with House of Cards.

    1. Hell yes it did. And it also showed just how confident they were with their work to say, "Here, have it all. At once."

  3. I watched some of the pilots already and none of them have been completely terrible. Zombieland worked for me. I was worried about the cast beforehand but I found they pulled it off. The episode was funny and it doesn't hurt that the original writers were back for it - as well as the producers. My only concern if there were to be a series is: can they pull it off without becoming predictable? I'm certainly curious as I can see it going in a few directions.
    As far as "names" are concerned: Alpha House stars John Goodman (and has a cameo by Bill Murray).
    They all have a bunch of actors and/or producers who have worked on other shows (from Frasier to Arrested Development) and the one who hasn't (to my knowledge ), Those Who Can't, is the brainchild of new writers that were discovered through Amazon Studios. That's a good opportunity, right?
    I was never attracted to the idea of submitting my work to them because of the dodgy deal it appeared to be but, to me, it seems that going the original programming way is a good move. I don't know how they'll choose who to pick up and on what budget but I think I like the idea of getting feedback from the "people" (I'm a little in two minds about it; hopefully the haters won't troll too much).
    Finally, they are streaming through Lovefilm here in the UK. It's an equivalent of Netflix so I would think it helps widen the awareness of those shows.
    As for not knowing when network pilot season was, ok, bad call.

  4. Note: I am not even an aspiring screenwriter at this point, only aspiring to be an aspiring screenwriter, and I have not seen Netflix's nor Amazon's original content. But that Addendum reminded me off something I've heard veteran screen and TV writers say time and again: The less micromanaging and studio notes, the better and more coherent the final product will be.

  5. What it seems like Amazon is doing is more akin to test screening, a valuable (most writers and directors agree) process to making movies. From my limited pilot experience, pilots don't get test screenings, there's not enough time. I think this is Amazon's way of changing that.

    In movies, test screenings aren't looked on as a mountain of notes, just an overall opinion of how people were feeling throughout the movie and how likely they are to go and see it. What is working, what could be better. It seems reasonable that TV pilots would want the same type of feedback. It makes no sense to order a series that no on is interested in watching, yet the networks do it year after year. I know the amount of people viewing the Amazon pilots is far greater than the standard test screening audience, but I feel it would basically reveal the same results, just in a more time-consuming, perhaps backwards, way.

    As far as which type of show I would rather work on, well, everyone wants to have creative freedom. But Netflix would never give me the creative freedom of Fincher as I ascend the ranks. I think all you can hope for as a showrunner is to have a long discussion about the show with the network before it begins. You address all their notes, you get on the same page. They understand the show you want to make, and you understand the show they want you to make. The two are the same. Yeah, maybe you had to address a shit-ton of notes to get there, but you're a writer. That's your job.

  6. I was very excited when I first heard about Amazon Studios. I mean, as an unknown writer who needs all the insight he can get, what better sounding way was there? Kevin Spacey's Trigger Street has done something similar for a while, and A.S. sounded like an awesome step forward.

    But, man, did that place feel completely devoid of any actual contributors. It seemed more like a high school pissing contest between somewhat-established writers who wanted to show off just how good they were, and leave anyone else behind.

  7. I really respected what the Netflix guys said re: House of Cards and general autonomy for their original content "What am I going to do? Give David Fincher notes?"

    If you hire professionals with a clear vision you should have a good idea of what the final product will be at the beginning of the process.

    There will always be people who love something and hate something. I can't imagine what the excel spreadsheet from the survey, FB and Twitter feedback will look like and how anyone could possibly digest it into something usable for the future of their series development. Way too many cooks, amateur foodies and people who only eat Hot Pockets in the kitchen.