Monday, January 17, 2011

Amazon Studios - How desperate do you have to be to take a bad deal?

This weekend, I commented on a post regarding Amazon Studios over at Scott Myers' excellent blog Go Into The Story. It was an open call for questions to one of their representatives, and I, taking the tone of a hostile cross-examining attorney, posted several pointed questions that more or less jumped off from my own issues with Amazon.

Very quickly I was attacked by another poster who made incredibly off-base statements and misrepresented in my position in what appears to be an effort to hop onto an anti-Hollywood soapbox and use this tirade to attack the Hollywood establishment, at the same time presenting my view as saying that since I was against Amazon Studios, I was apparently against everything BUT the traditional method. He accused me of telling him to "shut up and let the pros do it."

Most comically of all, this poster then proceeded to validate my central thesis, stating "Yes, the Amazon deal is bad. But if you're in Podunk without a shot, it's A deal!"

As I took him to task for misrepresenting me, than attacking me personally based on those misrepresentations, it occurred to me that this screed wasn't about me at all - he was just looking for a fight with someone who was anti-Amazon. However, in doing so, he gave me a window into the mindset of someone who might be tempted by Amazon's magic beans - so let's dispense with those arguments one-by-one, shall we?

"A bad deal is still A deal, so why shouldn't I sign? If Amazon is screwing writers, then let them sue or go public with the injustice" - Let me tell you a story about musician Billy Joel. In the early 70s, Billy signed a deal with label owner Artie Ripp. This was a ten-record deal, but among its stipulations was that Ripp made a huge chunk of the money, while Billy himself got very little money from the sales of his albums.

I'm sure at the time, Billy's attitude was, "Hey, I've got nothing. This is all hypothetical money anyway, so why not sign? At least it's a deal."

In an unbelievable error, Ripp's people accidentally mastered Billy's first album at the wrong speed, making Billy sound like the lead singer of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Outraged, Billy refused to work for Ripp but couldn't get out of his contract. So he fled to L.A. and played in piano bars for six months until he was fortunate enough to get Columbia Records to buy out his contract with Ripp... except that Ripp would get 25-cent royalty per album on all of Joel's first ten albums. Ripp made millions for doing very little than releasing a sub-par album and getting lucky enough to sign a desperate artist to a very bad deal.

When The Stranger became one of Columbia Records best-selling albums, that deal meant that Billy himself didn't become a millionaire off of it, while a lot of people around him did. But hey, at least he got A deal, right?

It's one thing to use a lawsuit to seek legal redress when you didn't know any better, but is it really smart to drop your own pants, bend over and lube up for your violator under the certainty you'll be able to make him pay later?

"It's time Hollywood did something different from franchise pics, superhero movies and all high-concept all the time. We need fresh ideas!" - And opening the door to outsiders via Amazon fixes this how? The decision makers at the top are still the same people. No one from Podunk is going to get to play studio executive and that's where the real power lies in setting the slate. We see these genre pics, superhero films and high-concept scripts because that is what the studios are buying. That is where they are making their investments. It's not like there are a lot of writers out here with a passion to go from Transformers V to GoBots: Resurrection to Battleship. These newbie screenwriters are going to have to deal with the same marching orders from executive.

If Amazon is irrelevant why is everyone making such a fuss about it? All the pros speaking out against Amazon seem to be "protesting too much?" I think they're running scared because it's a threat to the system. They know they'll lose their jobs to all of these writers from the outside. - If you honestly think that any professional screenwriter is legitimately terrified that their jobs are in jeopardy from ventures like Amazon Studios, then you are deluding yourself. I've spent years reading scripts from the sorts of writers submitting to Amazon Studios and while stating this is going to piss off some readers, it's the truth:

Most of them aren't that good.

Everything I've railed about in this blog, I've seen time and again from newbie writers. I bet that if I went over to Amazon Studios and read several scripts, I'd come away with enough material to validate two-dozen posts and produce an additional dozen new ones.

Did American Idol send Mariah, Christina, and Bono quaking in their boots about how these "discoveries" would nab all the record deals? If the Eagles held open tryouts next season, would Michael Vick spend one moment thinking that an outside discovery would steal his spot on the team?

It strikes me that aspiring screenwriters are far more adversarial to professional screenwriters than actual working screenwriters are towards other working pros - and those people are their direct competition!

Outsiders act as if any idiot could write a screenplay and these "morons" getting paid millions for putting words to paper are just lucky enough to know someone on the inside. That's all it takes. A good connection and the writers are set for life. True, I've spoken many times before on the benefits of networking. The right connection can put you in the right place to advance your career, but here's the catch - you have to have the goods.

Kurtzman & Orci have the goods. John August has the goods. Mike Dougherty has the goods. Eric Heisserer has the goods. Josh Klausner has the goods. The Nolan brothers have the goods. Aaron Sorkin has the goods. I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

And yes, I'm sure there are plenty of writers outside L.A. who are learning their craft and may have the goods too. But they are statistically insignificant if you really expect a revolution that will sweep out the current titans and usher in entirely fresh blood.

And hey, after all this, if you're still inclined to upload to Amazon Studios, clearly nothing I say will change your mind. Don't look down on those writers trying to tell you that this is a bad deal in terms of what a writer should make. In your paranoia, don't mistake their "voice of experience" for jealousy or fear.

If you decide that your creative output is worth no more than the table scraps that Amazon lets fall, then you not only denigrate your own value as an artist, you denigrate artists everywhere.


  1. I think you're absolutely right, Bitter.

    A while back I checked out John August's blog on this topic, and I found the talkback very depressing; some posters were clearly desperate people with little knowledge of how the business works and their attitude was what you stated "a deal is a deal."

    I can only imagine the quality of their work, but the chances are that if they have spent no time familiarizing themselves with the business, they probably haven't spent much time familiarizing themselves with the principles of good screenwriting.

    I find sites like Trigger St to be dumping grounds for generally poorly written scripts; how much more so a clusterf**k like Amazon Studios.

    What I find most egregious of all is that any chancer (in fact, dozens of them if it's a popular script) can COMPLETELY REWRITE a writer's script.

    I have great respect for serious amateur writers (those of us who spend a lot of time on the craft and business of screenwriting). A deal like Amazon Studios will only attract those who have no respect for themselves as writers and aren't serious about having real careers.

  2. That was a very heated exchange. Good popcorn entertainment on the weekend, Bitter.

    It's the reaction you're going to get from anybody that submitted to Amazon Studios. And the guy that argued with you did submit to Amazon Studios. I doubt he's going to end up agreeing with you as it would only make him appear foolish. The expected fall back of: "A deal is a deal" is disappointing to read.

    It's hard out there, but without the people ignoring solid advice from pros and the experienced, people like you wouldn't have blogs.

  3. Good post, TBSR. And great example re Billy Joel. Musicians used to get screwed routinely by being forced to sign away publishing rights to their songs to make any record deal. Sure, you can say yes to a bad deal because it's, you know, a DEAL. But as one screenwriter told me once, "The only real power you have as a writer is the power to say no." He meant that on a LOT of levels.

    I am buried in work, but hope this week I can assemble all the questions and concerns you and others have raised, and forward them to the representatives from Amazon Studios who have reached out to me for comment. If you get any further inquiries here, please feel free to send them my way.

  4. Scott - thanks! And I absolutely will forward on any questions. Also, I invite any readers/commentators to contact Scott directly with questions for the Amazon reps.

  5. We owe you, Scott, John and host of others sincere thanks for speaking out on behalf of the screenwriting community and clearly outlining why this is such a bad deal.

    I'm one of those "aspiring screenwriters", working on my craft. Now that I have the straight goods, I'm steering clear of that rotting Amazon carrot.

  6. Good points, but there's an argument to be made that if Billy Joel had never signed that initial deal, he would never have become famous and made his millions. I worked in the music industry for many years (artist & studio mgmt), and 99% of artists who want to protect their publishing and masters never make it or get heard. Those who are willing to give up a lot in the beginning, are more likely to succeed (because you prove that you can make a lot of money for someone else).

    In the end, that's the ultimate sacrifice you seem to indicate - money. I'm not sure that makes the Amazon deal bad.

  7. Sound - I certainly don't want to second guess your experience in the business, but it's worth pointing out that Billy got EXTREMELY lucky that Columbia was interested in buying out his old contract. At that time, he only had one solo album to his name, and "Cold Spring Harbor" was far from being a hit. It's not quite analogous to a situation like Ray Charles becoming so big at his first label that another label was willing to give him anything just to make a deal with him.

  8. Yeah, I know what you're saying, but some folks might not care about the money they make on the backend, versus just getting something out on the big screen and then hopefully getting a better deal with the next project. Maybe Billy Joel isn't a perfect example, but there are plenty of artists that have been "aided", if you will, by signing bad deals early on. I'm not trying to justify the fairness of those deals, but what if you're not that great a screenwriter, for example, then maybe this Amazon thing isn't that bad a deal for you, if it leads to something. Everyone is not the next Aaron Sorkin, after all. :-)

  9. Triggerstreet is not a dumping ground for poorly written scripts, it's a workshop for improving poorly written scripts and learning the craft. Once scripts are good enough to send out, or once scripts are optioned, most writers remove them from the site. Within the category of "poorly written scripts" there's a lot of latitude, and there are well-written scripts on the site.

    The proportion of bad to good scripts is certainly no higher than at any writing website or writer's group.

    No quarrel with the rest of the reply or the original post.