Amazon Studios New (Old) Deal for Screenplay Options

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NEW: Follow up post here

Amazon (yes, that Amazon) is launching a movie studio, and they just gave our horror screenplay Faeries a “consider”. What’s that mean? Not a lot, as near as we can tell.

First, here’s a brief primer on the history of the Amazon Studios deal. (I’m confident in my understanding of this history, but if I’m wrong about any of the details, point me at a source, and I’ll make a correction.)

How it all started

About a year ago, Amazon announced that they were going to become a movie studio, and produce their own content.

The model (generally) was to create a community website for screenwriters and filmmakers, and invite the writers to upload their scripts for the community to see and participate in: this is called a public submission. Then, other members could download and read them, offer their comments and suggestions, and rewrite them if they were so inclined, uploading the new versions as their own. (Yes, there is some protection for the original writer. But it’s confusing at best.)

While lots of wannabe newbies participated, there was also an outcry… from the professional community (Amazon was not Writer’s Guild [WGA] Signatory so was beholden to no guild requirements – thus keeping real professional writers far far away) as well as the more cautious element of the newbie community.

So Amazon changed things (a little) a few months in and allowed writers to disallow collaboration from other members, letting the original author keep some control.

A “Public” script still means everyone can read it. Within “public” there are now three levels of collaboration:
— Open: Anyone can submit derivations (written or video), which Amazon will own.
— By Permission: I can choose who submits written derivations, but anyone can submit video assets, which Amazon will own.
— Closed: Nobody can submit written derivations, but anyone can submit video assets, which Amazon will own.

From FAQ: “If you uploaded an original movie script, these project collaboration settings [open/permission/closed] only allow you to limit the addition of revised scripts to your project at Amazon Studios. They don’t limit other participants’ ability to add video content based on your script, and filmmakers and actors may not adhere to your script in making video content.”

What Amazon gets

Throughout all this, Amazon gains rights to your work the moment you upload it to the site. They essentially have an unpaid option on your hard work (45 days), as well as rights to any of the rewrites other members do, or any video assets from the community (members can make faux trailers, shorts, or even full length features based on your script and upload them).

If during the 45 day option period Amazon decides to pay for a longer option on the script, they’ll give you $10,000 and the 45 days becomes 18 months.

And if you yourself decide to take to heart any of the community feedback and upload an improved version of your ‘play [which assumes it's public and thus you can get feedback], or if any other stranger on the site uploads their take on your property [which assumes it is set to "open" or "by permission"], the 45 day clock starts all over again. Even if the first 45 days has come and gone!

And if that’s not enough, once you remove the screenplay from the site, Amazon RETAINS THE RIGHTS to the associated content (other writers versions, their videos, etc). They can stream member videos based on your screenplay on their subscription VOD platform, plus make money off advertising. Forever. For free. With no payment to you.

Remember, no matter what sharing settings you choose for your screenplay, any other member can always make video derivatives of your screenplay. And:

“[Amazon retains] The right to make and distribute trailers based on it [the screenplay], up to 10 minutes in length, forever.” [from FAQ]

This is a great deal for Amazon. And it is ingenious… they’re in the business of (among other things) content acquisition. You give them an option on your intellectual property for free, they encourage other people to develop your property for free, they encourage you to improve your property for free, and essentially maintain a never-ending option on the property. Free. Plus potentially get video content for their video platform. Forever. Free. Did I mention free? Free.

Smart business for Amazon. I just don’t see this as a good deal for writers, and neither did many other writers with a lot more experience and credits than me – like Craig Mazin and John August.

(For those of you not screenwriters, when your script is under “option”, it means the holder of that option has exclusive rights to develop your script with an eye toward eventually purchasing it, and in the meantime you can NOT submit to any other prodco, sell it to anyone else, or submit to any industry competitions. You give up your rights for the option period. Usually writers are paid for option rights… traditionally about 10% of a predetermined purchase price. Learn more about how options work.)

Things change

Fast forward a year (to a couple of months ago) and after negotiating with the writers’ guild in an effort to attract the professional community Amazon changed their model. Now, professional WGA writers could submit to Amazon, not through the community website, but through a guild sanctioned (and presumably more financially professional) back door.

What’s that do for the amateur community? Nothing. So they also changed their offering to the rest of us: Now non-guild writers can choose to upload a script as a private submission. Not visible on the site. Nobody but Amazon can see it. No other member has any rights to rewrite it or make video assets based on it. It’s private.

Under a private submission, Amazon has 45 days to review the script, and if they like it enough to want it, they can option it from the writer for $10,000 against a purchase price of $200,000. That’s only about 5%, but hey, the economy’s tough and these are unrepresented writers.

If they don’t want to option it, you get it back. Free and clear. All rights.

Now this IS a good deal for screenwriters. And a lot of other screenwriters, including professionals like John August and Craig Mazin, thought so too.

Of course, here’s the thing: If they DO option it, they can make it public on the site, invite others to collaborate on it just as though it had been a public submission. All the rights issues that came with public submission now transfer to your private submission.

But at least you’re getting paid. After all, if a big H’Wood studio optioned your screenplay for money, they also would bring on other writers to edit and polish, artists to do previz, maybe do some test shoots, etc.

Back to Faeries

We were not interested in a public submission to Amazon… way too many questions, and too many rights issues. But we liked the sound of the private submission. It’s a great opportunity to get your screenplay in front of a capable producer who’s willing to actually read it.

So we submitted our horror screenplay Faeries privately.

Amazon reviewed the screenplay, and chose not to option it. They did, however, let us know that they’d rated it a “consider”. (See this article by my Twitter buddy Michael Lee for an explanation of a “consider” rating on a screenplay.)

Nice. But that’s not all. They also offered to feature the screenplay on their “consider list“. Out of all the screenplays submitted, precious few make it to the consider list. To make it happen, all we need to do is click a button, and make our script a public submission – starting that 45 day option clock ticking.

Now, we could choose to make the script public and displayed on the consider list, and set the collaboration feature to ‘closed’. So nobody can write new version for Amazon to own rights to. But remember, the ‘closed’ setting only applies to written versions. Filmmakers COULD still make video content based on our script. And Amazon would own the rights to those videos. FOREVER. And they can distribute those videos as they please – on YouTube, or on their subscription based VOD platform, and collect ad revenue from associated ad content. Forever. For free. Did we say free? Free. Did we say forever? Forever.

What this amounts to is that while they didn’t want to pay for an 18 month option, they did want us to give them a free option for 45 days. And all that that implies. Exactly what we were trying to avoid by going with a private submission in the first place.

Why would we do this?

We appreciate what Amazon’s trying to do. And we may regret our ultimate decision. But there is no proven value in having our screenplay listed on Amazon’s consider list (as much as we appreciate their kind valuation). There might be someday… hard to know.

Are there other production companies unassociated with Amazon who are trolling the site, reviewing the consider list, anxious to buy? Maybe. Maybe not. There are other places we can post our script (and brag about our “consider” rating from Amazon) where we know producers troll for new projects: InkTip is just one. We’ve already optioned one script through InkTip (Grampa Was A Superhero).

Would we benefit from the feedback of amateur members who read the script on the site? Maybe, maybe not. Likely not as much as we would from the feedback we’ve already gotten from real contest readers and professional analysts.

While there’s no proven upside, there’s a known downside: the screenplay would be off the market for 45 more days, unpaid. And if we uploaded a revision based on Amazon’s notes (which, by the way, they won’t supply to us unless we go public), or those of other members, the 45 days would start over again.

And here’s our biggest concern. How much luck do you imagine a screenwriter will have down the line (once they’ve removed their screenplay from Amazon’s site) optioning or selling the screenplay to another production company, or making it themselves and finding a distributor, when there are ALREADY videos based on that screenplay in the marketplace, on an Amazon platform, in which the screenwriter owns no rights?

If Amazon just gave us the opportunity to post the screenplay to the consider list for 45 days as a good will congratulations, gave the community a chance to weigh in with opinions on the property, perhaps gave us notes explaining why they passed, but otherwise completely protected our rights by disallowing any derivative works (written, video or otherwise) we probably would have done it.

But under the circumstances, we can’t see an upside compared to the risk of one day being in competition with Amazon when we try to sell our screenplay to another producer.

We appreciate Amazon’s “consider” rating. And maybe their public submission option model makes sense for some folks.

But for us, it just doesn’t seem like smart business.

NEW: Follow up post here

Resources:

Amazon FAQ: Who can revise your screenplay?

Amazon FAQ: About rights to original screenplays

Craig Mazin on Amazon Studios’ original deal

John August on Amazon Studios’ original deal

Screenwriter John August and Craig Mazin discuss the new Amazon deal

Michael Lee on what a consider rating on a screenplay means

17 thoughts on “Amazon Studios New (Old) Deal for Screenplay Options

  1. As usual, astute and business-savvy commentary on the topsy-turvy world of screenwriting.
    I always think of the submission and review process as a gradient or continuum of ideas vs. overall merit – if you are WGA and writing for the bigs, you not going to consider Amazon studios anyway. If you have a good idea and good writing (Faeries), but no definitive representation then you should protect that shit and not let anyone near it for collaboration or low-rent optioning.
    If you have a decent idea, and not so good writing (many/most of my ideas!) then you might consider a non-WGA “see-what-you-can-get” kind-of deal like what Amazon is offering.
    If you’ve never sold a screenplay before, chances are ANY MONEY, COLLABORATION OR FEEDBACK YOU CAN GET is better than none at all. So that’s where I think collaborative ideas and new models come in to the picture.
    I’m pleased that Amazon “considered” Faeries. Good for both of you! I’m also pleased that you are holding out for something better- you deserve it!
    I’m also happy that Amazon is in the mix – who knows maybe they will find an idea that gets better with more interaction. Things certainly can’t get any worse in the traditional production cycle – shit scripts become shit movies, and there are fewer and fewer of them.

  2. Mark Violi says:

    Great article. I also just published a post about the new Amazon Studios and bring up many of the same topics. Love to hear your further thoughts.
    http://markvioli.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/negotiating-the-new-amazon-part-2/

  3. Chip Street says:

    UPDATE: Another Amazon Studios member apparently inquired to Amazon about what being on the “consider list” entails. Here’s their response (in part):

    “No rights would be lost and I can remove at any time.

    Amazon indicated that they would not be providing notes unless a new draft addresses the concerns they have (whatever they may be) and is resubmitted for consideration for the Development List.”

    Um, what? We won’t provide notes unless you submit a new draft addressing our notes? One can only hope said member misunderstood Amazon, or that Amazon very badly borked their reply. Otherwise, this is just an indication that there may be some obfuscation going on regarding just what your ongoing relationship is with Amazon.

    I have submitted my own inquiry to Amazon with some questions. Still awaiting response. Tick tock.

  4. KevinSea says:

    I don’t see them as ingenious.? The IP land grab is a rather smart way to put people off, not build trust and demonstrate that they don’t understand crowds and/or social networking. Smarter would be try new things, e.g., they could let you keep all the rights and reserve a right to stream the production a certain number of times on Prime after its public release regardless of who owned it or how released. Yes, you would sell subject to their rights but what if they gave you the right to buy it back at say $50,000? Their way just seems to waste everyone’s time.

  5. Armak says:

    “And here’s our biggest concern. How much luck do you imagine a screenwriter will have down the line (once they’ve removed their screenplay from Amazon’s site) optioning or selling the screenplay to another production company, or making it themselves and finding a distributor, when there are ALREADY videos based on that screenplay in the marketplace, on an Amazon platform…?”

    This is a great essay and the above question strikes me as the crux of the issue, but the author asks it rhetorically, not even trying to answer it. So it bears repeating, non-rhetorically: so WHAT IF there are fan-made videos out there? How could that hurt a project? I’m really asking. I sold my first feature film on the festival circuit, worked for many prod-cos, and follow the industry closely. There were fan-made videos for “The Avengers” being made since the project was announced and AFAIK none were taken down for IP infringement, since they were recognized as a token of— and probably even feeding into— the project’s appeal. I’m a (newish) member of Amazon Studios and every trailer I’ve seen there has been unwatchably amateurish. It seems to me that there are grounds to argue that the very fact people have made their own videos (for free) from the script indicates the script has lots of appeal.

    What is the possible downside? That a producer will read the script, love it, and then find one of Amazon’s amateur trailers and the poor quality will kill their enthusiasm? Ie. that the crappy real video will replace their amazing mental video?

    About Amazon’s ownership of the derivative properties: Turnaround happens all the time; when a prodco picks up a project in turnaround, they reimburse the previous prodco for their development investment and take over their rights. If Amazon takes a 45 day option and lets it lapse, I would expect that the next producer to option it would acquire the rights to said derivatives, after paying Amazon their $10k. I don’t believe you can just legally declare you own something forever; but then I’m not a lawyer (just spent way too time with producers reps).

    In an indie distribution scenario, is it possible that, around the film’s release date, the general public could stumble on Amazon’s videos from years past and get so confused they think the video footage is from the actual movie? I would think Amazon would have a legal obligation to mark their videos as unsolicited, fan-generated Amazon product and NOT the product of the filmmakers, production company, and/or distributor. Trademark law probably has something to say about that, as well. (Or does it?!)

    Another question: what does AS have to gain from owning this stuff? Even if someone made an amazing trailer or scene video for a script, I don’t see how they can benefit from the script being sold or film being made by someone else, other than to say “That was here first.” Which means they let it slip away. In Hollywood, studios often let projects die on the shelf than put them in turnaround for fear they’ll be a hit for someone else, since it is so humiliating. So you could argue Amazon would be best served by NOT exploiting all the videos accumulated under a given project that they didn’t make.

    I would love to hear these questions answered by (eg.) folks like August & Mazin and pros in the acquisition world like Sloss and Elwes. It’s all necessarily speculative since this is uncharted waters mixing with uncharted waters, but their years of experience will provide insight into this central question that’s so bafflingly unaddressed here.

  6. Chip Street says:

    @ Armak – Your questions are legit… and not being a lawyer, I didn’t try to answer them, only (as you did) pose them.

    That said, here are my thoughts, through the filter of my limited personal experience: My partner and I are not working with H’Wood studios, nor are any of the writers who are on the AmazonStudios site. We’ve got a couple of indie options and one small indie feature sale between us, so we’re accustomed to working not with studios but with small indie producers who don’t have the desire or resources to address any questionable provenance. If they like your script, but believe they’re going to either have to negotiate with, battle or pay a behemoth like Amazon, they’ll likely opt to simply pass in favor of a script with no such complications.

    Same for small distributors. Don’t have rights for the Rolling Stones song in that movie you’re trying to sell them? See ya. Come back when you do. They don’t have the resources to deal with it.

    Yes the derivative videos on Amazon are crappy amateur videos (what little I’ve seen). But we can and must assume that this is the model Amazon intends to use and scale as they (theoretically) generate better scripts and better assets. It’s a clearly defined aspect of their business model. How do we know that?

    Because in their TOC they retain rights to derivative videos, including the right to deliver them VOD and collect ad revenue from them, forever. They clearly believe that in time, the videos will either get better and deliver on an ad based revenue stream, or they will be able to create an audience for the quality of video they currently have. Either way, we must figure that into our decision.

    So, if we were to give them the free 45 day option, we must assume that it’s *possible* that they’d use that time to work with their membership to generate decent video content based on it that’s worthy of monetizing.

    And once you get your script back, it comes with that baggage. It may become an issue in a future sale, it may not. I personally don’t think it’s worth the risk *at this stage in my career*.

    What does Amazon gain by owning rights to a bunch of crappy video (assuming great video is never achieved)? Who knows? They clearly believe there’s value there. Maybe they’ll find a way. There are multi-million dollar businesses based on hours and hours of guys getting hit in the balls and snarky kittehs, so go figure. Whatever the value is, they’ve got an interest in owning it, and the resources to aggressively protect it.

    I, too, would love to hear opinions from pros in this arena.

    I think that to an aspiring screenwriter, the public submission offer coming from any other indie prodco would raise alarms. It’s the Amazon name that makes it feel like it’s worth doing. It’s sexy. They have money and resources.

    If we take “Amazon” out of the vocabulary, and just outline the two models generically, it looks something like this:

    Public submission: A producer with deep pockets, an installed distribution model, and more resources than God comes to you and says “I’d like to option your screenplay for free for 6 weeks. During the option, you can’t market it, but I will share it publicly with hundreds of other aspiring writers, and let a bunch of aspiring filmmakers make videos based on it. If I don’t buy your script, you can have it back, but I’ll own rights on all the stuff those people made. Deal?”

    Private submission: A producer with deep pockets, an installed distribution model, and more resources than God comes to you and says “I’d like to option your screenplay for free for 6 weeks. I won’t show it to anyone but my readers. If I don’t buy it, you can have it back free and clear. Deal?”

    Of those two models, I think the second is reasonable. What got my panties in a bunch was that second producer coming back and saying “I don’t want your script, but I do want to offer you deal number ONE.” To me it felt like an effort to entice more cautious screenwriters into the less reasonable option model.

    And for me, that would not have been a good business decision.

  7. Chip Street says:

    One other thought: “There were fan-made videos for “The Avengers” being made since the project was announced and AFAIK none were taken down for IP infringement, since they were recognized as a token of— and probably even feeding into— the project’s appeal.”

    I am not a lawyer but:

    The difference (as I see it) is that those are in fact “fan films” – the fans who make them do so knowing that they do NOT own the IP, and retain no ownership that complicates the studios’ ownership of the source property, and cannot monetize them (if they did monetize them, I can assure you they would be taken down for IP infringement).

    This does not appear analogous to what’s happening on Amazon – at Amazon these are not “fan films”, they’re projects that the screenwriter (via the TOC they sign with Amazon) has transferred some rights to, and that the video producer (via the TOC they sign with Amazon) has transferred rights to.

    Amazon DOES own some rights to the video products, which allows them to monetize the videos, and which MAY conceivably complicate the writer’s ownership of the source property.

    Please, a lawyer with understanding of the Amazon TOC chime in!

  8. Here’s an interesting take on film options and the self-publishing space . . . http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hugh-howey/self-published-book-wool-movie_b_1540211.html?ref=tw
    He makes the point that I was sorta getting at – if you are starting out, then WORD OF MOUTH IS KING. Getting others to fan-film, rewrite, talk about, blog about, re-work, or otherwise show interest in your piece is the absolute pinnacle of what you should expect (aside from having Ridley Scott turn your self published manuscript into a film).
    My feeling is that if you have something hot, then others will take notice and you will have the capability to DO SOMETHING with your effort.
    In this way, Amazon Studios, “consider list”, fan films, and unsanctioned rewrites are all good.
    It’s been my firm belief that since Gutenberg . . . “ownership” is only worthwhile for those who can enforce it.

  9. Chip Street says:

    Good article, Matthew — thanks for the link. I can only hope my self-published novel has a tenth of his success.

    I stand by what I said right above you though… fan fiction retains no rights to either ownership or monetization. And that’s great. It elevates the source without diminishing its market value to the originator.

    While what Amazon’s users are doing (making derivative videos) may be “fan fiction” in that (we presume) they’re fans of the source material, it’s not fan fiction in the legal sense. It’s essentially a “work for hire” for Amazon, and diminishes the value of the source piece for the originator. IMHO.

    Fuck, I wish a IP lawyer would chime in.

  10. popcornflix says:

    Your article about Amazon is right on the mark.

    I suggest you view Amazon Studios as a free reading service. Submit your script when it’s as perfect as you can make it, and then use their response as market feedback.

    If they want an option, you know it’s good enough to shop around. If they don’t, back to the drawing board.

    Accepting their offer, of course, would be foolish.

  11. Joe James says:

    Problem is by submitting your screenplay you’ve entered into a 45-day option deal. So it’s not “if they want an option”, it’s “if they want to extend the option deal you’ve already agreed to”.

    If they do decide to extend the option for 18 months, your paid 10K and at the end of 18months they can decide to renew the extension for an additional 10K. Also when they extend the option your screenplay is placed on their site to be viewed publicly and while you can choose to prevent others from submitting rewrites/revisions of your screenplay, you cannot prevent filmmakers from making videos which are then property of Amazon Studios.

    • Chip Street says:

      Hi Joe, thanks for checking in… not sure what you’re saying that hasn’t already been said but thanks for corroborating.

  12. [...] Update 01.06.2012: Amazon Studios New (Old) Deal for Screenplay Options [...]

  13. Gary Hanna says:

    Here’s the thing I haven’t heard mentioned.

    If someone steals or “riffs” your script, you at least have proof it was yours.

    However if someone reads your script then HAS ACCESS TO THE MINI BIBLE with STORYLINE IDEAS, then makes a script based on your 5-6 premises….

    Their should be separate privacy options for script and mini bible.

    • Chip Street says:

      “Proof it was yours” is meaningless if you’ve given Amazon legal rights to your property and the “riffs” other members generate.

  14. BRYAN says:

    Thank you for this article. It was very informative. Now I know where
    not to send my screenplays. EMPIRESIMS.COM

  15. I am going to send them some of my “last-chance-saloon” scripts – scripts that have done the rounds and are now languishing on the shelf. I’ll hang on to my more recent material. I can afford the 45 day free option for material that I do not see going anywhere for the time being. However I will do two things also: (1) I will go over the old material and polish it before I submit it; and (2) I will submit it privately.

    If they option it and make it public at least I will make money from the option ($10,000 isn’t so bad even if it is only 5% for an 18 month option). Also, as far as I can tell, the author is not required to give up novelization rights (quiet! don’t tell Amazon!). So I can novelize them and sell that for the kindle (and Smashwords). That seems like a reasonable compromise for some one in my impercunious position. But it isn’t for everyone.

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