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Amazon.com gets into development business

Website nabs first-look deal with WB; offers monthly contests

Having revolutionized retail shopping and become a major player in streaming video, Amazon.com has started a new initiative aimed at reinventing movie development.

Today the online giant is launching Amazon Studios, a website designed to discover writing, directing and acting talent. Amazon isn’t cutting Hollywood entirely out of the equation, though. Amazon Studios kicks off with a yearlong first-look deal with Warner Bros. Latter already has 32 term deals, the largest number among the majors.

Amazon Studios invites scribes to upload scripts and directors to upload “test movies,” which can be anything from storyboards to fully staged scenes, as long as they run 70 minutes or more, at Studios.amazon.com. A panel of experts will judge the submissions for commercial viability and each month there will be cash prizes. Two scripts a month will receive $20,000; one test movie a month will receive $100,000.

First monthly winners will be announced near the end of February.

One test film will be selected as best of 2011 and receive a $1 million prize, 20% of which goes to the writer. Best script of 2011 gets a $100,000 prize.

If a script submitted through Amazon Studios is made and released theatrically, the original writer gets a $200,000 bonus on top of any prize money. If the pic then goes on to gross more than $60 million in the U.S., the writer gets an additional $400,000 bonus.

Total prize money for the first year will be $2.7 million, according to Amazon.

Roy Price, Amazon director of product development, who was once Fred Spector’s assistant at CAA, is leading the initiative.

Participants are also permitted to submit their own rewrites of scripts already posted. The rewrites are judged separately from the original.

The public may comment on and rate submissions, but only the panel’s judgment is considered for prizes.

Those making submissions are urged to heed the collective wisdom of public comments. “If you look at ideas in the aggregate,” Price said, “that can tell you something significant.” He added: “We think the next Irving Thalberg might be in the global community of filmmakers.”Amazon has tried other ventures in the content entertainment arena. More than two years ago, the company entered into a partnership with Fox to produce “Stolen Child” (Daily Variety, Feb. 21, 2008), although that project still appears to be in development.

Amazon Studios is inspired in part by the open-source software movement, in which anyone can add code to a software app and the community decides whether to adopt the addition.

However, Price noted, the goal is to develop “full-budget theatrical films.”

The first panel judging the scripts includes, from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Jack Epps Jr., chair of the Writing Division, and Michael Taylor, chair of the Production Division; producer Mark Gill; and screenwriter Mark Werb. Amazon execs will participate as well.

Since every script submitted must be read within the month for prize consideration, Price said, “We may become the world’s biggest employer of story analysts.”

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