Amazon ‘Rising’ for scribe tribe

Shingle nabs script from Soderbergh collaborator, moves to entice H'wood writers

Aiming to boost its model of developing screenplays online with bigger-name talent, Amazon Studios approaches its second anniversary with a key acquisition: its first original feature from a top Hollywood screenwriter. Company director Roy Price has just optioned “Burma Rising” from APA/Pitt Group-repped Benjamin A. van der Veen, who co-scripted Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” and the upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Captive.”

When it launched in November 2010, the mandate of Amazon Studios, the original content division of online retail giant Amazon, was to solicit commercial feature scripts on its website from the public and develop them online with customer feedback. They still are, and their features are still squarely targeted for wide theatrical release.

But since the spring, Amazon Studios has broadened its reach, striking a deal with the Writers Guild of America to bring in professional scribes, and soliciting TV series pitches for release via Amazon Instant Video — increasing the content available for digital distribution via Amazon’s growing suite of Kindle products.

Price says “Burma” is a hard-edged action movie about mercenaries who have to extricate themselves from a difficult situation in Southeast Asia. It’s the latest of 20 commercial films on his development slate, the majority of them from newcomers.

In April, the production company expanded its talent pool to include more professionals by pacting with the WGA and the Animation Guild, Local 839, allowing members to submit projects through reps. Price’s first move to bring in big-name talent came this summer, when he signed Clive Barker to rewrite action horror feature, “Zombies vs. Gladiators.”

Other key changes were introduced along with the guild moves: after some criticism over its 18-month script evaluation period, the timetable for Amazon to decide whether or not to option a script before rights revert to the writer was changed to 45 days.

Scribes can now also opt to have their scripts reviewed by staffers in private during this time, or stick with the initial policy of publicly posting them for a simultaneous review by online commenters. And after holding screenplay and “test movie” contests with prize money through 2011 (an endeavor that put 14 features into development), Price decided to offer more conventional $10,000 options on select projects and commission test films.

In May, Price announced a plan to expand Amazon’s content development to comedy and kids’ series pilots for distribution via Amazon Instant Video. “There was a demand for it, a lot of writers wanted to do it (and) TV tends to work more quickly than film, so we just opened it up,” he says.

Amazon’s initial first-look deal with Warners for feature films has been extended, but Price says nothing has come out of that just yet. “When we have (a project) that we’re eager to fund and produce, we’ll explore whether it’s something we should be doing together,” he says.

The policy changes at Amazon have resulted in a bountiful summer — the number of feature script submissions jumped to more than 10,000, and more than 1,800 TV pilot scripts have arrived to date (with seven series in development).

Since the changes in the spring, “there’s been an uptick in both quantity and quality” of the scripts, Price says.

Price also indicates the possibility of shows popping up on broadcast, cable or other media apart from Amazon Instant Video.

“The series that we develop and produce are very likely to appear on Amazon, and the rest of their distribution pattern will be determined at a later time, perhaps individually for each,” he says. “We can be opportunistic about that.”

Regardless of the source, once a script gets optioned after the 45-day window, every project will be workshopped through the same process.

“We develop with customer feedback at every stage, or as often as we can,” Price says. “Generally we need to turn scripts into some kind of visual representation. People will engage with trailers, storyboards and animatic-style test versions of movies much more than they will a screenplay,” he says. In addition to posting test movies online, Price’s artists create “mini-boards,” presenting a film’s story in about 100 storyboard panels for online viewers.

For now, Price says he doesn’t have any fixed schedule or deadlines Amazon has given him, “so we can be careful, let the audience guide us, and produce when we get the right signals (from them).” He’s concentrating on development, remaining ambiguous on questions about future financing, distribution, budget ranges and release projections.

To say things like, ‘Here’s the five-year plan, this is our budget and the number of films were going to do each year, here’s when it’s going to be released in Spain…’-that’s exactly the wrong way to develop a business like this,” he adds. “We’re narrowly focused on getting the best material we can, doing a great job getting and interpreting moviegoer feedback, and creating opportunities for writers and filmmakers. The rest is a byproduct of that. If you do those things well, you’ll achieve good outcomes in those other dimensions.”

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