×

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.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

  • 45 Seconds of Laughter

    Film Review: '45 Seconds of Laughter'

    “Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Selected for AFI's Life Achievement Award

    The American Film Institute Board of Trustees has selected Julie Andrews as the recipient of the 48th AFI Life Achievement Award. The award will be presented to Andrews on April 25 in Los Angeles. The ceremony will be telecast on TNT. “Julie Andrews is practically perfect in every way,” said Kathleen Kennedy, chair of the [...]

  • 4127_D001_00007_RC Phyllis Logan stars as Mrs.

    'Downton Abbey' to Dominate Box Office Weekend With $30 Million

    The feature film version of “Downton Abbey” is heading for an impressive $30 million opening weekend at 3,079 sites for an easy victory at the North American box office, early estimates showed Friday. The launch of Brad Pitt’s space drama “Ad Astra” will land in second with about $20 million, while Sylvester Stallone’s action-thriller “Rambo: [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content