The Internet giant is betting that a virtual studio can unearth hot new talent.
22 Nov 2010 - 2:30 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 8:30 AM

Would you be interested in watching a movie based on the true story of the doomed relationship between a 19-year-old youth and his lover, a 13-year-old girl, which resulted in the young man killing his father?

How about an adventure-comedy told from the perspective of the villain, Doctor Savage, as he's accused of bumping off the world's greatest super spy, or a caper in which God interviews various people to take his place because he doesn't want the job anymore?

Perhaps a comedy about five IVF embryos that embark on a journey to find their mother, or a thriller which focuses on a teenage loner who falls for the spawn of Satan?

While it's obviously hard to judge the merits of a screenplay based on a brief pitch, it's also hard to get excited about these projects at first blush, which are among the maiden batch posted on Amazon Studios' website.

The internet giant last week launched this user-generated online development and production studio, designed to flush out viable scripts and projects which might, repeat might, secure funding from Warner Bros., which has a first-look deal with Amazon Studios.

The nascent outfit run by Roy Price, whose father Frank was an executive at Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures, is offering $US2.7 million in cash prizes in the first year, an inducement which, predictably, has triggered a flood of screenplays and 'test' movies: a total of 910 as of this morning.

Starting in January, each month an expert panel will select two scripts whose authors will each get 20 grand, and one test movie, whose producer will collect $100,000. For each title that is released in US cinemas, the filmmaker will receive $200,000, plus a $400,000 bonus if it grosses $60 million in the US. At the end of the year one screenplay and one film will be crowned as the overall winners, with prize-money of $100,000 and $1 million respectively.

The site's users are encouraged to review scripts and test movies and even upload alternate, revised versions, and there will be public test screenings. If Warner Bros. passes on any project, Amazon Studios is free to produce it with another studio.

The industry panel boasts smart creative types in screenwriters Jack Epps Jr. (Top Gun, Dick Tracy and the less memorable Anaconda) and Mike Werb (The Mask, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), former Miramax president Mark Gill and producer Michael Taylor (Bottle Rocket, Phenomenon).

Sounds OK in theory but there are traps for the unwary. Under the terms of the deal, Amazon will get an exclusive 18 months option on all projects without being obliged to fork out any money: a business model which is highly likely to appeal only to rookies or amateurs, not to working filmmakers and screenwriters. The fees are set in stone, so no room for negotiation.

Plus, Amazon gets the rights to show and distribute scripts and movies it's developed in this process forever—a proviso that many pros would balk at. And there's no guarantee that a guy or woman who directs a winning test movie will be hired as the director if Amazon Studios elects to produce a theatrical movie based on that project.

Other firms have tried this user-generated approach to making movies without success. Amazon is betting it can rewrite the rules in Hollywood.