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Crowdsourcing Movies: Can Amazon Really Change Hollywood?

It was the week before Thanksgiving, and one of the stranger stories I’d seen in a while flew through my tweetstream: Amazon has created a movie studio called – brilliantly enough – Amazon Studios. I literally scratched my head for a couple days trying to figure out why, and am just now coming to some conclusions. While I can understand the play on a couple levels, I think some of their ‘innovations’ aren’t going to go over well. But perhaps that’s the point; change the rules of the game altogether. At a minimum, they have an interesting take.

On first examination, the venture looks a lot like any other slightly random co-marketing deal undertaken by a category leader. Amazon has a first look deal with Warner Bros. Pictures, which kinda says traditional Hollywood movie-making tactics but Amazon Studios is bringing some rather unconventional web-style collaboration dynamics into play. In what I think is the venture's oddest aspect, Amazon Studios requires a ‘test movie’ or script be uploaded, and then opened for all users to comment and edit – regardless of one’s credentials. I found the answer to my biggest question to be rather amazing:

Q: Can I make it so that no one else can revise my original work?

A: No. But if someone makes changes that are bad, their version is not likely to get a lot of attention. And if someone comes along and makes your work better, you're more likely to win a prize and get your project made. Sometimes other people can bring a different viewpoint or a different set of skills that take the story in a new direction or add new elements that make it even more compelling. The Amazon Studios process is designed to facilitate and reward these contributions.

Now I’m no screenwriter, but it would seem to me if one wanted collaboration partners they might select them personally in advance of writing.  And yes the insinuation above is correct: the prize money is split between the original author and any subsequent ‘contributors’ whereby the prize money could be split up to 50-50 between the original author and any subsequent editors.

On its best day, it seems the Amazon Studios process creates a whole new style of film-making that has the potential to be faster, smarter and create better movies than are seen today. On its worst day, it seems to be a place for professional screenwriters to co-op outsider’s core ideas and turn them into the next ‘The Last Airbender’ (overproduced crap for those not immediately familar with the flick). Either way, the same market forces  – Hollywood execs who chair the prize committees and Warner Bros.’ first look deal – determine what gets made and what doesn’t, so I’m not sure how revolutionary it will end up being.

From an Amazon perspective, I can see this as another interesting affinity-level move into entertainment. They’ve done a decent job of keeping iTunes honest with MP3 Downloads, and Jeff Bezos was certainly visible during the announcement of Kleiner Perkins’ sFund – even giving away a ton of S3 access to social-powered startups.

And you can imagine the move to full-length films being streamed (like the latest Netflix sans-DVD product offering, or the Amazon Movies on Demand service on my TiVo right now) calls for a solid foothold with independent filmmakers. But let’s be real, the total prize budget for Amazon Studios is $2.7M, which is probably about 4.62 minutes of profit during the Holiday Season. And finding fresh young scripts or directors isn’t exactly so difficult it requires herculean new strategies – the Hollywood machine has consistently shown it’d rather back Scream 4 than the next incarnation of ‘The Brothers McMullen’.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s just as likely the whole exercise is an elaborate way for Amazon to get preferential pricing or access to the remainder of the Harry Potter movies. Or maybe they will remake a decades-old method by which movies are made.

For the record, my bet is this falls dead flat but I’d love to hear your thoughts below…

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