IT WAS AN OFFER no wannabe director could refuse: Last November, Amazon.com quietly raised the curtain on Amazon Studios, a virtual screening room where aspiring writers and directors can submit their original films and scripts for the chance to—as the site boasts—win money, get noticed, and get their movie made. Starting this month, the studio will award monthly prizes of $100,000 and $20,000, respectively, to the best movie and script uploaded to the site. Even better, if they spot the next Star Wars, they’ll pay its creator $200,000 and take it to Hollywood. And, with apologies to Marlon Brando, Amazon coulda been a contender if no one bothered to read the fine print.
Within 24 hours of the announcement, anti-Amazon backlash flared up—fueled by a blog post by Jesse Harris, a Seattle native and the 24-year-old executive director of the National Film Festival for Talented Youth—and most of it was focused on a handful of clauses buried in the agreement that every submitter must agree to: For starters, by uploading your project to the site, you grant Amazon a free, exclusive "option" to consider your script or film for 18 months. (In other words, you can’t shop it anywhere else for a year and a half.) It’s not unheard of for a studio to get exclusive rights to a script while deciding whether to turn it into a film, but rarely for that long or without compensating the writer. "I have clients who are writers, and I tell them, ‘Don’t give it away for free,’ " says Seattle-based entertainment lawyer Lance Rosen. "If someone is interested in your work, they pay to acquire it."
Then there’s this: Even after the option period expires, Amazon Studios retains nonexclusive rights to any work submitted to the site forever. What the company plans to do with all of those unused scripts and movies—if anything—isn’t spelled out in the agreement, but the fact that Amazon owns a piece of them may make it difficult for the writers or filmmakers to land a deal elsewhere. "Screenwriters often pull something out of a drawer that they wrote 10 years earlier, finally see the flaw in it, revise it, and sell it," says Gano Lemoine, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. "But if they’ve already thrown it up on Amazon, and it has some residual rights to the script, a studio’s going to be very reluctant to touch it because the intellectual property rights have been split."
To be fair, the 18-month option and Amazon’s ongoing rights to the submitted content are spelled out in an FAQ section on the site. And the studio’s director Roy Price concedes that the company’s process may not be for everyone. "We are merely an additional option for screenwriters and not a replacement for traditional Hollywood," he says. But Harris and others in the film industry worry that young directors seduced by the promise of a big break will miss any references to the control they’re surrendering. It’s possible that many already have. By the middle of December, more than 1,700 scripts and films had been uploaded to the Amazon Studios site.
Of course, it’s also possible those aspiring Spielbergs knew exactly what they were signing up for. "A struggling writer might say, ‘Hey, nobody’s reading my damn screenplay anyway. What do I have to lose by getting into bed with Amazon?’ " Rosen says. "Somebody will get their movie made and get paid for their screenplay. But by far, most people won’t."