Read That Amazon Studios Contract Carefully, Kids


Amazon (s AMZN) announced this week a new initiative called Amazon Studios, which offers aspiring filmmakers more exposure by allowing them to submit scripts and test films and receive, in exchange, a total of $2.7 million in prize money and the chance to see their projects made into “major feature films.” Over 500 projects, from scripts to “test films,” have been submitted so far, and Amazon has provided plenty of tips and suggestions on how to get involved with the project.

In addition, Amazon makes a big deal on their main page about how anyone submitting content should be very sure that they have the rights to it — the reason being that they want the rights to themselves, with most project phases requiring the creator to surrender all rights forever without any claim to compensation.

To Amazon’s credit, they make a big deal about how creators should read the Amazon Studios contract: The Development Agreement not only includes a clearly-written synopsis of the rights being given away, but also is sure to mention that “THIS AGREEMENT GIVES US RIGHTS IN CONTENT YOU CONTRIBUTE TO AMAZON STUDIOS. PLEASE READ IT CAREFULLY.” (It is written in all caps at the top of the contract, just like that.)

Instances when you surrender all rights to your IP without compensation:

  • If you revise someone else’s script
  • If you make a test movie based on someone else’s script
  • If you revise someone else’s film

The best deal for creators, therefore, is to create your own original script or film and submit it — however, to do so gives Amazon Studios a free 18-month option on your content: “For 18 months after you create a project at Amazon Studios, you cannot display, sell or license your script elsewhere, or withdraw it for any reason,” the contract synopsis reads. They might buy the rights to your script or film for $200,000, but there’s no guarantee of that.

A commenter on the Amazon Studios forum points out that:

“Amazon wants to option scripts for free. The problem here is 18 months of exclusivity… for free. Normally options are paid. Writers do not give anyone exclusive rights to anything for free. TOS needs to change ASAP. I was really exited about amazon studio [sic] and this is a ridiculous term is in the fine print. No serious writer would should consider giving away exclusive rights for free.”

It’s telling that no Amazon Studios representative has yet replied to his post, despite it being on the official forum for over 12 hours now.

You can’t even put your project on other websites, per the official FAQ:

Can I put my Amazon Studios movie on other websites?

No. It’s important that people view your movie at Amazon Studios so they can leave feedback for the artists involved. You can post your trailer or writer’s pitch wherever you want, and we encourage you to tell people about your project via Facebook, Twitter or wherever. Please be sure to include a link to the Amazon Studios page for your movie so people can visit and leave you feedback.

But here’s the big problem with Amazon Studios: Many companies have offered aspiring filmmakers this sort of “we take the rights, you get exposure” deal. While few have led to the creation of a breakout mainstream hit or the successful launch of new talent, these programs at least guarantee applicants the following: Someone famous and connected in the film industry, from Project Greenlight’s Ben Affleck and Matt Damon to Openfilm’s James Caan, will see their work.

But Amazon Studios is launching without any high-level talent attached. The official FAQ currently addresses the question of who picks the winners by saying:

Winners are selected by a committee of qualified judges, which we expect will include a combination of Amazon Studios team members and others who have insight into film, such as writers, directors, producers and critics.

“Others who have insight into film”? Really? That’s the sort of thing worth figuring out in advance. So far, the only judges to be announced are those for the January 2011 awards, which will be judged by Film Department CEO Mark Gill, USC Film and Television Production Chair Michael Taylor, USC Writing for Screen and Television Chair Jack Epps, and UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television Visiting Assistant Professor Mike Werb.

The biggest promise Amazon Studios is making right now is that “Winners of the Amazon Studios Annual Awards won’t just get money—they’ll also get a meeting with Warner Bros. development executives.” That’s the Annual Award winners, by the way, who won’t even be selected until the year 2012.

So, yes, this is a way to potentially get some cash up front for your projects. But to contribute means to option away your content for no money, and to collaborate means to give away your ideas for a chance at winning a prize. For those bursting with ideas, perhaps it’s not such a bad deal, but it just goes to show: Always read the fine print.

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