The Road To Alchemy

And The Road Is Long…

I can’t believe it’s already been a year since we began production on The Alchemist Agenda motion comic. It proved to be a challenging project with an enormous amount of original artwork and animation, but we made the deadline, won Amazon Studios $100,000.00 Best Test Movie Award, and it has been one of the most watched movies on Amazon Instant Video in 2012.

Many people have since inquired about the plans for the live-action version of The Alchemist Agenda, and about Amazon’s unusual approach to developing movies – wondering if they will change the way movies are made in Hollywood, and if we have any inside scoop. So here’s what we know:

Last spring, Amazon Studios changed many of their script submission policies, began acquiring TV projects, and announced fifteen screenplays to comprise their feature film Development Slate (including The Alchemist Agenda). To date, they have formally optioned twenty-one screenplays, nine TV series, and one best selling horror novel from 47North, the science fiction, fantasy, and horror imprint of Amazon Publishing. And they are developing each of those projects in different ways. Some have been attached to producers who are working with the original writers. Others were put up for open writing assignments, to be re-imagined by new writers. Famed novelist Clive Barker was hired to do a rewrite on one project. A digital comic book was created for another. And we know of at least one feature-length test movie being produced in-house as well.

The Alchemist Agenda motion comic test movie had provided the Amazon Studios development team with a lot of audience feedback. They took that information, composed notes, and sent me off to do a rewrite. This revision has recently been uploaded on their site and can be viewed at: http://studios.amazon.com/scripts/25429

Many filmmakers and filmgoers share a common belief that the movie business needs an overhaul. Though profits are still high – mostly due to increased ticket prices, more distribution platforms and foreign sales – the quality and quantity of films based on original material is low. With soaring production and marketing costs, studios too often mitigate risk by regurgitating pre-existing material.

“The six major studios want to make three kinds of movies. They want to make blockbusters costing a hundred and fifty million dollars and up (with another fifty to a hundred million dollars spent on promotion)— that is, films that are based on comic books, video games, and young-adult novels. These movies mostly feature angry pixels contending in the dead air—action sequences of total physical abandonment and virtually total meaninglessness, in which nothing imprints itself on your memory except the experience of being excited. They want to make animated features for families, some of which — especially the ones from Pixar — are very good. And they want to make genre movies—thrillers, chick flicks, romantic comedies, weekend-debauch movies, horror movies. Movies that have a mostly assured audience. Some of those are very good, too, and I sometimes praise them. But it’s not all that we want from movies.” David Denby, The New Yorker.

Amazon Studios is still in its infancy – they have yet to produce a theatrical motion picture or TV show – but they have made it clear that they want to change how original content is found and shaped. They have their share of skeptics, but they also have the means to experiment, and the time to analyze and decide if a new approach can minimize the investment risk and make for better movies.

Since they put up their studio shingle two years ago, they have sifted through thousands of scripts, just like conventional producers do, but they don’t limit their reach to Hollywood writers via agents (although they skew more in that direction now). And they’re not afraid to expose their projects, often in many forms, for public response. Studios typically keep their movies under wraps until they’re released, fearing that spoilers would squash interest, or bad reviews would render them dead on arrival. But Amazon Studios wants to explore various ways to tell a story and test audience reactions in the development phase. Simply put, they want to avoid expensive flops by analyzing audience feedback while there’s still time to make changes.

Amazon.com Inc. is huge. They revolutionized the book industry and changed how we purchase almost any product; they empower customers with choice, and a voice; and they service sellers by analyzing purchasing patterns, targeting likely consumers, and moving product. So it’s a good bet that if they’re going to invest in the high cost of making movies and television shows, they will be less concerned about spoilers, and more focused on finding ways to assure their content is well regarded by its target audience before it’s exploited for profit.

The period best known for revolutionary changes that improved the quality of movies was in the 1970’s when studios allowed writers and directors to make films with little interference. That laissez-faire approach resulted in The Godfather movies, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Star Wars, Taxi Driver, Love Story, The Shining, and Jaws, to name a few – which begs the question: At what point is something overdeveloped, when stories just change to be different and the original inspiration gets sucked out?

Much of the content produced in recent years has no doubt suffered from analysis paralysis, or what writers call “development hell.” But it may be that the costs of making and marketing films has soared so high that it prohibits the kind of risk taking the studios had indulged in the 70’s. So it will be interesting to see if Amazon can apply their savvy crowd sourcing, consumer tracking and data crunching skills to find a new way to mitigate risk, streamline development, and make better films.

After working on projects that have gone through endless revisions and never seen the light of day, as well as projects that have gone into production before the ink is dry, I’ve made three notable observations about the development process in general:

First, a story can be told in infinite variations; some are better than others, and there’s something to learn from every one. Second, the more you develop a project, the better it gets – until it doesn’t anymore. And third, and this I stole from my late film professor, Bill Reilly: ‘There are no rules, but don’t break any.’ All movies, like people, need some basic elements to exist. And all movies, like people, are unique, and need to be treated as such.

I don’t think Amazon will revolutionize the movie industry in the extreme way that they changed how we buy books. But I’m pretty sure that they will be making some great movies, eventually – each one in a new way.

And in my next post, I should be able to announce some exciting news for The Alchemist Agenda. So stay posted…

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Marty Weiss

About Marty Weiss

Became known for creating comedic and highly visual TV commercials, directing hundreds of national and international campaigns for major Blue Chip brands, before segueing into longer form projects.

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