Nearly every day there is an announcement regarding A-list talent striking a deal with an online content provider. Woody Allen is creating a series. Check. Guillermo del Toro is producing a series. Check. Ridley Scott and David Zucker produced a series. Double check. This is a brave new world, indeed.
In fact, earlier this week Amazon Studios announced their intent to join the feature film business, a venture which will be helmed by veteran independent producer Ted Hope. Together, they aim to release twelve features a year, each of which will first have a four to eight week theatrical run before being made available through the streaming service. Initially, much of this news could be brushed off with a “oh, they’re just trying to compete with Netflix and cable.” But it now appears that they’ve got their eyes on bigger game–the film industry itself.
It doesn’t end there. Amazon Studios hasn’t been shy with their intentions with television plans either, they’ve been blasting out new pilots, series orders and film developments left and right. They even allow unsolicited material to be sent in and pitched to them with the possibility of purchase and production to follow. But a studio with big ambitions isn’t news. What’s intriguing is the why; why are creatives willingly coming on board and what could Amazon possibly offer that’s unique?
Freedom. Amazon’s platform offers unlimited creative freedom, which is something Hollywood just can’t match. Currently, the film industry is in, what can arguably be referred to as, a slump. Studios are releasing fewer movies each year, even fewer of which are based on original material.
This is an industry where even established talents can’t get their films made anymore and even after they jump through all the proper hoops, there’s little promise that their creative control is guaranteed. These are all issues that Amazon doesn’t have to worry about. They’re sitting high above it all in a heaven called online content, beckoning down with open arms.
Take Del Toro for instance. His new Amazon series, A Killing on Carnival Row, didn’t begin as a series. Back in 2005, Travis Beacham wrote the spec, which sold to New Line. Then it found a home at Warner Bros. Then Legendary. Ten years and several false starts and director attachments later, the film was never made. Yet now, it’s a new show coming on Amazon. This sends a giant message to filmmakers: If you want your work actually made, go online. Perhaps we’ll now finally see At The Mountains Of Madness and Hellboy 3.
This creative freedom has television networks running scared. How could they possibly compete? Online content isn’t forced to adhere to to strict censorship and FCC fines. It typically enjoys a higher budget and A-list actors are more willing to jump on board. Online content offers no annoying commercials and ads and there is no waiting until next week to watch. Loved episode three? Well then you can watch episode four right after. This gives unto you the power to binge-watch to your heart’s content. There is no possible way for television to compare.
Amazon just won two Golden Globes for its critical darling Transparent, starring Jeffery Tambor. The win is a huge indicator of the power of the platform, proving again how online content is, to put it quite frankly, butchering the television landscape.
The viewers have spoken and they prefer tighter seasons, grander production value, and a higher quality to their content. It needs to be understood that this demand will not stop with television, and will hit the film industry sooner rather than later. With ticket prices higher than ever, the sad truth is that audiences just aren’t going to the movies anymore. In fact, in 2014 ticket sales plummeted lower than they have in the past two decades. A rough estimate of 1.26 billion consumers purchased tickets in 2014, making it the lowest since 1995’s 1.21 billion. The numbers don’t lie: This is a massive problem.
With feature films inducing bloated budgets and generating less revenue, there will no doubt be a cutback on the amount of features produced, leaving room for Amazon Studios to become a massive threat. Being able to offer the freedom and the backing for creatives is a big deal, as an Oscar-winning titan like Woody Allen is not an easy get.
Amazon has also used their pilot seasons to prove that they genuinely encourage and learn from their audience’s reactions. In the previous pilot season in August, five comedy and drama pilots were released. The pickup to series went to the Ron Perlman-led Hand Of God, written by Ben Watkins and directed by Marc Forster, and Steven Soderbergh’s coming-of-age comedy Red Oaks, while additional scripts were ordered from Whit Stillman’s comedy The Cosmopolitans. The anticipation for Chris Carter’s (X-Files) new drama The After was high, but the poor critical reception and audience reaction led to it being swiftly axed.
This latest pilot season, which began last week, already has a strong frontrunner in The Man In The High Castle. The series is produced by Ridley Scott and David Zucker, and is just another example of the cinematic quality of online content. There were several other standouts — Cocked, Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998, The New Yorker Presents— and some duds — Mad Dogs, Point of Honor.
These pilot seasons have the potential to foster audience participation with the network, by actually allowing viewers to choose and vote for their content. The network allows unsolicited material to be submitted, from pitches to screenplays. The level of audience participation in submitting and choosing future content, along with submitting work, fosters a prime environment for new creative content to thrive.
Amazon Studios’ future is a murky one. Will the pilot season/viewer voting process pay-off? Will any of the new series best Transparent? Will the feature film initiative create a new platform for success? Only time will tell. But, you’ve got to hand it to Amazon, at least they’re trying something creative and new in an industry full of stagnant unoriginality.
Clark Allen and Olivia Diaz | Staff Writers