PRODUCTION TIPS: 6 questions to ask before submitting to Amazon Studios

The greatest obstacle to a filmmaker's career has always been access. Specifically, access defined as the opportunity to pitch and produce a project with major studios, movie stars, production companies, network executives, agents and distributors.  Reaching the people with the financial and logistical capabilities to make a major movie has been made almost impossible by the narrow gate that only lets a privileged few through.  For the most part, to get through has required a combination of networking, winning a major festival award and luck.  Despite the advent of digital technology (or maybe because of it ~~ more competitors trying to make it) it's still hard to break in.  

But now, Amazon Studios is offering the public at large the opportunity to make their filmmaking dreams come true.  And while the opportunity offered still requires talent and work, at least there is a peace of mind knowing that Amazon Studios is offering a legitimate opportunity and not just a huckster's pipe dream.  What's the first sign that it's not a pipe dream?  You DON'T have to pay for anything to submit. In fact, they are offering money for your stories, $200,000 for an original feature-length movie and $55,000 for an original episodic series.  To be considered, all you have to submit is a script or a 2-15 minute video. Sounds great, right?  It is. But, even the beautiful yellow brick road was laced with danger. So, besides evaluating whatever scripts or videos you have to measure it's potential as an Amazon Studio project, you should also consider the following:
  1. Do you have 100% rights to your video or script? Have your legal stuff in order before submitting anything. Register the script with the WGA, at a minimum. If you don't have 100% rights and it's a video, get parties involved in the making of it to sign releases and agreements. If you don't have 100% rights to it because it's a script you co-wrote with a partner, he or she needs to be down with your submission plan (have an agreement with them) and they to need to create an account on Amazon Studios, as well. By the way, it's okay if you submitted your script to contests or festivals as long as you own the rights 100%.
  2. Do you know what this opportunity really means, financially? The opportunity is for Amazon Studios to option your script and video for development and then if they are interested to purchase it wholesale. The initial option period lasts 45 days unless it's extended. They can extend the option period 2 more times for up to 18 months each time by paying you $10,000 each time.  Whether they extend or not, if they exercise the option, they will pay you either $200,000 for a feature or $55,000 for a series.  After that they will then OWN it outright ~~ "If we exercise the Option, we will own, and you hereby assign and sell to us, entirely and in perpetuity and throughout the world, the Option Rights." This means there is no profit participation. According to the fine print in the Development/Option contract, there are additional bonuses if the movie is made under a certain budget, surpasses a specific domestic box office, and is turned into a sequel. There are also bonuses for the series based on running time and whether it's on television or online including a percentage of merchandising.  But that's it, in terms of what you can make off of the project. Now this is not casting aspersions on Amazon Studios. Their purchase price is still relatively generous, they are providing an entryway to a potentially lucrative career and it should surprise no one that they will leverage their power to set the terms favorable to them.  However, I point this out so that you think like a professional about what you are willing to sell, how long you are willing to wait (potentially 3 years for $20,000 if they extend the option period ~~ see point 5 below) and that you are prepared to completely give up the project you are submitting to Amazon Studios.  Give them a good project that can sell and open doors for you, save that Star Wars-like franchise project for when you are inside the private party.
  3. Are you submitting privately or publicly?  Amazon Studios allows you to submit for private evaluation by the Amazon Studios board only or for public evaluation by both the Amazon Studios board and visitors to the website.  Everything else regarding your submission remains pretty much the same.  The main reason to submit privately is to protect your work from outsiders while Amazon Studios reviews it.  However, if your strategy consists of more than just trying to sell your concept (for example, networking and audience testing), you can use this opportunity to find collaborators and get feedback.  These could be like-minded collaborators you can work with not only on the Amazon project but even for other projects you have outside of your submission.  Similarly, audience feedback can inform you of the pros and cons of your project which you can use to your benefit even if Amazon Studios does not pick it up.
  4. Do you want to collaborate? Even if you don't have a script, you can still get involved and help shape a project on the site.  There are even paid opportunities, separate from submissions, to use your writing or directing skills and get paid for it.
  5. Are you submitting a final revision?  I recommend submitting the final revision of your script because the clock for the initial option period of 45 days begins as soon as you submit AND IS RESET WHENEVER YOU MAKE A CHANGE TO YOUR PROJECT SUBMISSION.  Revise the screenplay and resubmit it on the 44th day of the initial option period, guess what... Amazon Studios now has another 45 days to consider your project.  Keep revising it and the clock keeps restarting.  And that's not including the potential 3 years of extended options that await you if Amazon Studios is truly interested and makes the two extension payments of $10,000 each.  That's a long time for $20,000.  Therefore, it's probably for the best to submit the final draft of your script and only make changes to them if they are really, really, really worth it and helpful.  (By the way, if you allow collaborators onto your submission that extends the 45 day initial option period.  So does each time you publish a storyboard.)  
  6. What kinds of movies does Warner Bros. make?  This Amazon Studios opportunity is made possible by a first look deal with Warner Bros. Therefore, it wouldn't hurt to know what kind of projects Warner Bros. likes to develop and produce.  But don't pander or copy what was made recently, be original and authentic.
Knowing the above is the first step in your process to submitting to Amazon Studios should you choose to do so. Do your homework and think it through.  Explore the Amazon Studios website and read and study everything they have in relation to your intended project to determine if they are the right fit for you (FAQs, the agreements, the projects in development, etc.).  And don't forget proper submission formats for scripts and video. If you decide to go for it, all the best to you and let me know about it using the contact form on the left column.

Amazon Studios website:

CASE STUDY: Risikofaktor, a viral music video

Apocalypse ungewiss / Nach vorne ohne Kompromiss / Auch wenn die Zukunft ungewiss

The future is uncertain but to get what you want, you have to take risks.  Rogelio Salinas did just that when he approached the band Die Krupps with an idea for a music video.  But what worked in Rogelio's favor is that he took a calculated risk.  Having been a fan of Die Krupps since the 90s, he understood the band's vision intimately and so had enough understanding of their style to be able to pitch a concept that connected with their music.  And so, Risikofaktor was born.

GENRE: Music Video
DIRECTOR: Rogelio Salinas III
PRODUCERS: Rogelio Salinas III and Rachel Salinas
BUDGET: $130 for props ($65 for the Light Table, $30 Gas Mask, $15 for M80 Canister, $10 Porcelain Doll, $6 for Machete, $4 for Chair)
FINANCING FROM: Self-financing and partnership between the Director and Music Artist
PRODUCTION DATES: 1/12/13 and 1/18/13
POST PRODUCTION DATES: 1/20/13 - 1/23/13
WORLD PREMIERE: various video sharing website and Die Krupps band site on 1/23/13
AWARDS: N/A (Has not been entered in any competitions)
WEBSITE: Die Krupps (wiki)  Die Krupps (band site)

TREATMENT SYNOPSIS: The music video for Risikofaktor tells the story of a man who survives an apocalypse.  But is it all in his mind? Although the apocalypse turns out not to have occurred, he remains cautious throughout the video wary that the pending apocalypse can arrive at any time.

The main elements of Rogelio's  filmmaking strategy consisted of the following: during development and pre-production, (1) do your due diligence and know your client; (2) be credible when you pitch to your client; (3) don't be afraid to cold-call in certain situations; during production, (4) always have a back-up plan and keep your cool;  during post-production, (5) be open to changing your workflow if something is not working; and, during distribution, (6) having a viral video under your belt is a good career move.

KNOW YOUR CLIENT THOROUGHLY SO THAT YOU CAN PITCH AN APPEALING CONTENT THEY CAN CONNECT TO, BE CREDIBLE and DON'T BE AFRAID TO SEEK OPPORTUNITY. Rogelio had an advantage over other music video directors; he was a long time fan of Die Krupps who knew their music and style deeply.  "I discovered Die Krupps in the mid-90’s and they quickly became one of my favorite bands. I was able to connect with the mastermind behind Die Krupps, Jurgen Engler, on Facebook."  In today's fast-paced world, the spoils go to the first one out the gate and Rogelio wasted no time in making a pitch as soon as he discovered they had new music coming out.  "[Jurgen] announced that they were going to release a new single to their first album in 16 years and I mentioned that I would be happy to film a music video for them." He wasn't connected with an agency and Die Krupps were no start-up band, so he wouldn't have been surprised if they had ignored him. "I doubted that I would hear back from him, but to my surprise, he loved the idea [and arranged to meet and shoot with me.  Jurgen had been living in Austin, TX since the mid-90s, although the other two members, Marcel and Ralph still live in Germany.  I was very excited to meet one of my favorite musical artists in person.  On January 8, we met and had dinner to discuss the making of the music video.  The record company wanted a finalized video available online by January 18, to coincide with the release of the single.  Since time was of the essence, on January 11, my wonderful wife, Rachel, and I bought props and worked overnight in the garage, converting it into a post-apocalyptic bunker.  The shoot was scheduled for the following evening on January 12 and we were quite surprised how well, and apocalyptic, everything looked."

"Jurgen came by the evening of the 12th and we came up with some more ideas for the shoot. One immediate problem we had was that Marcel and Ralph were in Germany and would not be available for the shoot.  So, planning for that, I made Jurgen the main character and told him to send me pictures of Marcel and Ralph that I can place on the set.  I filmed his portion late into the evening and we both loved the footage,  we then decided to film the second half of the film in Austin at the Mckinney Falls State Park on January 18th. The filming was going great until the second problem surface, the battery plate on my Red One stopped functioning. I started to panic for a bit since this was the first time it happened, but I was prepared with an alternative, my Canon T4i.  So I used my Canon T4i to film the final portions. The footage still came out looking great and, luckily, I had shot the most important shots with the Red."

DON'T BE STUBBORN WITH YOUR WORK FLOW.  "Post production was a challenge and kept me up very late for several nights. I originally started editing on Final Cut Pro X, but after a few days, I switched over to Premiere CS6 because it allowed me to get better precision edits for a music video like this. After creating a 2K Prores video file from Premiere, I went ahead and finalized it on Final Cut Pro X with some transitions that were not available on Premiere."

HAVING YOUR VIDEO GO VIRAL CAN BE JUST AS GOOD AS GETTING INTO A FESTIVAL NOWADAYS. "The music video was finally completed and we premiered it on Youtube and was viewed over 5000 times in the first 24 hours. The record label rolled it out right after the release of the single and both Jurgen and I were shocked by it's reception.  Even though there was no special event, concert or even press coverage it spread like wildfire.  It quickly became the highest viewed video on my Youtube channel and it helped Risikofaktor reach and stay at the top of the German Alternative Charts for five straight weeks. It has become one of the most popular music videos in Germany. Making this video led to new music artist clients from different parts of the world including a music video for another one of my favorite artists, Decoded Feedback.

CURRENT STATUS OF THE VIDEO: As of today, the music video has already been viewed over 100,000 times online between Youtube, Vimeo, and the German online music channel The video is also playing on music networks in German television.

ADVICE FROM FILMMAKER: "Always strive for excellence and create the best possible project with the resources you have at your disposal. Be a professional by treating everyone with respect. Stay humble and you will achieve much more."

Rogelio's collaboration with Die Krupps for Risikofaktor is proof that risks are worth taking to make your vision a reality.  Specifically in the music industry, musicians are always looking for ways to better express themselves visually and the filmmaker plays a vital role in making that happen.  And making a viral video is the holy grail for musicians and filmmakers alike because it is another way to legitimize and value your work.  Film festival awards and press write-ups are always good to have but the buzz of a viral video can be the quickest way to achieve your goals.  So, what band or musician that you love can you reach out to and collaborate with?

SCRIPT TO SCREEN: Alfred Hitchcock on planning the shots

"You see, it is very, very essential that you know ahead of time something of the orchestration: in other words, image size. What I mean by orchestration is, take the close-up, well, that's like in music: the brass sounding brassy, loud sound before you need it. Sometimes you see films cut such that the close-up comes in early, and by the time you really need it, it has lost its effect because you've used it already.

Now, I'll give you an example where a juxtaposition of the image size is also very important. For example, one of the biggest effects in PSYCHO was where the detective went up the stairs. THE PICTURE WAS DESIGNED TO CREATE FEAR IN AN AUDIENCE AND THEN GRADUALLY TRANSFER FROM THE SCREEN INTO THEIR MINDS. HENCE, THE VERY VIOLENT MURDER TO START WITH, ANOTHER ONE LESS VIOLENT -- AND MORE FRIGHTENING -- AND THEY'VE GOT THE THING IN THEIR MIND. Then, as the film goes on there is no more violence. But in the mind of the audience, and in the anticipation of it, it is all there. Here is the shot of the detective, simple shot going up the stairs , he reaches the top stairs, the next cut is the camera as high as it can go, it was on the ceiling, you see the figure run out, raised knife, it comes down, bang, the biggest head you can put on the screen. But that big head has no impact unless the previous shot had been so far away.

So, that is just where your orchestration comes in, where you design the setup. That's why you can't just guess those things on the set." ~~Alfred Hitchcock

Jeffrey Michael Bays, author of How to Turn Your Boring Movie into a Hitchcock Thriller, also has some very good points about Hitchcock's shot planning that can serve filmmakers well.  The 2 below I chose because they are directly relevant to the scene above and the points Hitchcock was making in his quote. Jeffrey has more lessons through Hitchcock that filmmakers should know and I recommend checking them out here:

FRAME FOR EMOTION - Emotion (in the form of fear, laughter, surprise, sadness, anger, boredom, etc.) is the ultimate goal of each scene.  The first consideration of where to place the camera should involve knowing what emotion you want the audience to experience at that particular time.  Emotion comes directly from the actor's eyes.  You can control the intensity of that emotion by placing the camera close or far away from those eyes.  A close-up will fill the screen with emotion, and pulling away to a wide angle shot will dissipate that emotion.  A sudden cut from wide to close-up will give the audience a sudden surprise.  Sometimes a strange angle above an actor will heighten the dramatic meaning.  (Truffaut)

Hitchcock used this theory of proximity to plan out each scene. These varations are a way of controlling when the audience feels intensity, or relaxation.  Hitchcock compared this to a composer writing a music score - except instead of playing instruments, he's playing the audience!
MONTAGE GIVES YOU CONTROL - Divide action into a series of close-ups shown in succession.  Don't avoid this basic technique.   This is not the same as throwing together random shots into a fight sequence to create confusion.  Instead, carfully chose a close-up of a hand, an arm, a face, a gun falling to the floor - tie them all together to tell a story.  In this way you can portray an event by showing various pieces of it and having control over the timing. You can also hide parts of the event so that the mind of the audience is engaged. (Truffaut)
Hitchcock said this was "transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience." (Schickel)  The famous shower scene in Psycho uses montage to hide the violence.  You never see the knife hitting Janet Leigh.  The impression of violence is done with quick editing, and the killing takes place inside the viewer's head rather than the screen.  Also important is knowing when not to cut. (Truffaut)

Basic rule: anytime something important happens, show it in a close-up.  Make sure the audience can see it.  

Below, Jeffrey further investigates all of Hitchcock's techniques using video:

Also for a lesson-guided overview of Hitchcock's production process through every stage, visit:

PRODUCTION TIPS: What Google's white paper can teach Indie Filmmakers

A large part of a distributor's and filmmaker's day is spent considering how to extract that extra bit of attention from the audience to extract that extra dollar.  Hollywood and its counterparts have the time, desire and money to analyze and figure out ways to accomplish that feat (too bad that the efforts to market many times end up better and more creative than the actual film itself but that's another story).    And although many independent, specialty or art filmmakers can't invest the time or money that Hollywood does (many don't even want to), they still learn, adopt and modify what Hollywood does to effectively reach the audience.  That's why I found the new Google white paper, "Quantifying Movie Magic with Google Search" by Reggie Panaligan and Andrea Chen informative.  The paper is meant to sell the importance and value of using Google/Youtube as a search source and its intended target audience are the makers of studio-financed/distributed films with blockbuster potential.  Still, there are lessons and tips for indie, specialty and art filmmakers trying to reach their audience and here are the points that jumped at me and the key tips I gleaned from them:
1. "When it comes to researching a new movie, 61% of moviegoers state that they turn to online resources. More specifically, almost half are going online and searching for this information." (p. 2) - It goes without saying that having an effective, creative and unique online presence is a must nowadays.  But the numbers suggest that people still use non-online resources as well (39%).  Don't abandon the print, radio, local TV efforts and budget for them.

2. These charts below on pages 2 and 3 that compare and connect the relationship between box office and film-related search indexes throughout a typical year (in this case, 2012).

According to Pagalino and Chen, the charts above reveal the patterns between search activity and box office.  The box office peaks in the charts correlate with the months of May through August (the summer blockbuster season) and November through December (Thanksgiving through Christmas).  Typically those periods have been the best for blockbusters and it supports the writer's thesis that there is an uptick in searching during those times that big-budget marketers can take advantage of.  But what about the indie filmmaker? What can she learn from this?  First of all, the indie/art film calendar includes the following important film festival/film market events during the non-blockbuster season:
  • January - Sundance Film Festival and Rotterdam's Cinemart
  • February - Berlin Film Festival and Berlinale's European Film Market
  • May - Cannes Film Festival and Cannes Marche du Film (overlaps slightly with the blockbuster season)
  • September - Toronto International Film Festival and IFP's Bo Borders International Co-Production Market
  • October - Busan Asian Film Market
  • November - American Film Market (overlaps slightly with the blockbuster season) 
Notice that you can roughly measure upticks in search activity during these off-season months as partly due to interest in the aformentioned events.  In addition, at the end of February there is also an uptick of searches that is probably due to interest in the Academy Awards (with a spillover into March as people search and go see the Oscar winners).  So knowing that, an indie filmmaker/distributor is better positioned to take advantage of the offseason by (1) linking themselves or their projects to the events in the non-blockbuster calendar so that they come up in searches (more often than they would in the blockbuster calendar) and/or (2) releasing their films during the non-blockbuster calendar.

3. The footnotes at the bottom of pages 3 and 7 regarding keywords. -- The following keywords should be part of your film's online identity, whether it is slated for theatrical distribution or alternative distribution, since the white paper shows that these are the terms most commonly searched for by people:
"keywords include “[movie title]”, “[movie title] trailer”, “[movie title] clips”, “[movie title] cast”, “[movie title] tickets”, “[movie title] plot”, “[movie title] reviews”, and other common variants related to these categories
5 keyword categories include general movie terms (e.g. “new movies”, “movie showtimes”), theater chain terms (e.g., “regal showtimes”, “carmike theaters”), and
online movie ticket services (e.g., “fandango”, “movietickets”)

"Bucket of title terms including: “[movie title]”, “[movie title] film”, and several modifiers related to ticketing, cast, reviews, trailers.
12 Trailer-related searches include: “[movie title] trailer”, “trailer for [movie title]”, “[movie title] clip”, and common misspellings"

4. "The availability of content, specifically trailers, is important for moviegoers at all stages of the decision process. Earlier searches four weeks from release week for a film have the strongest link to intent... despite a lower overall search volume, presumably because the most ardent fans are among the first to search for specific film’s content." (p.8) -- You MUST have a great trailer. Not just a good one or an okay one but a great one (of course, that is determined by how great your movie is, but still...) And it should be online at least 4 weeks before theatrical release.  But notice interest via trailers peak with the release window. And that is the most important thing... getting interest and searches in your film to peak with the release of it. So you can have multiple teasers (to generate interest or appeal to different audiences) leading up to the main trailer before the 4 week window or you can release your trailer after the 4 week window as long as you can make it peak with the release.

5. This Appendix D chart on page 11

There is STILL interest in a film AFTER it is released.  In fact, the chart shows that there is slightly more interest after the film is out and seen than before it is seen (t-5 compared to t+5). Maybe it's because people are loving or hating it so much, dissecting the film or trying to learn more about it but this is akin to the buzz filmmakers seek BEFORE the film is in theaters.  Savvy marketers can use the after-buzz to keep interest of a film going to turn it into a cult-favorite or move sales in other platforms.  As an example of how after-buzz can work, note how, just recently, DNA Films raised DVD sales for it's Dredd 3D movie by fueling rumors of a sequel. 

Do yourself a favor and read the study.  The film industry is in constant flux. Some of the old habits and traditions still work and some are being discarded by new practices. Some of these new practices are effective and some are not. It is the job of a good producer, marketer, distributor or filmmaker to know what out there is worth keeping and doing and what is not.

The COVID-19 “Get Back to Filmmaking” Checklist

The COVID-19 “Get Back to Filmmaking” Checklist A 40-point checklist from development to post-production   by Danny Jiminian