Inside Amazon's Super-Weird, American Idol-Style TV Series Development Process
Amazon's new production arm, Amazon Studios, is right now breaking new ground by premiering 14 scripted pilots and having the public help decide who will get series orders. But its avant-garde development process goes deeper than that.
Amazon's original programming execs, Sarah Babineau and Joe Lewis, bought some finished scripts that had made the rounds at other networks in previous years but gone unpurchased. Others they bought from unknowns who submitted their full scripts through Amazon's call for submissions on its website. From first-time TV writers to Academy Award-nominated veterans, Amazon gave many of its creators unprecedented freedom in casting, crew, content and production.
This freedom, and perhaps the pure publicity stunt of it all, allowed Amazon to woo established creators who might not otherwise have been interested in having their work displayed at a meat market for any guy in sweatpants in his grandma's basement to vilify or exult. "At first I thought, who wants to work on troll bait?" says famed Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, creator of Amazon pilot Alpha House. "But Amazon is assessing reaction through a variety of different metrics, so whatever decisions they make will almost certainly be more informed and rational than the traditional Hollywood gut calls."
Evan Endicott, co-creator of the pilot Betas, agrees, and adds that creating directly for the public online has benefits for creators, too. "I think this way shows can speak to a more specific audience," he explains. "There can be less 'lower common denominator' stuff."
Trudeau's Alpha House, starring John Goodman, follows four senators who rent a house together on Capitol Hill. Trudeau wrote an initial draft of this script five years ago after reading a New York Times story headlined "Taking Power, Sharing Cereal," about an actual townhouse shared by four senators. When the script didn't find a buyer at the major networks, Trudeau shelved it until his producer, Jon Alter, suggested taking it to Amazon last year.
"I was skeptical," Trudeau says in an email interview. "But they responded immediately to the script. They were eager to get going on their comedy slate so there were no meetings, no notes, just steady support."
Amazon's one request to Trudeau was that he cut the script from a 30-minute cable comedy to around 22 minutes, perhaps a hint that they plan to syndicate programming on television in the future.
John Goodman in Gary Trudeau's Amazon pilot Alpha House
At the other end of the spectrum of creators, Denver-based comedy troupe The Grawlix, comprising stand-up comedians Adam Cayton-Holland, Andrew Orvedahl and Benjamin Roy, were pitching their first pilot when they met with Amazon. The trio wrote and starred in the low-budget buddy-comedy pilot Those Who Can't, about three misfit high school teachers who are as immature as their students.
Cayton-Holland, Orvedahl and Roy weren't given the immediate go-ahead that Trudeau was. After an initial meeting with Babineau and Lewis, they were asked to submit their pilot through Amazon's online call to creators for scripts. As they were new to the pilot-pitching rat race, they were happy to oblige. Despite this extra step, however, all the other networks they met with, including Comedy Central, FX and Adult Swim, were still dragging their old-guard heels when Amazon offered to buy the show.
Not only was Amazon speedy, it also offered The Grawlix team their dream deal: to shoot their entire pilot in their hometown. This benefited Amazon as well, since it meant making the show for the smallest budget of all the pilots. Babineau and Lewis also allowed the three to put together their own production team and cast. They had enjoyed the direction and cinematography of The Grawlix's web series, which was produced and directed by Denver-based filmmaker brothers Evan and Adam Nix, and hoped they would work with them again. "They said, 'Keep working with your people, just on a larger scale,'" Cayton-Holland recalls.
Those Who Can't
Endicott marvels at how different the Those Who Can't creators' deal was from their own, and from Amazon's more marquee pilots like Zombieland and Alpha House. "I think Amazon is trying to approach development in a bunch of different ways," Endicott observes. "They want to compete with the high-end cable stuff, so they want to create with people who are really experienced, and then they also want to see what can happen if they crowdsource and make shows that are cheap and get a following that way."
Endicott and co-creator Josh Stoddard's show, Betas, a single-camera comedy following a group of young computer-geek entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, probably had the most traditional network development process of the bunch. They arranged a meeting with Amazon through their agents, sold their pitch alone and were paid to develop and write the pilot with many rounds of studio notes.
Though the two were first-time creators, they were not strangers to the industry. They had developed the Betas pitch with Sideways producer Michael London while they were working in development at Alexander Payne's production company, Ad Hominem Enterprises. Since Endicott and Stoddard, who are based in L.A., were paid to write the pilot, however, they also were subject to far more input by Amazon execs. They wrote four or five outlines and at least five versions of the script while other creators were shooting their scripts with only a call to push the envelope further.
Beta's subject matter, dot-coms in Silicon Valley, was what drew Amazon to the project and what also made it wary about getting the details right. "We'd been pitching to execs at HBO, Showtime and FX in their 40s and 50s, and they really didn't get it," Endicott explains. "They'd never Internet dated. None of them used Twitter. They were, like, 'It sounds really fascinating, but what does all this mean?'
"At Amazon, the executives are much younger and much more active in contemporary culture and they just got it." Amazon, itself a dot-com startup not so long ago, was especially concerned with accuracy. "They got precise where they felt they had expertise," Endicott says. "They were always talking to their coders or finance people about specifics, and while that sounds very micromanage-y, they were also very open to preserving what we wanted to do."
Betas, set in Silicon Valley
The 14 pilots range from political satire and snarky animation to movie-franchise remakes and musicals. If Amazon is planning on developing a specific voice as a channel, that voice is still up for grabs, as is the number of shows in its lineup and how they will be released. Creators are as in the dark as viewers when it comes to Amazon's plans but they're excited by the possibilities. "I hope that with Amazon's model, television will become more like music, where there's cool local scenes everywhere," Those Who Can't's Cayton-Holland enthuses. "The TV landscape could become just this dense tapestry of local creativity."
Trudeau is more intrigued with the distribution possibilities. "I am very attracted to this idea of episodic TV becoming the new novel," he says. "I think appointment TV will soon be over. If I have to choose between waiting in line for a new movie or staying at home and watching three episodes of a high-end show like Breaking Bad, it's not even close. I'm spending the evening with Mr. White."
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