Amazon’s Fight Against Content Middlemen: Books, TV, Movies, Games

4/23/12Follow @curtwoodward

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Amazon becoming a competitive publisher. Some prominent authors have, of course, signed right up for the new experiment, either excited by an innovative idea or openly disdainful of the old publishing houses.

Others are nearly apocalyptic about the idea of letting Amazon gain so much vertical control—as popular Seattle-area author Sherman Alexie recently said on Twitter, “Soon, Amazon will monopolize publishing, editing, book sales, and publicity. One place, one power. And you’re okay with that?”

MOVIES
Amazon’s second most-developed area of experimentation in content publishing is developing screenplays and small movies through its Amazon Studios division. That experiment has engendered some of the same reactions that authors had toward Amazon in the book-publishing fight: some wariness, mixed with enthusiasm.

You haven’t seen any really panicky reactions from the studios, who now control most of the industry, to Amazon’s encroachment on the early stages of movie development—in fact, Warner Bros. has a deal to distribute any promising films that emerge from the Amazon Studios effort to find and develop new scripts.

But the studios might not always feel that way. Screenwriter Sean Hood thinks Amazon has the potential to fundamentally disrupt the Hollywood studio system, once technology advances enough that streaming content can be delivered to any screen and the studios aren’t needed as 20th-century distributors any longer. At that point, Hood writes, “nobody who has the money to fund a movie will need to go to a traditional studio or cable company for distribution.”

“There are a lot of forces at work trying to slow [and] avert this paradigm shift. The traditional system of studios and agencies still have control of the major directors, producers, and A-list actors. It’s difficult to see how a newcomer could jump in and make $200 million movies,” Hood told me in a follow-up interview. “But the key for Amazon is the long tail. Let the traditional studios risk it all on mega-budget blockbusters.”

Amazon recently tweaked its Studios deal to be more appealing to screenwriters in a few ways: Now, when writers submit a script, Amazon only has exclusive rights to it for 45 days, after which it may pay $10,000 for an 18-month option. Before, submitted scripts were automatically subject to an 18-month lock-up period, with no money changing hands.

Amazon’s production arm, People’s Production Company, also recently inked an agreement with the Writers Guild of America, meaning that members of that professional union can now work with the company. And scripts can be submitted privately, to allay fears of an idea getting ripped off once it’s in a public online forum.

GAMES
As I first reported in January, Amazon has begun hiring game developers, artists, and producers at one of its California-based R&D sites, building on some earlier tests of building in-house video-game content.

As is typical with a company of this size and importance, any trepidation that developers might feel about competition is kept pretty quiet because of Amazon’s importance as a distribution channel—particularly now that the Kindle Fire has been established as the top iPad competitor.

Of course, the video game business has a lot more technically adept and innovative players than other traditional content publishing and distribution industries. Startups and established studios are constantly experimenting with new platforms, new business models, and new ways of delivering content. Take Seattle’s PopCap Games (now part of EA), Big Fish Games, Zipline Games, and Z2Live, to name just a few.

We have not yet seen a real public face put on Amazon’s game publishing business, and some industry insiders are a little dubious of the company’s ultimate goal—is it really to make games, or more to develop a better gaming platform via some demonstration titles?

We’ll have to dig up some more information on this front. But if it’s willing to sign contracts with authors and screenwriters to fill its content pipeline, it seems logical to think that video-game developers might also fit the bill.

TV
This is still in the early stages, too. Original TV programming is tied to Amazon Studios, which previously was dedicated to developing movies. Amazon started listing jobs for creative executives working on original TV series in February, and an employee with experience in the industry experience was spotted on LinkedIn briefly listing his job title as vice president of original television (he changed it to something less specific once reporters pointed out the job title).

Today, Amazon still lists an opening for a creative executive “to help develop half-hour children’s series for online and traditional distribution,” based in Studio City, CA. The listing calls for experience in TV production, animation, and online video.

Amazon, of course, already has a streaming video service like those offered by Hulu and Netflix—both of whom also are experimenting with original content. So it makes competitive sense for Amazon to develop its own content, no matter the format, that might be streamed over that channel.

“I think Amazon is looking to dominate the middle and tail end of content, both in movies and television,” Rao says. “Amazon is very patient and willing to experiment.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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