Thursday, March 10, 2011

Amazon and YouTube are trying to manufacture hits

Earlier today, YouTube announced its Creator Institute, a training program intended to teach "camerawork, storytelling, promotion, and new media skills" to a small, selected group of artists. USC in Los Angeles and Columbia College in Chicago have partnered with YouTube to provide facilities, educators and equipment. 20 writers and directors, selected in a competition by YouTube, the partner colleges and the YouTube community, will participate in all-expense-paid programs this summer at one of the two schools.

Late last year, Amazon introduced Amazon Studios, a competition that awards cash prizes to screenwriters and directors who submit scripts and "test movies" for review by Amazon and its customers. Amazon's program encourages participants to "improve" submitted scripts by adding to or rewriting them, effectively making anyone who contributes to or changes a script a credited co-writer.

Both Amazon's and YouTube's programs are intended to produce original content that they can distribute, and either sell to viewers or advertisers. The problem is that neither program is likely to accomplish what its sponsors intend. Pick up any copy of MovieMaker Magazine, for example, and you'll see that it's loaded cover to cover with ads for schools and seminars that teach movie and television production techniques. There's no lack of places that students can learn how to make movies, and there's scant evidence that participating in a two-month program is going to turn a novice into a hit-making director or writer.

In Amazon's case, companies have run movie and script contests for years, and they very rarely find scripts or directors of much note. You may remember Project Greenlight from a few years ago, which was sponsored by LivePlanet (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and two other partners) and Miramax. The most interesting things that came out of the project were the television episodes chronicling the production of the three movies, which ran on HBO for two seasons and Bravo in the U.S. for the final season. The films that came out of Project Greenlight, on the other hand, were considerably less interesting: The first film grossed less than $140,000 at the boxoffice, the second less than $280,000, and Miramax refused to distribute the third one, so after one night in a single theater, it went directly to video.

If anything, Project Greenlight should have been much more successful than Amazon's project: It was backed by the most successful independent film distributor in the U.S. at the time, had active participation from Academy Award-winning filmmakers, and was publicized weekly on heavily-watched cable networks. Yet, all three films were financial busts.

The problem is that making a popular film or television show requires a combination of talent, timing and luck that can't be taught or identified in a contest. It's the basis of writer William Goldman's famous quote, "Nobody knows anything." It's why movie studios are much more likely to make sequels of a successful movie than they are to make a movie about an original topic, with an unknown screenwriter or director. It's also why U.S. television viewers get to watch "C.S.I.", "C.S.I. Miami" and "C.S.I. New York".

I applaud both Amazon and YouTube for encouraging and training talent, but their programs aren't likely to create the popular content that the companies want. The problem is that there is no systematic way to create hits, or even identify them before they're produced.
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