Did Amazon Studios ignore its own customers for the big money?

Amazon Studios and Warner Brothers

I originally wrote at ReelSEO about Amazon.com’s new program – Amazon Studios – a business partnership with Warner Brothers studios for featuring and paying new filmmaking talent (both filmmakers and scriptwriters) with an eye on making big motion pictures. Since then, I’ve had time to muse on the peculiar partnership between the world’s #1 online retail store with a major film studio, and share with you here my proposal for Amazon Studios to provide a much better video commerce platform – not just one for feature-length filmmakers, but for the existing customers already supporting Amazon.com.

The quick take on my post

If you’ve only got 15 seconds to spare, here’s the gist of my article as aptly summarized by my editor:

  1. Amazon.com isn’t paying attention to its customers, and this could backfire on them.
  2. Amazon.com’s focus on this kind of content is super limiting.
  3. Amazon.com should use video and e-commerce to build an actual democracy, and not just use the term as marketing fluff.

Amazon Studios: “The movie studio of the future?”

Here’s a clip I gathered from the Amazon Studios intro video on their home page, which summarizes their explanation for the WHY and WHAT of the video program.

“Great movies are made every year. But it’s hard for new voices to break in; and it’s hard to pick the right movies to make…. If we were going to design a movie studio for today’s world, where we have computers, and communicate; and with so many people making movies, how would we do that? The movie studio of the future could be more open, and more collaborative. Anyone could upload a script or movie to add a project. They could get reactions from a global community while they still have time to change things, before their script has been accepted or rejected by anyone. Filmmakers could offer revisions and advice to each other, and bring something serendipitous that could take it to the next level.”

Amazon Studios’ own FAQs page gives more on their expressed rationale and professed goodwill for having such a program:

“We think this will be an effective way to develop commercially viable feature films. There are four things we think can make the Amazon Studios process valuable:

  1. The power of the people. Amazon Studios will give artists and film fans around the world the chance to create and evaluate potential movies. ‘We believe that feedback from a large number of people will be a helpful indicator of what is working and what is not.’
  2. Evaluate test movies, not scripts. With today’s inexpensive production and editing tools, it’s easier than ever to produce a visual expression of a script. People might find it easier to evaluate a story’s prospects as a movie by seeing it in movie form (even primitive movie form) rather than reading the script and imagining the movie.
  3. Experiment. Complex problems often require a lot of experimentation to solve. Amazon Studios is designed to be a flexible environment where experiments are encouraged.
  4. Collaborate. When a motivated group works together, openly experimenting and responding to feedback, it can make the most of everyone’s talent.”

The peculiar business relationship of Amazon.com and Warner Brothers Studios

Amazon.com’s PR Pitch aside, there really doesn’t appear to be any connection between either business on a having a mutual audience. Warner Bros. Studios is about commercial moviemaking, and Amazon.com is about consumer retail. My guess is that Warner Brothers Studios’ marketing department decided to try out a crowd sourcing social media strategy, and went the route of total eyeballs than audience targeting. (You would think it would make better sense for Warner Brothers to partner with YouTube or another big video distribution site, but maybe Warner Brothers’ just thought they could get a better deal with someone else.)

Here’s the business arrangement as stated by Amazon.com:

“Amazon Studios has a first-look deal with Warner Bros. Pictures, which means we’ll be presenting our top projects to Hollywood’s biggest studio for consideration as theatrical feature films. And winners of the Amazon Studios Annual Awards won’t just get money —they’ll also get a meeting with Warner Bros. development executives.”

Whatever appeal this is having to independent filmmakers, I fail to see the actual benefit to Amazon.com’s core audience – retail consumers.  If this was just about Warner Brothers having money to experiment with and Amazon.com gulping it up, that could create some consumer confusion to tying the retail brand with their new offshoot for crowd sourcing feature-length films. (And truth be told, it’s not really about the socially progressive-sounding terms Amazon.com likes to throw around such as “crowd sourcing” or “democratizing video.” That’s because after I did my own interview with a rep from Amazon Studios, it’s likely has it’s own in-house “analysts” deciding in advance what will actually get reviewed, before Amazon Studio’s own judges decide, not to mention what pull the executives from Warner Brothers have over the voting process.)

What’s next from Amazon.com in strange business deals?

It would make just as much sense (or as little sense), for Amazon.com, based on the same rationale, to offer the following programs (insert your big company after any of these):

  • “Amazon Car Dealership”
  • “Amazon First Savings Bank”
  • “Amazon Airlines”

How to IMPROVE the Amazon Studios program for a much better video commerce solution

If Amazon.com were actually serious about pursuing the video route, I would say to them: Offer something that’s actually accessible to your existing, loyal web audience. A lot of your customers are web video makers and marketers who would love to produce video for you, but don’t have the means of producing feature-length films. Here are some tips on a revision and a re-do:

  • Pay your critics! Amazon encourages people to write reviews and make comments in the forums, saying “their insights can be very valuable to the filmmakers.” So then, why leave them out of the commercial transaction? Amazon Studios should offer prizes, not just to the screenwriters and filmmakers, but also to the best critics.
  • Expand the video pool! Having just one prize for all videos that are feature-length is unobtainable for most people on the web who are doing serious video production and marketing. Amazon Studios should expand its prizes for each content category; and not just long-format fiction and documentaries, but also to videos that are short-format, and of good presentations and commentaries, and especially on what’s educational and informative. (Granted that may be more the PBS/History Channel/TLC route, but isn’t that really what claiming to be socially good is about, rather than only partnering with a big motion picture studio? Plus those are television channels with web offerings that have proven that you can make such video content commercially viable on the Web.)
  • Offer an online video platform! Amazon.com already has already has a paid content delivery network for hosting and distributing video, and would be a natural technical match. And from that OVP…
  • …User-generated video for retail! Have an area where you allow people to submit their video reviews of the actual products you feature on your Amazon.com site. Give them their own video profile pages, just like you do for filmmakers and scriptwriters. Allow them to be tagged by product category and name, so people can have the opportunity to review the videos from your actual audience.

Grant’s Rant – Amazon Studios needs to rethink video commerce strategy

This really begs the question; do we really need more Hollywood movies? Is there even a cry by the public for saying we don’t have enough of them? Regardless, I don’t think this is where Amazon.com’s efforts should be. It’s not a part of their core business model, it’s not something accessible for enough of their customers to participate in, and it certainly isn’t “democratizing” when they can veto any of the results.

Amazon.com may like to say that they’re they future of movie making. If that were true, they should start fresh and not rely so much on the corporate mechanisms of the past. Amazon Studios should quit sucking up to major corporations of the movie screen, and offer video e-commerce programs and contests for the web screen.

If Amazon.com wants to get into the business of “democratizing moviemaking,” they should start by having an actual democracy and creating something new that is both appealing and accessible to their own population. My advice to Amazon: Expand beyond the Hollywood-wannabes, and don’t lose sight of your own customers – they’re the ones who got you to where you are today.