The $20,000 Man: A Few Questions With Richard Stern, Amazon Studios Script Winner

When announced in November 2010 that it was launching Amazon Studios with the ultimate goal to produce a film, it was a pronouncement that generated quite a bit of buzz, as well as controversy, raising many questions.

First, why was one of the largest online retailers in the world wanting to go from selling and renting movies to producing them? Second, besides some upfront money, what exactly would be in it for filmmakers submitting their projects? Third, screenwriting is one of the most solitary aspects of filmmaking. Film productions may have hundreds on set, but most screenwriters toil for weeks and days in front of a computer alone, so how exactly would a crowdsourcing model, in which participants would be submitting their scripts for feedback and "collaboration", work?

Established film biz folks, including screenwriter John August, were very skeptical about the whole idea and weren't shy about dissecting the concept and voicing their concerns. "I’ve never met a single screenwriter who hoped anonymous strangers would revise him." And on the Artful Writer Craig Mazen wrote: "Funny thing, though. The actual terms of Amazon’s “studio” are so much worse than those offered by Hollywood studios, it’s grotesque."

Amidst all that Amazon Studios pressed forward and last week, culled from the 2500 scripts submitted, they announced the first two winners, Marty Weiss from LA with his screenplay The Alchemist Agenda, and Richard Stern from Roswell, GA with Villain. CinemATL contacted Stern by email to find out a bit more about why he participated,what he hopes to get out of this process and his experience so far.

VILLAIN (Comedy, Science Fiction and Fantasy) An adventure comedy told from the villain's perspective. When the world's greatest super spy goes missing, all fingers point to his arch-nemesis: Professor Mortimer Savage. To clear his name, Savage joins forces with The Agency to learn the truth and save the world.

Alright, let's get the basics out of the way. How do you make your living? How long have you been writing? And how many screenplays have you written before Villain?

I left my day job in September of 2010, but prior to that, I was a marketing executive for a software company. I've been writing since I was a kid. I actually remember writing a play in kindergarten that we got to perform for our principal. That was the equivalent of an Oscar in elementary school. I got serious about screenwriting in college and have written about a dozen screenplays since then.

Did you follow any of the controversy when first announced their studio concept? Many people felt they were out to take advantage of writers. Even, writers like John August continue to look at this with more than a jaundiced eye. Did that affect your decision to participate?

I'm aware of it, but I didn't follow it too closely. Joining Amazon was a pretty easy decision, actually. I've been an Amazon customer for years, I know how they do business and I've always known them to deal fairly with the public. They transformed retailing with and publishing with the Kindle. I figured, why not see what they can do with Hollywood?

How has it been working with Amazon Studios? Anything that surprised you? How about the process itself?

Amazon is trying to build the world's first virtual film studio. In 90 years no one has really tried to innovate on how a studio works. So immediately, you realize you're trailblazing and you have to learn new ways to think about developing a movie and writing a script. That can be challenging, especially if you're part of the studio system today. I wasn't, so it came pretty easily to me. One of the things that surprised me was that because Amazon is trying to develop commercial projects, they don't limit participation to amateurs like other contests or communities. You're competing against everyone from a recent college graduate to a writer whose last movie grossed over $200 million dollars, literally. That was a little scary, but I realized quickly that their process leveled the playing field so that story was king and everyone had an equal chance.

Has Amazon Studios barred you from saying anything negative about the process?

No, the process worked for me and I got a very good result (obviously).

What happens now with Amazon Studios?

Amazon will continue cultivating new material and awarding cash prizes to writers and filmmakers every month. At the end of the year, they'll pick the annual winners and pay out $100,000 for the best script and $1,000,000 for the best test movie. My fingers are crossed.

Is Villain a script you wrote to be made, or a script to get your foot in the door?

I wrote it to be made. Unlike other contests where there are only prizes and no commercial consideration, Amazon is actually out to make movies. That's how they'll make money and recoup the investment they're making in the site. So while the money is nice, the larger prize is the opportunity to work with the Amazon Studios team to further develop VILLAIN and take it to studios.

You've got several drafts, at least 12, posted under your Amazon Studios profile. How much did each draft change? And what are the changes based on? Feedback? Just your own drive to improve the script?

The script was immediately very popular and the changes were largely based on feedback from the 1000 or so folks that read it. A unique aspect of Amazon Studios is that you can't delete drafts. They really want the entire process to be transparent so others can observe, learn and improve their own work. Some of the drafts may contain very tiny changes, while others may be more substantial, but you literally see my creative process and the genesis of the winning script on the site today.

You did a table read with a few Sketchworks actors correct? How did that go? And what did you learn? Anything you were really happy about? Anything you'd want to work on?

We're so fortunate to have Sketchworks in Atlanta. When I first walked into their theater, I imagined that this is what Second City must have been like during the Belushi years in the late 70s. Just these amazing, fearless comedy writers and performers. Watching them work and seeing how the drew the comedy out of my script was amazing. They found all the places where the timing was off and the dialogue needed a trim. They found all the best jokes and showed me how characterization would make them even better. The director, David Shapiro, led the read masterfully. I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with such a talented group. I'd love to be able to bring other material to them and workshop it, but I'm sure they have other things to do besides helping me with my screenplays. :-)

Who are your influences as a writer? And is there a particular genre you like to work in?

There are so many, but none as profoundly as Steven Spielberg. As a kid growing up in Illinois, JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, INDIANA JONES, ET, JURASSIC PARK and HOOK fed my imagination, while SCHINDLER'S LIST, THE COLOR PURPLE, EMPIRE OF THE SUN and AMISTAD fed my soul. I write mostly actions films and comedies, but I'm always trying new things. My newest project on Amazon is actually an adventure / thriller.

Lastly, for someone who lives in Roswell, GA, barring what people are saying about the process, what do contests like Amazon's mean to writers like you who are starting out?

There are so many talented writers around the world whose only crimes are not living Los Angeles or having an agent or family member in the business. They have passion, but no access. Amazon changes that. They bring exposure and access, and all you have to do is bring a fantastic story.