Empty Promises: My experience submitting scripts to Amazon Studios

LB’S UPDATE 4/15/18: Looks like Amazon has thrown in the towel on even pretending to be considering work from newbies. Here’s part of an email on the subject that I got yesterday:

Hi Larry,

As we have grown and evolved over the last several years, we are making changes to our website and closing our open call for script and concept submissions. As of April 13, 2018, we are no longer accepting submissions. Submissions received will continue to be reviewed and evaluated by Amazon Studios and will be available on our website until June 30, 2018. Thank you all for your contributions.

Amazon Studios Team

And now, on with the original post:

empty promises

by Lew Ritter

For those of you who have dreams of writing the great American screenplay, getting scripts into the hands of agents/managers can be a daunting challenge. Unless you win prominent screenwriting contests or get a referral from a known Hollywood contact, most agents or managers are simply not interested in reading your work.

The rise of the Internet has led to the creation of several websites where new and inexperienced writers can post their screenplays. Inspired by the success of Netflix, Amazon.com was looking to enter the movie business and established Amazon Studios to produce movies under the Amazon brand.

Imagine my excitement learning that newbies like myself could post scripts on the Amazon Studios website. They offered a forty five day evaluation period for your script. If they liked it, they claimed they would be willing to pay a fee to keep it posted on the site. It sounded like a good deal. Perhaps lightening would strike.

Enter John Brown

My first screenwriting project was a historical drama about the infamous 19th Century Abolitionist, John Brown. It was based on a book entitled “To Purge this Land with Blood.” written by Stephen B. Oates, a noted civil War Historian. Brown was the leader of the anti-slavery raid at Harper’s Ferry. It ignited the American Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history.

When I contacted Professor Oates, he was delighted that someone was interested in trying to make a movie about Brown and the Abolitionist movement. In the past, he had received overtures for a movie about Clara Barton, a Civil War nurse, but nothing ever materialized.

I thought that it might be the subject of a very provocative feature film. In the late 90’s, I had watched several historical movies on the TNT Network about Teddy Roosevelt and San Juan Hill and the San Patricio battalion. a group of Irishmen who fought for Mexico during the Mexican War of 1846. I hoped that television or movies might be receptive for this material.

Not surprisingly, I discovered later that wasn’t the case. Hollywood considered historical movies too expensive and the market for them too limited. Lincoln was a rare exception because director Stephen Spielberg was the driving creative force. The average movie goer is fourteen to thirty years old and wants to see the latest version of a comic book character, not historical docudramas.

I decided to tempt fate by placing the script on the Amazon website, where Amazon provides a method for adding graphic images to help promote your script. It also gives you the option of keeping the script private or public. Making a script public allowed readers on the site to read and comment.

I had read a number of submissions on the site. Some of the ideas weren’t bad. One of them envisioned Ben Franklin as sort of a Revolutionary War James Bond fighting the British. Others lacked even the basics of screenwriting technique. I figured perhaps if my script made the cut, it might have a good chance of getting optioned or at least getting some money to be developed into a “Notable Project” or perhaps even land a spot on the “Development Slate.”

After forty five days, the evaluation period was over and I received a simple, terse email stating that they were not interested in the script. There was no reason given. Short and brutally to the point.

Disheartened, I submitted the script to another Internet website called Junto Box Films. It was a website run by veteran actor Forest Whittaker, who allegedly was looking for material. Again, there was no fee or charge to place the script on the site. You were allowed to have others follow your project. If a lot of people appeared to follow the script, it might generate interest in the project. I even received several emails from other writers there suggesting that if I supported their project, they would reciprocate and support my script. A sort of screenwriters Quid Pro Quo that struck me as ethically challenged.

I read some of the scripts on Junto Box. One was about kids living in a ghetto housing project. I read the first twenty or so pages. One of the characters was killed right at the beginning of the script. I sent the author a suggestion in an email. I suggested that it made sense that the murdered victim be a friend of the main character. I received a terse reply that the death had no relation to the main character. Why do that? No relation to the story? This was a mistake from Screenwriting 101.

At the end of the forty five days evaluation period, I received another Dear John email that the material did not match their current development needs. I realized that perhaps John Brown deserved to be put back in the filing cabinet for another day. The script needed more work to turn the script into a viable spec script.


My big disappointment isn’t that I haven’t scored on the sites, it is that none of the projects I’ve seen featured on them appeared to be the work of an amateur AKA unknown writer. And the TV series and features promoted prominently on Amazon all appear to be the work of established writers. Perhaps, as Amazon Studios expands and starts to produce major film releases, several of these amateur projects will be perceived as viable and become more visable.

I have the feeling that although there is always the possibility that lightning will strike, most Hollywood executives don’t have the time or energy to go diving into the shallow end of the script pool searching for the rare gem. Despite the lure of the Internet, what show business often refers to as “the money” seems dedicated to following the time-honored path of sticking with known creators, lovers, and friends of the family.


Lew Ritter is a frequent contributor to TVWriter™. An aspiring TV and film writer, he was a recent Second Rounder in the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition.

Dennis O’Neil: The Return of Doodyville!

NOTE FROM LB: The Howdy Doody Show was my absolute favorite when I was a kid. So much a favorite that I remember sitting on the floor and watching it one day when I was four years old and praying to you-know-Who that I would never get any older because I knew that when I did I wouldn’t love Howdy and the gang anymore. Some people say I never did get any older. Maybe there really is a God.

That's Howdy in the middle, for those who are not of a certain age
That’s Howdy in the middle, for those who are not of a certain age

by Dennis O’Neil

Our man Thunderthud was called a “chief,” but he wore only a single feather on his head instead of the fully-feathered bonnet we were used to seeing perched atop guys who answered to “chief” in the cowboy pictures I saw before you were born. The (if I may) chief is most notable, not for something he wore, but for something he said. This was “Kowabunga,” sometimes spelled “Cowabunga” and used mostly, if memory serves, as an expletive you could say freely in front of your church-going grandma. Some of you – most of you? – thought that Kowa/Cowabunga originated with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of movie and comic book fame. Sorry, but no.

Beginning in 1947, Chief Thunderthud dwelt in Doodyville which, in turn, was located in midtown Manhattan in a studio owned and operated by The National Broadcasting Company.

He wasn’t necessarily lonely, there is Studio 3B. Doodyville had other inhabitants, some of them marionettes, such the town mayor, Mr. Bluster, a strange beastie known as Flubadub who seemed to be a mashup of eight different animals and, of course, Howdy himself. Human beings also called Doodyville home. There was the chief, and another member of Thunderthud’s tribe, Princess Summerfall Winterspring who was sometimes called Judy Tyler and who later made a movie with Elvis Presley. (Presley wasn’t a puppet, either.)

And there was Clarabell the Clown, who spoke only three words in the show’s entire run and who communicated by blowing a horn and whose favorite prank was squirting seltzer into somebody’s face. That Clarabell! What a hoot! Though maybe I should mention that he was amale hoot, despite the name.)

We’ve saved the best for last. I refer to none other than Buffalo Bob Smith, who did a lot of things including but not limited to emceeing the proceedings, interacting with the studio audience, and – here comes a surprise – supplying Howdy’s voice. Bob wasn’t a ventriloquist the way, say, Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist, but who cared if his lips moved when Howdy talked? As long as a camera wasn’t aimed at him during Howdy’s chat, nobody except the kids and other performers and technical people knew exactly where the words were coming from. And did they care?

Why all this Howdy stuff now? Well, Howdy’s coming back! He’ll star in a Fourth of July video marathon that will incorporate old shows and new material, and maybe serve as a pilot for similar excursions into Doodyville. Which prompts us to ask: If Chief Thunderthud and the lovely princess were debuting today, would they run afoul of the defenders of political correctness? Will the antics of the Chief and princess, which could be seen as racist lampoons, be shown on July Fourth? Should they be seen as racist? I don’t know.

Final question: why? Has the world been yearning for a return to Doodyville?

Dennis O’Neil is one of the top writer-editors in comics, having guided the careers of just about every superhero the world has ever heard of. He’s also a damn fine writer of TV. LB still remembers that time he and Denny collaborated, without ever knowing they were doing so. Or knowing each other either. Ah, the magic of TV! This post was first published in Denny’s column at ComicMix.

Inside NICOLIFE, the Web Series LB luvs!

NOTE FROM LB: A couple of weeks ago, we featured a new web series called NicoLife here on TVWriter™ and, yes, it’s true, grumpy old me kinda fell in love with it. I think this is an exceptionally well done series which would work just as well on TV (whatever that is these days) and the interwebs (whatever they are these days.

Recently I talked to Robin Nystom, the show’s multiple hyphenate Writer-Director-Producer, to ask the two questions that always comes to mind the first time I see or read anything, anywhere, from any creator: “What is it you want NICOLIFE to accomplish, artistically and personally/professionally? How does it fit into your dream future?”

Here’s Robin’s answer:

NicoLife Behind the Scenes Capture

by Robin Nystrom

On the one hand, my goals with Nicolife were ambitious. I set out to elevate the web series format with a satirical and dark and compelling story that twists and turns in unexpected ways across six episodes. On the other hand, Nicolife has been a passion project more than anything else, born out of a desire to create. It was never driven by a wish to make money. I simply wanted to create something in the world that wasn’t there when we started—in my opinion, that’s one of the most beautiful things you can do.

The comedy web series Nicolife tells the story of Nicolai and Phil, two attention-starved nobodies who desire fame and fortune above everything else. Unfortunately, their social ineptitude lead them down a path of tragedy and death. The show is a satirical look at the egocentrism of our YouTube generation.

Season 1 of Nicolife was produced on location in San Luis Obispo, California by a group of film lovers. What we lacked in monetary resources, we made up for in passion and creativity.

Zero-budget film making means that you film first and ask questions later. This was certainly the case for the Nicolife team. We took over the homes of friends and family members (with or without their permission).

We convinced a local business owner to let us shoot inside his laundromat. We got kicked out of a grocery store when we tried to film a short scene guerrilla style.

We were hit by a harsh rain storm on a mountaintop, during the longest drought in California history, and had to carry our camera equipment down a mudslide.

We were almost arrested by two cops when we shot a scene outside an ATM and were accused of using “suspicious equipment.”

We inflicted plenty of scrapes and bruises on our poor actors (sorry, couldn’t afford stunt doubles).

And last but not least, we made two fake DIY corpses and became well-versed in the art of making large amounts of fake and edible blood.

Even with all the challenges that we had to face, the production team had a blast…which is why my dream future is to share my stories with people from all walks of life, all over the world.

Nicolife will always be a part of my storytelling repertoire, even as I move on to other creative endeavors. We just hope that people will enjoy watching the show as much as we enjoyed making it…which is why my dream future is to share my stories with people from all walks of life, all over the world.

Thank you, LB!

Website: http://www.nicolife.net
YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/c/NicolaiTravis
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/WatchNicolife
Twitter: @NicolaiTravis

Herbie J Pilato: How THAT GIRL Changed Everything

Contributing Editor Herbie J Pilato is busy these days with not only his own TV series but also writing regularly about classic TV for the TV Academy’s website, Emmys.ComHere’s his latest, reminding us of what good television writing can be:

It's the whole Thomas fan-damily!
It’s the whole Thomas fan-damily!

by Herbie J Pilato

The first frames of the opening credits of television’s legendaryThat Girl placed viewers in the front car of a train as it barreled into New York City. 

That locomotive not only carried a young woman who was filled with dreams of independence, but it also brought television into a new era of enlightenment.  A groundbreaking program teeming with wit, style and social consciousness, That Girl didn’t set out to change the world.  But over the course of its celebrated five-year run, it did exactly that.

Airing on ABC from 1966 to 1971, That Girl starred the effervescent Marlo Thomas as aspiring actress Ann Marie from Brewster, New York, who sets her sights on the bright lights of the Big Apple (as perfectly punctuated by the pulsating theme music that opened each episode).

She meets and falls in love with Newsview magazine writer Donald Hollinger, played with chivalrous charm by Ted Bessell, while her sternly loving father Lew Marie, portrayed by the ever dependable Lew Parker, watches from afar – yet is somehow always near.

The show’s ace acting, writing and directing melded seamlessly, combining its colorful sets and fabulous wardrobe to create a cheerful, intelligent and always funny half-hour, one that dependably delivered logical stories with lively dialogue with a decidedly feminist undertone.

Each of the show’s characters had a unique voice (not one line spoken could be interchanged among Ann, Donald and Lew).

The series also featured a rotating A-list of semi-regular and guest players, including: Rosemary DeCamp as Helen Marie (Ann’s mother); Bernie Kopell as Jerry Bauman (Donald’s associate at Newsview, and later Ann’s next door neighbor); Broadway legend Ethel Merman (who made two special-guest appearances); All in the Family’s Carroll O’Connor (as a pre-Archie Bunker opera singer); Laugh-In regular Ruth Buzzi, as Ann’s tom-boyish best friend; stalwart Jesse White (TV’s iconic Maytag commercial repairman) as one of Ann’s many talent agents (which also included comedian George Carlin for one season); and veteran thespian Mabel Alberston, as Donald’s over-bearing mother – a role she played equally well on sister ‘60s sitcom Bewitched (ABC, 1964-1972)….

Read it all at Emmys

JK Rowling’s Success Tips

Yesterday we brought you 20 tips on successful writing courtesy of Stephen King. Today we’re going a bit further with a video of J.K. Rowling giving us her POV of success. (She is, after all, the writer of the best-selling series of books in history.)