Inside Amazon’s Super-Weird, American Idol-Style TV Series Development Process

TVWriter™ is still trying to figure out whether Amazon.Com’s “Hey, kids, wanna create your own TV show for us?” is real, P.R., or both. And we aren’t the only ones:

amazonby Stephanie Carrie

Amazon’s new production arm, Amazon Studios, is right now breaking new ground by premiering 14 scripted pilots and having the public help decide who will get series orders. But its avant-garde development process goes deeper than that.

Amazon’s original programming execs, Sarah Babineau and Joe Lewis, bought some finished scripts that had made the rounds at other networks in previous years but gone unpurchased. Others they bought from unknowns who submitted their full scripts through Amazon’s call for submissions on its website. From first-time TV writers to Academy Award-nominated veterans, Amazon gave many of its creators unprecedented freedom in casting, crew, content and production.

This freedom, and perhaps the pure publicity stunt of it all, allowed Amazon to woo established creators who might not otherwise have been interested in having their work displayed at a meat market for any guy in sweatpants in his grandma’s basement to vilify or exult. “At first I thought, who wants to work on troll bait?” says famed Doonesburycartoonist Garry Trudeau, creator of Amazon pilot Alpha House. “But Amazon is assessing reaction through a variety of different metrics, so whatever decisions they make will almost certainly be more informed and rational than the traditional Hollywood gut calls.”

Evan Endicott, co-creator of the pilot Betas, agrees, and adds that creating directly for the public online has benefits for creators, too. “I think this way shows can speak to a more specific audience,” he explains. “There can be less ‘lower common denominator’ stuff.”

Trudeau’s Alpha House, starring John Goodman, follows four senators who rent a house together on Capitol Hill. Trudeau wrote an initial draft of this script five years ago after reading a New York Times story headlined “Taking Power, Sharing Cereal,” about an actual townhouse shared by four senators. When the script didn’t find a buyer at the major networks, Trudeau shelved it until his producer, Jon Alter, suggested taking it to Amazon last year.

“I was skeptical,” Trudeau says in an email interview. “But they responded immediately to the script. They were eager to get going on their comedy slate so there were no meetings, no notes, just steady support.”

Amazon’s one request to Trudeau was that he cut the script from a 30-minute cable comedy to around 22 minutes, perhaps a hint that they plan to syndicate programming on television in the future.

At the other end of the spectrum of creators, Denver-based comedy troupe The Grawlix, comprising stand-up comedians Adam Cayton-Holland, Andrew Orvedahl and Benjamin Roy, were pitching their first pilot when they met with Amazon. The trio wrote and starred in the low-budget buddy-comedy pilot Those Who Can’t, about three misfit high school teachers who are as immature as their students.

 

Cayton-Holland, Orvedahl and Roy weren’t given the immediate go-ahead that Trudeau was. After an initial meeting with Babineau and Lewis, they were asked to submit their pilot through Amazon’s online call to creators for scripts. As they were new to the pilot-pitching rat race, they were happy to oblige. Despite this extra step, however, all the other networks they met with, including Comedy Central, FX and Adult Swim, were still dragging their old-guard heels when Amazon offered to buy the show.

Not only was Amazon speedy, it also offered The Grawlix team their dream deal: to shoot their entire pilot in their hometown. This benefited Amazon as well, since it meant making the show for the smallest budget of all the pilots. Babineau and Lewis also allowed the three to put together their own production team and cast. They had enjoyed the direction and cinematography of The Grawlix’s web series, which was produced and directed by Denver-based filmmaker brothers Evan and Adam Nix, and hoped they would work with them again. “They said, ‘Keep working with your people, just on a larger scale,'” Cayton-Holland recalls.

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We’ve seen the Trudeau series pilot. Dude rolled over for Amazon and the result was crap. Haven’t seen THOSE WHO CAN”T. So we’re left with the zillion-$$$ question:  Is what Amazon is doing fascinating? Encouraging? Appalling? Hey, according to Amazon, you’re the judge.