Amazon, the online bookseller turned online department store, turned e-book-reader manufacturer, turned publisher, turned video streaming service, turning movie-and-TV studio, has posted its first 14 “TV pilots” -- six kids’ shows and eight grown-up comedies -- online for your ratings and comments. (That is the Amazon way.)
What is a studio? Once it meant a physical place, with soundstages and a back lot and departments full of craftspeople with crazy skills. Now it requires only a name and money. And executives, I suppose, to move the money around.
Back when “antitrust” was, like, a real thing, it was decided, in United States vs. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 US 131 (1948), sometimes called the Paramount Consent Decree, that movie studios could not also own movie theaters -- that controlling both the means of production and the means of distribution constituted an unfair trade advantage. In a similar way, TV networks were once enjoined from making their own TV shows. But that all went out the window some time ago, as “vertical integration” crept into the lexicon, as a thing we were meant to admire, and cable television (and now the Internet) made the field competitive, ostensibly.
Now, the trend is for distributors to become producers. Amazon Studios has come into the world alongside similar efforts by Netflix, Hulu and YouTube, echoing the earlier progress of cable television, where channels that begin as bundlers, repackagers and recontextualizers (of movies, of TV series) have gone on to make shows of their own. It’s a kind of TV rite of passage. And among its competitors, Amazon has the advantage of not needing show business to pay for its show business; except for the big store going bust, which is not likely any time soon, there is nothing to shut down the studio, other than Jeff Bezos’ losing interest in it.
It’s a two-pronged approach: Via its Amazon Studios website (studios.amazon.com), anyone can post a film or TV script, giving Amazon the right to option, perchance to buy it. There is also a community aspect that lets other users submit comments and revisions to a work.
And then there is the old-school version, where executives take calls from agents and meet with writers over bottled water (I am imagining that part) and develop things in the way more usual to Hollywood. Studio head Roy Price spent several years at Disney, where he was involved with the cartoon series “Kim Possible” and “Teacher’s Pet"; programming chief Joe Lewis was formerly at 20th Century Fox and Comedy Central; Tara Sorensen, who runs the children’s section, comes out of National Geographic Kids, Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Canadian animation house Nelvana.
Even the public-rating feature, despite being ballyhooed as a striking innovation, is fundamentally old-fashioned, an Internet-age variation on the preview cards and focus groups studios have used since forever. (And the pilot-to-production system resembles that of the humbler short-form-comedy website Channel 101, co-founded by “Community” creator Dan Harmon.) All but one of the 14 pilots, the comedy “Those Who Can’t,” from the Denver comedy trio the Grawlix, seem to have been developed in the second way. There is a lot of already tested talent involved here.
In fielding its TV slate, Amazon called specifically for half-hour comedies (that is, 22 minutes with room for commercials, should a show wind up on real TV) and children’s shows (with an educational bent). Dramas are, of course, more expensive to produce, and there is already a (relatively) long, hearty history of comedy online, including a few creations that successfully jumped from the Internet to television, IFC’s “Portlandia” and Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” among them.
The comedies, whose production is highly polished, range from OK to excellent -- nothing struck me as an outright failure, and the best I would watch for a season -- and many feature People You Know, including John Goodman (in whose “Alpha House” Bill Murray makes a cameo), Bebe Neuwirth, Jeffrey Tambor and the eternally game Ed Begley Jr., who is no stranger to the Web (see Illeana Douglas’ great “Easy to Assemble,” in which he plays the ghost of a legendary Ikea designer, and, really, I do mean see it).
The kids’ shows are a little harder to judge, coming as they do in various stages of completion. Except for “Sara Solves It,” which looks like a finished version of the 2-D cartoon it’s meant to be, most rely on rough-sketch “animatics” to tell the bulk of the story, with brief examples of what the finished product would look like: There’s puppet animation (“Tumbleaf”), puppets (“Teeny Tiny Dogs,” which has Lisa Henson as a producer, so technically they might be Muppets), CGI (“Positively Ozitively”) and live action (“Annebots”).
I’ll write critically and in more detail about these shows in a following post. But overall, it’s a good start.