Later this summer, Amazon Studios, the film and TV development arm of e-commerce giant Amazon, will publish its first digital comic based on a promising screenplay, soliciting reviews from a massive online community as it grooms the screenplay for Hollywood and elsewhere. A crowdsourcing venture targeting the movie industry, Amazon Studios is an effort to cut costs and find efficiencies in the production of films and offers a testament to the popular belief that the comics medium is a reliable proving ground for new work in the entertainment industries.
Comics have good track record of inspiring films and television. To name just a few: Frank Miller’s Sin City series, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Amazon Studios is looking at variety of ways, among them comics and animation, to create test media and pilot films—full length inexpensive films based on submitted scripts—that will accurately gauge an audience’s interest in a new property.
“The comic book community is accustomed to engaging in a creative way with ideas and concepts,” said AmazonStudiosdirector Roy Price, speaking by phone with PW. “With a comic book, you have the opportunity to let an idea spread its wings a little bit and explore its universe a little more at length.”
Largely an effort at crowdsourcing new film projects, Amazon Studios launched in late 2010 and has solicited more than 7,000 scripts, in addition to having a first-look deal with Warner Bros. Pictures. Any user can upload an original script, get community feedback, solicit revisions and watch trailers and test films. Scripts that shine to Amazon are optioned and then moved on to what’s called the “Development Slate,” where they're further revised and tested with animated storyboards, rough films and among other test projects. All of this happens in the public eye.
“Whether you have a test comic or test movie, it's all part of giving fans an important voice in the development process,” Price said. “If you don’t have any evidence that people like that idea, it can be difficult to finance.”
At Amazon’s request, the first screenplay to be released as a digital comic will be Jay Levy’s Blackburn Burrow, a story set in pre-Civil War America where “supernatural horrors are infesting a small Appalachian town in Northern Georgia.” 12 Gauge Comics has been commissioned to create it, tapping veteran comics writer Ron Marz and illustrator Matthew Dow Smith. Both have credits in mainstream comics publishing.
“Nothing is locked, but we are targeting a July or August launch date,” said 12 Gauge president and publisher Keven Gardner, adding that the Blackburn Burrow comic will be similar to those available on digital platforms like comiXology and Graphicly. The comic will be offered for free. “The comic will be a fully digital one, but will look like a traditional book.”
Blackburn Burrow isn’t the only screenplay treated by comics creators in partnership with Amazon. After much community feedback and rising to the “Development Slate,” Marty Weiss’ script, TheAlchemistAgenda, was adapted into a full-length motion comic by the production studio The Hive, based in Los Angeles. Clocking in at 87 minutes, the World War II, treasure hunting-themed production has voice acting, full color, fluid motion and sound effects and stands out as a polished test project. It won Amazon’s “Best Test Movie” award in 2011.
Another example of an Amazon Studio test with a comics connection is ZombiesVs.Gladiators. It was handed over to comic book veteran Neal Adams' company Continuity Studios. His company is known for developing high-quality motion graphics and animated storyboards, better known as “animatics,” for commercial clients. Its major credits include motion comic productions of Marvel’s series The Astonishing X-Men: Gifted and Stan Lee’s Time Jumper, all published by Disney. Unlike those, Zombies Vs. Gladiators is an animatic, complete with dialogue tracks, sound effects and illustrations.
“Why can't we have zombies in ancient Rome?” Adams mused in a recent phone interview. “I may have thought it was a crazy idea, but as I started to do this animatic of it, I realized, commercially, it's a great idea.
“If you're going through this animatics process,” he added, “you can immediately identify the scenes that you don't want, and by the time you're ready to shoot, you have something like Alfred Hitchcock's storyboards for every movie he made. The difference between what we've seen in the recent past – from Hitchcock to Spielberg – and now is that this is something you can sit down and watch from beginning to end. You're giving the movie director a big stepping stone up to his job.”
Adams, best known for his work on Batman and Superman, maintains that movies are more inclined to fail if they’re not audience tested in some way. Comics or animatics, he said, offer an effective way to present and test future films.
“So many movies that are put out are losers, and you don't know why,” he said. “You can't account for the anomalies if you don't test. To do animatics for a middle of the road movie is the smartest move in the world because people can lose hundreds of millions of dollars if they don't plan carefully. And if you don't test the elements of the movie, you're playing with an investor’s money.”