Amazon premièred its latest miniseries this week, an adaptation of Philip K Dick's counter-factual novel The Man In The High Castle. I've seen the first five eps back-to-back and it's pretty good. A little slow, perhaps, but the worldbuilding is excellent, the supporting cast is great, and there are some lovely asides and production design details. It's a classy production all round.
With streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon competing with terrestrial and cable/satellite TV channels as well as with film production companies for our time, the goals have shifted somewhat since the first generation of subscription TV / home entertainment alternatives came along. Back in the day, the subscription drivers were exclusive access to sports and access to movies in the sweet spot between cinema release and home viewing availability.
With a 12-week release window for movies to home sell-through from theatrical release, all this has changed. Sports-led promotion had been around for two decades and that market is pretty much exhausted; new subscribers motivated on this basis aren't really out there. The move by the likes of Sky to pay-as-you-go options such as Now TV indicates this.
However, as HBO has shown in the US, there are audiences craving well-made long-form drama series that provide more than the neutered sitcom soap-operatics and jokey NCIS-style procedurals (though there's nothing wrong with either of these) offered as the fiction jewels in the reality-saturated terrestrial TV schedules.
This means that there are more opportunities potentially available for television writers than ever before. The beast is hungry; it craves fresh flesh. Though the likes of Amazon use established producers (High Castle's showrunner is Frank Spotnitz, who cut his teeth on The X-Files and who has been working steadily since in television and film) they're also open to new writers and fresh scripts.
This isn't the place for a debate on this, though that's to come - Amazon's position as a production company and as exclusive distributor/exhibitor of its own content raises parallels to the 1948 Paramount agreement that heralded the dismantling of the Hollywood studio system - Amazon's relationships to creative communities, competitors, publishers and nation-state tax regimes are never less than of interest, however.
It is, though, interesting to see Amazon's latest development along these lines; Amazon Storywriter.
Storywriter is browser-based screenwriting software. I've had a quick play with it and it seems broadly similar in functionality to other browser-based screenwriting software packages out there such as WriterDuet (my preferred one). Storywriter auto-saves as you go and it automates most of the standard screenplay formatting requirements. You can import and export your work into and out of the program. All well and good. It's free to use too.
The kicker is that Amazon is on the lookout for scripts; Storywriter appears to be a mechanism by which to get scripts to Amazon Studios directly. They need distinctive content that they'll have exclusivity over so that more folk will continue to see value in the video element of their Amazon Prime subscription (as well as attract new subscribers, with the follow-on that people'll also buy physical goods from Amazon as they seek to get the most out of the free premium delivery options bundled into Prime).
For many UK-based screenwriters, the obvious routes to a professional readership are (and have long been) by submitting to agents, to the BBC through Writersroom, by making your own shorts, and via competition entries. Storywriter represents at least another possibility, plus it's a signal that Amazon Studios is open to your scripts.
Doubtless there will be caveats to this that'll emerge over time, as well as the inevitabilities of suits for plagiarised script ideas as well as war-stories of the script development deal that got away. Being ever optimistic, let's see this, in the interim at least, as a positive. A new toy to play with, and a new chance for writers of original television.