Amazon plans waves of pilots to tap crowd input -- and hook you

Amazon Studios will release original-show pilots a couple of times a year and get customer feedback about them, part of a plan to crowdsource content decisions that may help lure in Prime subscribers.

A shot from the show "Alpha House" of four characters walking down a hall
Amazon's original comedy "Alpha House" stars John Goodman and follows four misfit Republican senators who rent a house together in Washington, D.C. Amazon

For its original series to make a splash, Amazon is taking its cues from an IV drip.

Roy Price -- the head of Amazon.com's "Hollywood" arm, Amazon Studios -- said in an interview with CNET that the site will have a couple of pilot seasons every year for the public at large to check out, and it will be keeping up an ongoing discussion with customers about new content, including previews for a group of dedicated watchers.

The result will be waves of content coming available throughout the production process. It's part of Amazon's strategy to crowdsource opinion about what pilots to green-light. "It's kind of like doing a focus group except it's with the whole actual audience, hundreds of thousands of people watching the show," he said.

A handy side effect: It creates more opportunities to keep viewers -- and potential Amazon Prime customers -- interested.

Amazon's Roy Price Amazon

Earlier this year, Amazon brought forth its first slate of pilots for any of its customers to watch and weigh in on. It chose five of 14 pilots to turn into full series, and those will be released to subscribers of its $79-a-year Prime service starting at the end of this year.

The goal of Amazon's original content is sign up more Prime subscribers, who tend to spend more on the e-commerce side of Amazon's site.

Price said Amazon Studios expects to have pilot seasons on a regular basis, maybe not like clockwork but still releasing finished material a couple of times a year. In between those major events of pilots and series premiering fully, Amazon will have many smaller-scale feedback opportunities, testing different ideas with an online research panel called Amazon Previews or with the company's Facebook group.

Amazon Preview is a group of thousands of people randomly invited out of a pool of strong TV and movie customers on Amazon, those who stream heavily or buy lots of DVDs, Price said.

Amazon's open-door policy applies to the creation side of its originals as well as the viewing side.

The company launched Amazon Studios in 2010 in a bid to make commercial motion pictures based on scripts and videos submitted by aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers. Since expanding the realm to television too, the Amazon Studios site has received more than 18,000 movie scripts and 4,000 series project submissions. It has 26 movies and 24 series at some point in the development process.

One of the first 14 pilots -- "Those Who Can't," about three juvenile teachers -- was submitted and developed by a team online with no previous Hollywood experience. While it wasn't among the pilots picked up in May, Price said Amazon Studios has ordered more scripts on that show.

Another television project submitted through the site, "Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street," is a live-action children's adventure show that Amazon last month green-lighted for a pilot.

It's a very different approach from that of its biggest competitor in online streaming video, Netflix. While both of the tech giants rely on their repositories of consumer-preference data to make content decisions, Netflix only hunts out ideas for new shows that already exist in some form -- be it a series overseas, a book, or characters from a movie.

The two differ in other ways on their streaming strategies. Netflix is partnering with producers so far on its originals, spreading the cost of the operations around but also limiting its ownership of the content itself. On the whole, Amazon is the producer of its pilots and shows. That means Amazon has the potential opportunity to license the content further down the road in other ways than simply streaming on Prime Instant Video.

Netflix also releases all episodes of a new original season at once. It's a practice it espouses as giving the customers the option to watch in any manner they like, but some experts have questioned whether it crimps the show's commercial potential .

Price said Amazon hasn't made a decision yet about whether it will release all episodes of its original series in one fell swoop or parcel them out over time. But if it does, its plans to have multiple pilot releases and ongoing customer outreach about them may mean Amazon won't be paying as dearly to do it.

 

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