Earlier this week, Amazon Studios revealed it was planning a prequel series to Lord of the Rings, a timid choice that passed over fresh fantasy literature in favor of a well-established and ever-expanding franchise. My colleague Andrew Liptak put forward an excellent argument for bringing new, lesser-known work into the spotlight. But since the announcement, I’ve realized that a company as powerful as Amazon could take that good advice to a level that’s downright dystopian.
Amazon has built a stable of services touching just about every part of the entertainment industry, from film and game development to ebook publishing and video streaming. It’s also built a retail empire on cheap piecemeal labor, free material generated by users, and an arcane system designed to connect people with things they want at the absolute maximum level of efficiency. So it’s not hard to imagine it — or a similarly large competitor — building a miniature film industry that looks a lot like an automated marketplace.
Amazon’s services would tie neatly into a miniature licensing system
In Amazon’s case, the basic pieces exist already. Its Kindle Direct Publishing service would add an automatic, opt-out film or TV license — including the option for specific stipulations, like no R-rated adaptations or no character whitewashing. The synopsis would go to Amazon Studios, where aspiring directors or screenwriters could lease the rights for a production. They’d submit the final result to Amazon Studios, where a moderation team could approve it for Amazon Video.
This doesn’t actually sound bad. It combines ideas that are already in use on other web platforms — the fiction site Wattpad helps sell popular stories to studios, for example, and YouTube lets music labels automatically collect royalties from people using their songs. Ideally, the system encourages directors outside the existing film industry to build on the ideas of authors outside the bestseller lists, and give their work a place in a major streaming library. If a project is popular enough, a traditional studio could pick it up for wider release with a bigger budget, the way web series can become TV shows.
But the bigger platforms get, the scarier the idea becomes. Amazon has tremendous clout in the publishing industry, and a near-monopolistic version could make it very difficult for authors to refuse the company’s deal. It could also contractually make filmmakers’ work permanently exclusive to Amazon Video. Scammers and trolls would find ways to game a massive semi-automated catalog, just as they game Amazon’s retail marketplace. If Amazon keeps ultimate control over adaptation rights, it could even let studios pull a successful project out from under its independent creators, replacing them with a “safer,” better-known cast and crew.
Imagine an ouroboros of spinoffs and novelizations
And the same aversion to new work could creep into the process over time. Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, for instance, currently lets authors write tie-in stories for existing book series. Throw it (or a similar program) into the mix, you could end up with a franchise ouroboros: writers eternally churning out Amazon fan fiction for their favorite Amazon TV series, and directors processing it into spinoff after spinoff. To make things worse, it’s easier to get away with telling “fan writers” that they’re privileged simply to have their material picked up for a project, and they shouldn’t expect payment as well.
Entertainment is already being transformed by a combination of far-reaching platforms and an endless supply of free creative labor. This nightmare scenario is just the most elegantly Darwinian incarnation. It’s certainly not inevitable: even beyond the established entertainment industry, there’s a history of creative people designing systems that offer havens from exploitative platforms. When now-failed commercial fan fiction site FanLib angered a group of writers with its restrictive terms, they created Archive of our Own, a remarkably well-designed nonprofit option. The Creative Commons copyright system isn’t a discrete “platform,” but it’s a framework that lets artists operate outside the traditional copyright system without giving up all rights to their work.
Even so, if we’re talking about epic struggles for the fate of fantasy worlds, it’s worth keeping an eye on the powers that are shaping our own.