When True Skin dropped in 2012, it was pretty clear at the time that it was going to get optioned for development. Yes, the sci-fi shorts trend was at its peak with seemingly a high profile deal every month, but True Skin was also just better than most of the other shorts getting deals. It possesses a real flair—a spark of energy and originality that holds up well these 3.5 years later. When Warner Bros. grabbed it 2 days after our review, we expected that it would break through the development gridlock on its way theaters in short order.
That didn’t happen, and now this week Borys Kit of the Hollywood Reporter breaks the news that Amazon has pounced on the property: “Stephan Zlotescu’s acclaimed short film True Skin is getting another shot at the screen, this time as a television show. Amazon Studios has optioned the short and is developing it as a one-hour series. The project was previously set up at Warner Bros. as a feature, but the rights lapsed, with Amazon swooping in. Zlotescu is on board to direct the adaptation of the short, while Scott Glassgold and his newly minted production company, Ground Control, are attached to produce the series.”
What’s interesting about this is how emblematic it is of a couple of distinct trends: the exodus of new and independent talent away from features towards television formats, and how big bucks and increased competition in the streaming space is benefitting new creators.
From Sam Esmail, to Jill Soloway to the Duplass Brothers, we’re seeing a ton of creators from the indie space move to television, a trend that is being backed up by brand new director labs for serialized storytelling popping up in formerly film-centric places like IFP and Sundance. Budgets are smaller, but that jives with the more character-driven approach of the medium and plays to the strengths of these creators as writers. These creators are largely crediting the increased freedom, larger canvasses, and lower expectations of TV in precipitating their move.
That this will extend to vfx-driven genre filmmaking is no surprise. The entire impetus for this trend of shorts optioned by studios the last several years has been to utilize talent, largely from the VFX-sphere (which is often the costliest component of summer tentpoles), to create low-budget sci-fi work in the vein of genre touchstone Chronicle. For the studios this was an attempt to diversify away from their expensive boom or bust blockbuster slate and recreate in other genres what Blumhouse has been able to do for horror cinema.
While examples like Wes Ball (The Maze Runner) and now Tim Miller (Deadpool) have been able to transition from shorts to new, mid-budget franchises, micro-budget departments in the major studios have largely failed to get off the ground, and a lot of the short filmmakers picked up for development have been left stranded.
The problem is that studios are not well set up to a volume approach, and are wedded to the blockbuster mentality. The sheer marketing dollars necessary to succeed theatrically cuts into a cost-savings strategy, and if you have to focus finite marketing and development resources on projects they might as well have the upside to pay off in a really big way. Enter streaming services. Amazon, Hulu and Netflix value volumes of content, and also prize the long-term return of their catalogs. Former Grantland tv critic Andy Greenwald has noted that, among teens, two of the most popular Netflix series are over a decade old — Prison Break and Friends. It does not matter if your viewers watch House of Cards the first week it is released because people will still discover and binge it 10 years from now. Freed from the pressure of having to guarantee a big opening weekend, the proposition of taking a chance on smaller projects gains steam.
In exchange for smaller budgets, the return for creators appears to be a streamlined development process that is a lot more hands off. From Glassgold, producer of True Skin, “Amazon is very supportive of the filmmaker’s vision and see the potential in investing in someone like Stephan, a world builder, who can not only think up big worlds but actualize these worlds through his direction and visual effects abilities. Their emphasis has been to empower the creator to do something fresh and original. You can’t really ask for anything more than that.”
Streaming services embrace the nichification of entertainment and can rely on their own distribution to ensure awareness. They are also throwing around big, big money, and creators are benefitting. This is the first we’ve seen of streaming service targeting this particular type of pitch, but certainly not the last. Studio pickups of shorts have been slowing over the past 18 months, but I expect we’ll soon see services like Amazon picking up the slack.