After The Contest–Amazon Studios And The Seed Book Trailer

Whew! All I can say is that I’ve never been happier to see a deadline come and go.

Midnight, August 31, was the closing date for the Seed Book Trailer Contest sponsored by Amazon Studios. I’m happy to report that despite the organized, persistent one-star attacks by SCAD students and their friends, my video (watch on YouTube here) survived this deadline with a 3.8 averate rating out of. . .well, seventy-one or seventy-two. I’m not sure which time zone Amazon was using, and ratings are still trickling in even now. I’m thinking that Amazon will use the averages logged at that date and time and discard more recent ones. But who knows. Amazon clearly didn’t honor their own rulebook in this contest from the get-go, so I have no idea what to expect with the scoring process.

Mine was not the only entry to be targeted. When studying the patterns exhibited by the worst vote-stacking offenders, it quickly became apparent that a specific strategy was in place to bloat Video #29’s average “just enough” to keep it higher than all others. Then, when another video’s average overtook it, several more supporters of #29 would swoop in with one and two star ratings to drag that competitor’s average back down. This was very consistent and very predictable. So other contestants and I began doing some digging and discovered a very tightly woven network of SCAD students (Savannah College of Art and Design) who all seemed to be working together on behalf of Video #29’s uploader. We put together some documentation using social media, blogs, and websites that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that at least thirty vote-stackers were affiliated with each other prior to the contest, and that some of them most likely participated in the actual production of video #29.

Is this surprising? Not in the least. What shocked and horrified me was Amazon’s outright denial that contest gaming was afoot. Despite repeated attempts by several participants–including me–to correspond with Amazon and provide them with proof of our claims, Amazon steadfastly refused to address any wrongdoing. I’m pasting here a copy of the last correspondence I had with Amazon Studios (to date), which was a canned response that did not acknowledge my request to submit the documentation we had collected.

“Hello Rhonda,

Please allow me to express my apologies for any frustration you may have experienced.

Thanks for bringing these reviews to our attention. We’ll read each of the reviews and remove any that violate our guidelines. Any reviews we find outside our guidelines will be removed within 48 hours.

Best Regards,

Adele S.”

My reply:

“Amazon staff can “read each of the reviews” all day long, but until you investigate the collusion perpetrated on your contest I don’t believe anything will be resolved. How Amazon can ignore or dismiss the blatant beat-down of other contestants administered by personal friends and schoolmates of (names removed) is baffling, especially when Amazon Studios consistently removed innocent five-star ratings from my entry (Ryan Sizer, Fae Hill, Gary Thompson, others I can’t remember.) Amazon Studios also retracted my right to vote for excellence (Video 39) by stripping my heartfelt five-star rating from him. He is aware of this, by the way. Also, my husband was deprived of his right to rate other contestants and systematically had his ratings removed. Naturally, his comment and rating was removed from my entry, yet “(name removed))” obviously a family member of (name removed,) has been allowed to remain in the ratings contest-wide. This demonstrates a clear bias on Amazon’s part, not just the fraudulent voting patterns among supporters of 29.

The prejudicial way this has been handled throughout the contest does not reflect positively on Amazon Studios. It appears that certain participants get a free pass for behaviors that others are penalized for. When one digs a little deeper, one learns that the “free pass” group is a collection of students from SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design,) exactly the type of creative souls Amazon Studios might wish to entice and recruit as permanent members of the community. This begs the question: is Amazon Studios part of the collusion also, or at least using “participation guidelines” to sift through potential talent and handpick future contributors? I certainly hope not.

A copy of this correspondence will be forwarded to a network of at least 200 professional screenwriters and authors, as well as to Ania Ahlborn herself. Each individual receiving it is already aware of the questionable circumstances surrounding this contest and many have expressed their concern to me personally. Winning this competition is not on my radar–never was. Building a relationship with Amazon and establishing a niche platform among other creative talent was the primary goal. Yet what I witnessed has appalled me. I expected better from Amazon.”

It bears mentioning that today, more than 72 hours after I registered my complaint, none of the ratings that clearly violate Amazon’s “participation guidelines” have been removed.

Will any of this be sorted during the final scoring process? Who knows. The only thing at stake is a $500 gift card for Amazon purchases. The $3000 winner will not be determined by ratings, but by an independent panel of judges and Ania Ahlborn herself. Were I among those judges, I would select any one of of several other entries over mine. I am not kidding when I say there were some really, really good videos submitted.

But here’s where the rubber meets the road: most authors cannot invest $3000 in a book trailer, and even that seems a little on the cheap side for some of the excellent videos uploaded late in the contest. I won’t argue that some of the more professional directors and filmmakers blew the wheels off my little machinima. . .but realistically, who can afford them? It is very doubtful that any of those filmmakers are looking to corner the book trailer market. They’re looking to make a name for themselves as. . .well, filmmakers.

And more power to them. I support their endeavors one hundred percent.

Still, somewhere along the way, the focus was shifted from “what’s best for the author” to “what’s best for the filmmaker.” In a contest like this one, perhaps that’s fine. But in the long run, none of the authors I know would tolerate the broad creative license so many uploaders took with Ania Ahlborn’s material. What set me apart from every other contestant is that they know filmmaking. I know writers.

As far as my video versus video #29, I can tell you that:

A) Not a single animator (that I know of) liked my machinima; most didn’t even recognize it as machinima, period.
B) Not a single writer (that I know of) liked video #29.

I could spout volumes of opinion about a bunch of digital arts students who have no clue what machinima is or what it’s for. But you don’t want to hear that. More germane to this blog is my take on all the professional writers who preferred my direct, true-to-the-novel approach rather than #29’s obscure interpretation of the novel’s synopsis rather than the novel itself. And if the writer is the client, shouldn’t their expectations trump all?

I never expected my machinima entry to be well-received. In fact, it performed far better than I ever would have hoped. Machinima has long been the red-headed stepchild of the 3D animation world. Traditional animators routinely scoff at its technology. I have no problem with that. I am infinitely more concerned with responses from the end consumer (the authors themselves and potential buyers of their novel who might watch its trailer) than I am with any reaction from digital arts students who only want to win prize money so they can upgrade their gaming system.

The good to come from this? Well, one example is the online magazine post I found in my inbox this morning. Among all the other articles that span everything from 3-D animation to movies to photography was a blurb about my machinima entry “mingling” with an Amazon contest. You could have knocked me over with a feather. This tells me that despite all the negativity surrounding the contest, my original goal of exposing machinima to the mainstream was not only met, but exceeded. Let’s not forget that author Ania Ahlborn will get a very professional, very well-done book trailer out of this whole ordeal, and even though it won’t be anything I produced, she’s still making inroads into the new world of e-publishing and internet marketing that many of us writers will someday tread. Go, Ania! You’re blazing a trail for all of us. 🙂

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7 responses to “After The Contest–Amazon Studios And The Seed Book Trailer

  1. I’m not surprised that sort of thing happens in contests. I’ve been reading about how people buy favorable book reviews. The internet can be a dishonest place.

    Anyway, congratulations on having such an awesome film. You’re so good at what you do! 🙂

    • Amanda, you are far, far too kind. But I’m not complaining! Thank you so much for your continued support and enthusiasm for what I’m trying to do with machinima. It means more than you will ever know.

  2. Yes – what Amanda said! You’re a pioneer, an inventor, a visionary. And you have multiple talents. I wouldn’t have spread word of the contest shenanigans if Amazon hadn’t yanked away the 5-star reviews that legitimate people gave you, but didn’t yank the 1-star reviews that clearly came from the same pack of boys gaming the community. No explanations, amazon? No “Just wait, we’re on it” reassurances? I’m so mad, I may yet have to pull down all my book reviews and cancel future business and book purchases with amazon until we hear there was a method to their madness. And wrongs are righted.

  3. Well put, Rhonda. Your writing skills were well used in your article and letter to Amazon. I hope something good comes from all this politicing.

  4. “I wouldn’t have spread word of the contest shenanigans if Amazon hadn’t yanked away the 5-star reviews that legitimate people gave you.”

    Oh, yes, Carol. Exactly. That sums up my feelings to a “T.” Ania Ahlborn–gracious and intelligent soul that she seems to be–expressed her concern to me through private email, and she felt that since it’s the first contest of this particular nature that Amazon has hosted, there will surely be some “bumps along the way.” I’m deferring to her theory for now, hoping Amazon will step up and “right the wrongs” you mentioned. I definitely think it’s premature to pull down book reviews or stop dealing with the Amazon’s main retail outlet since Studios is a separate entity. My guess is that with business practices like this, they won’t be around long enough to tarnish the reputation Amazon has earned as a retailer.

    And Francene, thank you so much for adding your voice to the mix, both here and in the contest comments. You offered fair and impartial critique of many entries from the perspective of a writer and a viewer, which was a much needed respite from the animator-on-animator gaming that spread like cancer from #29’s uploader.

  5. I am so mad at that group. (I typed several names for them here but backspaced. Editing is a good thing.) But this makes me feel better: “…they know filmmaking. I know writers.” Let’s see how they deal with that.

    #29 is going down in my book right next to 2084. Lol!

  6. 2084!! Bwaaahahahahaha! (For all you folks who have no idea why that’s so funny, it’s just a little battlefield humor from the trenches of Critic Corner. LOL!)

    The behavior of those SCAD students and their buddies neither surprised me nor infuriated me. It was just a bunch of know-it-all kids who obviously don’t know half of what they think they do. Sad, but typical. It was Amazon that really set me off, all the ratings they stripped from me citing their “gaming the community” clause, while steadfastly refusing to apply those same guidelines to #29. No real matter, though. . .in the end it’s all good, as long as Ania Ahlborn gets a kick-butt trailer out of the deal and therefore makes book trailers become the “must-have” accessory of the publishing world. 🙂

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