Tomorrow, the online retailer Amazon.com will start streaming its new series “Alpha House,” a comedy written by “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau. You can see the pilot episode on Amazon’s website. “Alpha” is a fairly amusing, potty-mouthed take on an actual Capitol Hill townhouse once shared by a quartet of powerful pols that included former South Shore Representative William Delahunt.
Although there is nothing remotely nontraditional about “Alpha House,” which features top-line stars (e.g., John Goodman, Bill Murray) and HBO-level production values, Amazon Studios insists that “crowdsourcing” and online feedback played important roles in its launch of five new series on its fee-based service, Amazon Prime.
For instance, the company solicited series pitches on the Internet. Five thousand eager writers submitted ideas, one of which made it into production, according to The Wall Street Journal. Once Amazon winnowed down the pilots it planned to make, a million viewers rated them on the website, yielding data on how long the audience stayed with a show and whether or not they shared it with friends.
“The company is betting it can improve on the traditional TV development process by collecting viewer feedback in unprecedented ways and using it to make less risky bets on which shows to produce,” the Journal reported. The endlessly disruptive Amazon apparently believes that the current system for picking TV shows “relies too heavily on studio tastemakers to decide what shows get made.”
As someone who questions the “wisdom of crowds” — an oxymoron waiting to happen, I’d say — it occurs to me to ask: Who called the shots on making “Casablanca,” the perennial candidate for best movie of the 20th century? I re-watched the classic last week, and marveled at its obvious strengths: tight pacing, the glowing silver palette of the indoor shots, and the lapidary dialogue that college kids used to parrot word for word at the Orson Welles Theater in Cambridge.
According to Aljean Harmetz’s book, “Round Up the Usual Suspects,” the movie came to life in the usual way. Warner Brothers’ story department acquired a not-half-bad, unproduced play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” Then they shoveled talent into the studio meat grinder, assigning men and women from the Warner dream factory who happened to be available.
Two clever writers, Philip and Julius Epstein, attacked the script. Warner had a serviceable director, Michael Curtiz, available for the shoot. Curtiz, who had coined money for the studio with such Errol Flynn vehicles as “Captain Blood” and “The Sea Hawk,” could be relied on to bring the movie in on time, and close to its $1 million budget.
Ambitions for the production were quite modest. When the Epstein twins pleaded with producer David O. Selznick to loan them Ingrid Bergman for their movie, they characterized “Casablanca” as a by-the-numbers piece of Hollywood hackery. “It’s going to be a lot of [junk] like ‘Algiers,’ ” Julius Epstein promised. “Algiers” was a nothingburger Hedy Lamarr movie best remembered for its famous trailer cliché, “Come with me to the Casbah.”
Boston University professor Leslie Epstein, whose father Philip and uncle Julius shared the “Casablanca” Oscar for best screenplay, laughs at the notion of focus-grouping or crowdsourcing the movie’s key plot points. “If you polled the audience, they’d all say they want the film to be in color, and they want Ingrid Bergman to take her clothes off,” he says. “If the audience had its way, Rick would have run off with the girl.”
In one of the most famous movie climaxes in history, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) does not run off with the girl, who departs the foggy Moroccan airport with her husband, the resistance fighter Victor Laszlo.
Epstein’s take on crowdsourcing: “The artist is intended to impose his vision upon the audience, not the other way around.”
With its astonishing pools of money, Amazon Studios may well produce some hits. Will they produce a “Casablanca?” What do you think?