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Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola
On the set of "Bram Stoker's Dracula"

New York Times
By Bonnie Rothman Morris
January 14, 1999

To be an aspiring screenwriter today without knowing a soul in Hollywood is like trying to tackle Mount Everest without proper training, supplies or guides. First, the writer must master an art form that is prickly at best. Compared with what lies ahead, writing is the easy part. Ascending the peak means selling the script.

To do that, the writer needs an agent or manager to shepherd the script to Hollywood producers and studio executives who are in a position to buy it. There's a Catch-22: reading unsolicited material is verboten for those same agents and managers.

The same goes for producers and studio executives.

What's a writer to do?

For starters, send the script to Francis Ford Coppola. In October, Coppola, the director of arguably some of the best movies ever made -- "The Godfather" and its sequels, as well as as "Apocalypse Now" and "The Rainmaker" -- began accepting speculative screenplay submissions to his production company, American Zoetrope, through its Web site.

"We've already identified a few screenplays that are really superior," Coppola said in a telephone interview.

The Web has become a virtual Schwab's drugstore for screenwriters, offering sites where they can post their work and hope to be discovered.

(Most of the screenplay sites charge no fee for postings.) The Zoetrope site offers something more. It is designed as a free-form screenwriter's workshop. That is the cost of access to American Zoetrope and to Coppola, in fact.

For a screenplay to be considered by Zoetrope, a writer must read and evaluate four screenplays submitted by other writers to the site. The evaluations are then read by Zoetrope employees, and the best scripts are catapulted into the Zoetrope system for consideration for purchase.

There is also a chat site and individual pages for writers to post their biographies.

Discussion has been brisk, and Coppola said he was pleased. "Of course, when you're accepting all comers, it's the one out of a thousand that's going to be that diamond," Coppola said. "How unorthodox, on the other hand, to get your work read by people who could make it into a film."

Coppola said he was not only looking for material but was also hoping to identify superior writers who had been unable to penetrate the Hollywood system.

He said he believed that the Web could and would change Hollywood and predicted that studios and production companies would follow his lead soon.

The revolution has already begun for Chuck Ivie, a 62-year-old retired NASA scientist. He said he had always loved to write and had even published articles in the professional journals Astrophysical Review and Icarus.

On a lark, he decided to write a screenplay.

Ivie posted his screenplay on www.writerswebsite.com, a site for screenwriters. An independent producer took an option on the script -- which means that the producer now has, for a limited time, the exclusive rights to make the movie. In November, Ivie attended a casting session for a trailer for the film.

In the independent film world, a trailer is used to sell the movie to potential investors.

At the casting session, Ivie, a man who helped design the first United States satellite, was welcomed as "the screenwriter."

According to a popular Hollywood aphorism (and Coppola, too), there are 60 screenwriters writing all the movies in Hollywood today. The numbers tend to bear this out: the Writers Guild of America, a union for Hollywood screenwriters, has about 11,000 members.

In a typical year, 50 percent work in film and television, earning an average of $80,000 each.

But only 5 percent of guild members earn $300,000 a year or more from writing, said Chuck Slocum, director of special projects at the guild.

The low end of a working Hollywood screenwriter's annual salary, he said, is in the low six figures.

With studios making about 150 of the 300 or so domestic films that are released annually, it is clear that the ranks of screenwriters working in Hollywood today are slim indeed. Small wonder new writers have turned to the Web.

"You've got a better chance of winning the California lottery than getting a Hollywood movie made," said Colin Chapman, an aspiring screenwriter.

Chapman's experiences while trying to get into Hollywood by tramping down the traditional path sent him scurrying to the Web.

Chapman, 34, a former political consultant and Web developer in Falls Church, Va., has never been to Hollywood.

He tried getting attention for his four screenplays by mailing 200 query letters to literary agents and production companies.

Only three companies responded.

No one took the bait.

Chapman then decided to publish his screenplay on his own Web site.

Within weeks of the posting, among the hundreds of responses, he received five e-mail messages from people who described themselves as producers or directors.

One of them was a Canadian commercial director, Donovan Boden, looking for a project that would allow him to break into feature films.

Boden introduced Chapman to his talent agent, Sanjay Burman, a packaging agent at the Characters Talent Agency in Toronto, who signed Chapman as a client. The agency then gave the script to another client, the actor Yaphet Kotto, who plays Lieutenant Giardello on "Homicide." Burman said Kotto liked the script and was waiting for a rewrite before attaching himself to the project.

"We think it's a viable script and would never have known about Colin Chapman had it not been for the Internet," Burman said.

Chapman said that there was no good reason not to publish on the Web and "1,000 reasons to do it."

"You get a chance of getting discovered that you're not going to get anywhere else," he added.

Hollywood insiders are not so sanguine about the Web's value as a talent scout. Cheryl Stanley, vice president for creative affairs at More-Medavoy Management, which represents writers, said she and her colleagues did not have time to search the Web. But she did acknowledge that someone could be discovered that way. "Miracles do happen," she said.

Referring to the posting of screenplays, Ms. Stanley said: "I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who's working under the system or even close to the outside.

The reason we do business this way is to protect our writers, to make sure that they get paid for what makes them special and unique, and that's their ideas."

Tom Edgar, Webmaster of the Zoetrope site, acknowledged that there was some risk of theft but said it was far outweighed by the benefits the site offered.

Writers who submit scripts to Zoetrope with ideas they think are easy to steal can list them on the site's "anti-rip-off registry." When the company makes films, it will search the registry for similar scripts.

Should it find any, Edgar said, Zoetrope will "attempt to come to an appropriate agreement" with the writer.

"You're not going to sell your screenplay if you're not going to get the word out there," said Gina VanName, the proprietor of writerswebsite.com.

Ms. VanName, an aspiring screenwriter herself, routinely sends e-mail messages to agents, managers and producers with news from her Web site.

"If you're really paranoid about it, then don't put that particular screenplay up there," she advised.

For screenwriters who publish online, having their movies made is a gnat on the probability scale when compared with the chances of having them stolen.

But despite the slim odds, the Web gives them something they never had before: an audience.

"I've had hundreds of people read my script and share their responses with me," Chapman said.

"I have had a chance that almost every other aspiring screenwriter hasn't had."
1999 New York Times

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