I didn’t decide to start writing movies until roughly 2005. I knew nothing about the craft except for perhaps the three-act structure. I didn’t understand formatting, like how wide the margins should be on dialog or how to communicate a flashback to the script reader. So I spent a lot of time reading John August. Not only did he write about the craft, but he wrote about the life of being a professional screenwriter. He wrote about uniquely intimate things, like what it was like to overhear industry people talk about him at the next table in a restaurant, and he gave insight into the mundane, like the exact color green of his royalty checks. I occasionally asked him questions and he occasionally answered. I also felt a kindred spirit in him because he was constantly fiddling with the layout of his blog at a time that I was fiddling with mine. (Now that I’m revisiting his site after 10 years, I see he’s opted for a minimalist look and moved on to podcasting.) It was August’s site that pointed me to other screenwriting sites.

When you don’t have a lot of money, it’s difficult to get help in Hollywood, which is an industry whose entire business model is to monetize hopes and dreams on both ends of the entertainment spectrum; both consumer and creator have to pay to get what they want.

I, of course, explored trying to get somewhere for free. I’m not sure if this is still in practice, but there was a time when aspiring screenwriters could approach literary agents with something called a “query letter”, which was a two-page summation that pitched your screenplay and explanation for its commercial success. You would physically mail these letters off with an included SASE (Self-addressed Stamped Envelope) to make it easier for the agent to reject you. Some of them had rejection down to a science, printing multiple rejection messages on a single sheet of perforated paper. That way their assistant could just tear off a piece and send it back to you. The bigger agencies would include a pre-formatted rejection letter that was obviously written by their legal department, because it would state in very clear and definite language that the material I sent them had not been read. This was, of course, an effort to limit their exposure to a lawsuit in case a client of theirs happened to write something similar to whatever was in the query letter.

The email marketer in me wants to guess that I probably had a 90% return rate on my SASEs and a 100% rejection rate of my letters. I used to pin them up on my wall and take pictures of them for my first blog, Writing in the Dark. When I got sick of the rejections without any feedback, I began including feedback lists with my SASEs. My return rate dropped to 1% with only one office returning the list with feedback stating that they simply weren’t taking on new clients.

So I decided to take a paid route. Somewhere along the line I had been convinced that I needed to have an advocate for my script, someone who could whisper in the ears of the gatekeepers to let me pass. If I couldn’t get an agent to do that, then perhaps a professional script reader could. When your screenplay is read and critiqued professionally, it’s called “coverage”. Typically, your coverage will all amount to a final opinion from the reader that boils down to a handful of options: PASS, CONSIDER, CONSIDER W/ RESERVATIONS, and RECOMMEND. There might be more, but I don’t know them. If you received a RECOMMEND, then your script could be scouted by agents, and your career just might take off. This, of course, is the big lure, but at a price approaching $300, which is a princely sum for someone making $12/hour at the time, I had to sleep on the decision. When I finally pulled the trigger, I got a PASS.

I couldn’t believe it! My unedited, non-workshopped first draft was dismissed! On the other hand, here’s some insight from a former reader:

Hell, sometimes readers give a PASS when the script is good. Who knows why?  Maybe they’ve got a similar script idea and they don’t want yours competing with it.  Yes, it’s a vicious world. Oh, and by the way, waiters spit in your food, too.

I always tell people that to make in Hollywood is usually a mixture of luck and talent. You can sometimes make it without talent, but you definitely can’t make it without luck.

And this brings me to Zoetrope.com. Created by writer/director (among other things) Francis Ford Coppola, Zoetrope is one of those communal creative sites where content creators come together to share their work and have it peer reviewed. I’m sure it offered more than that, but I was only there to workshop my scripts. Coppola, of course, had loftier goals for the site:

“When I was a kid I remember looking in the locked gates of a movie studio which was across the street from the Junior High School I was attending.  I was wishing that I could get in and see what these mythical movie studios were. Years later I actually bought that studio, and I went to that Junior High School and I talked about it to the students and I said alright kids lets go, and I took them across the street and right in through the studio gates. And that’s what I was trying to do with this site – let everyone have access to a movie studio or set a new context of creative community for people interested in cinema, music, acting, art, graphics, photography, songwriting, and so on,” said Francis Coppola.

I can’t fault the man for his vision, nor do I blame him for my experience on the site, but when there’s no way to weed out bad creators and there’s no way to choose which creators workshop your script, then it’s just a big crapshoot. In order for your script to become eligible for reading, you had to read five other scripts first and provide a significant amount of notes back. After the first script, I had to split up the work and offload scripts to a writer friend. The scripts were terrible. These people weren’t just not screenwriters; they weren’t even writers. They didn’t understand how to tell a story, much less tell it in movie format. So when a script reader gets jaded and becomes cynical like the guy I quoted earlier, I totally get it – and I was only a couple of scripts in! Imagine if I had been doing it professionally day in, day out.

The feedback I was getting also wasn’t very helpful. I either received fawning praise, elements of my script summarized back at me, or inappropriate criticism. To be honest, I would have preferred all feedback to be critical as long as it had been constructive. Instead, I had one guy criticize a scene I wrote because of how long it would take to light it.

I didn’t stick around Zoetrope much longer after that. It was just too much work for too little return. But it looks like the site just got a facelift:

The newly revitalized Zoetrope.com is not only comprehensive, modernized, more efficient and faster, it also has an added short films section in which screenwriters, directors and producers can receive peer feedback.  The site encompasses acting resumes, photography, song writing, short films, stories, novels, scripts, short flash fiction, poetry, music, and photos. For every story a member submits, they are required to review five other works, so each person gets exposed to other writing which provides growing opportunities in addition to receiving feedback. Members can also create groups based on specific interests and areas of creativity, as well as invite friends and other members to join. In addition to these benefits, work submitted may also be considered for inclusion in Zoetrope: All-Story, as well as the very first short story vending machine in the United States, designed by Short Edition and housed in Coppola’s San Francisco restaurant, Cafe Zoetrope.

Who knows? Something I write and put on the site just might end up being my big break.

Or it just might end up in a vending machine in a restaurant in San Francisco, which, sadly, is still a bigger success in my creative writing career than anything I’ve achieved on my own.