The Future of Screenwriting

Twice a week, Marc Bacus comes home from his day-job as an administrator at Southern Illinois University and logs on for a two- to three-hour chat session with a splinter group of screenwriters who call themselves the Viewmasters []. "There was such fierce competition at Zoetrope’s screenwriting site that a few of us decided to start our own group," he says. "It’s a chance for us to get more personal support than we could otherwise." Not that Bacus was disappointed in Francis Ford Coppola’s on-line screenwriting workshop. Quite the contrary. He still visits the Zoetrope site [] regularly and says it was instrumental in making him a better screenwriter. "I can’t say enough good things about the Zoetrope site," he says. "It’s invaluable for people like me who are non-professionals."

Bacus is just one of about 6,000 users, from complete amateurs to serious writers, who are taking advantage of Coppola’s free website. It has only one restriction: those who wish to fully participate in the site and post their own screenplay must read and seriously review four other screenplays first. "It’s an excellent rule," Bacus says. "I think it’s really what makes the site work."

Coming from a background of writing stage plays and poetry, Bacus says he had never even considered screenwriting until a play he submitted to a competition placed as a finalist. One of the contest’s co-sponsors happened to be Zoetrope. At that time, Zoetrope had a website for submissions to their short story magazine, All-Story. "I got a note through to [Coppola] about setting up a similar site for stage plays, and I was flattered to see that he responded, saying he thought it was a great idea, but to keep my head up for a screenplay website." Since then, Bacus, one of the first to sign onto the site when it went up in October of 1998, has become a formidable screenwriter, penning a work called Slow Takes the Dance Floor that recently caught the eye of a WGA signatory who approached him for representation. Although as yet no scripts have been acquired by Zoetrope, they are "in discussion" with several writers, according to Tom Edgar, the site’s webmaster. A six-member board of reviewers helps that process along by flagging the best submissions (based on peer reviews).

"The screenplays that get good [peer] reviews are usually really good screenplays," Edgar says. "We’ve had some wonderful submissions." In total, about 8,000 users have logged onto the Zoetrope site since it started, according to Edgar. "There’s a wide range of people out there," he says. "Several have had screenplays produced." He described on-line workshops as basically being a classroom without a teacher and says that although one difference between on-line workshops and in-class sessions is that everyone is equal, the main selling point is the diversity of feedback that you can get on the Internet. "I’m one of those people who went to NYU film school, then moved to L.A. to write screenplays," Edgar says. "I used to go to writers’ workshops that were full of people just like me. But that can be a very limiting experience, whereas on the Internet, you may get a guy from London and someone from Saipan, from ages 15 to 80, reading your script, each coming from very different life experiences."

It was also Edgar’s suggestion that a prerequisite be made of reading and reviewing four of one’s peers before being handed the key to the website. "That was done in order to limit the number of submissions to those who are serious about really participating," he says. "The golden rule is that if you give good feedback, others will give you good feedback. If someone gets on and just writes a few quick sentences, no one is going to read his screenplay."

Mark Bacus strongly agrees and goes one further, saying, "You have to market yourself within the site. And the best way to do that is by going in and saying, ‘Hey, does anyone have something they want me to read and critique? And by the way, I have something you may want to see, as well.’ " Coppola’s involvement with the site is surprisingly visible. "He’s very paternal about these sites," says Bacus of the screenwriting and short story sites. "He’ll even pop in time to time and make a comment during a chat session."

But Zoetrope is not the only game in town. One of the newest and most promising alternatives is MovieBytes’ workshop []. Some have criticized the Zoetrope site as being too much of a competition to get a screenplay in the right hands, and less as a forum for feedback. And for those, a site like MovieBytes is a blessing.

"Most of the people using our site are beginners," says Frederick Mensch, who operates the website on his spare time as a programmer. A 40-year-old NYU film school alum now living in Chicago who’s had a few scripts optioned, he says the vast majority of users choose to post their work privately, sending out passwords to those they wish to read it, who in turn give feedback. But not all are reclusive neophytes, either. A script posted by Richard Garrison, for example, recently won third place in the American Screenwriter’s Association Screenwriting Awards.

"I really needed to have other writers who took the craft seriously take a look at my work," says Sara Cody, a beginning screenwriter who posted her work on MovieBytes. "It helped me develop a slightly thicker skin and hone my own intuitive sense of when my writing’s working and when it isn’t–so even the negative feedback ended up being useful."

Unlike Zoetrope, MovieBytes charges a $50 fee to post a script for 60 days, and an additional $25 for each rewrite. But as Mensch points out, one would easily surpass that in copying costs by sending out scripts by mail. MovieBytes also includes a wealth of information on competitions and has recently launched a subscription section called "Who’s Buying What" that includes a searchable database/address book of film executives and tells which studios are buying what kind of scripts.

Meanwhile, Edgar says Zoetrope is planning to expand the concept into other areas of filmmaking, as well, but declined to give details. Stay tuned for developments.

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Richard Baimbridge was a frequent contributor to The Independent.