by Lew Ritter
For those of you who have dreams of writing the great American screenplay, getting scripts into the hands of agents/managers can be a daunting challenge. Unless you win prominent screenwriting contests or get a referral from a known Hollywood contact, most agents or managers are simply not interested in reading your work.
The rise of the Internet has led to the creation of several websites where new and inexperienced writers can post their screenplays. Inspired by the success of Netflix, Amazon.com was looking to enter the movie business and established Amazon Studios to produce movies under the Amazon brand.
Imagine my excitement learning that newbies like myself could post scripts on the Amazon Studios website. They offered a forty five day evaluation period for your script. If they liked it, they claimed they would be willing to pay a fee to keep it posted on the site. It sounded like a good deal. Perhaps lightening would strike.
Enter John Brown
My first screenwriting project was a historical drama about the infamous 19th Century Abolitionist, John Brown. It was based on a book entitled “To Purge this Land with Blood.” written by Stephen B. Oates, a noted civil War Historian. Brown was the leader of the anti-slavery raid at Harper’s Ferry. It ignited the American Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history.
When I contacted Professor Oates, he was delighted that someone was interested in trying to make a movie about Brown and the Abolitionist movement. In the past, he had received overtures for a movie about Clara Barton, a Civil War nurse, but nothing ever materialized.
I thought that it might be the subject of a very provocative feature film. In the late 90’s, I had watched several historical movies on the TNT Network about Teddy Roosevelt and San Juan Hill and the San Patricio battalion. a group of Irishmen who fought for Mexico during the Mexican War of 1846. I hoped that television or movies might be receptive for this material.
Not surprisingly, I discovered later that wasn’t the case. Hollywood considered historical movies too expensive and the market for them too limited. Lincoln was a rare exception because director Stephen Spielberg was the driving creative force. The average movie goer is fourteen to thirty years old and wants to see the latest version of a comic book character, not historical docudramas.
I decided to tempt fate by placing the script on the Amazon website, where Amazon provides a method for adding graphic images to help promote your script. It also gives you the option of keeping the script private or public. Making a script public allowed readers on the site to read and comment.
I had read a number of submissions on the site. Some of the ideas weren’t bad. One of them envisioned Ben Franklin as sort of a Revolutionary War James Bond fighting the British. Others lacked even the basics of screenwriting technique. I figured perhaps if my script made the cut, it might have a good chance of getting optioned or at least getting some money to be developed into a “Notable Project” or perhaps even land a spot on the “Development Slate.”
After forty five days, the evaluation period was over and I received a simple, terse email stating that they were not interested in the script. There was no reason given. Short and brutally to the point.
Disheartened, I submitted the script to another Internet website called Junto Box Films. It was a website run by veteran actor Forest Whittaker, who allegedly was looking for material. Again, there was no fee or charge to place the script on the site. You were allowed to have others follow your project. If a lot of people appeared to follow the script, it might generate interest in the project. I even received several emails from other writers there suggesting that if I supported their project, they would reciprocate and support my script. A sort of screenwriters Quid Pro Quo that struck me as ethically challenged.
I read some of the scripts on Junto Box. One was about kids living in a ghetto housing project. I read the first twenty or so pages. One of the characters was killed right at the beginning of the script. I sent the author a suggestion in an email. I suggested that it made sense that the murdered victim be a friend of the main character. I received a terse reply that the death had no relation to the main character. Why do that? No relation to the story? This was a mistake from Screenwriting 101.
At the end of the forty five days evaluation period, I received another Dear John email that the material did not match their current development needs. I realized that perhaps John Brown deserved to be put back in the filing cabinet for another day. The script needed more work to turn the script into a viable spec script.
My big disappointment isn’t that I haven’t scored on the sites, it is that none of the projects I’ve seen featured on them appeared to be the work of an amateur AKA unknown writer. And the TV series and features promoted prominently on Amazon all appear to be the work of established writers. Perhaps, as Amazon Studios expands and starts to produce major film releases, several of these amateur projects will be perceived as viable and become more visable.
I have the feeling that although there is always the possibility that lightning will strike, most Hollywood executives don’t have the time or energy to go diving into the shallow end of the script pool searching for the rare gem. Despite the lure of the Internet, what show business often refers to as “the money” seems dedicated to following the time-honored path of sticking with known creators, lovers, and friends of the family.
Lew Ritter is a frequent contributor to TVWriter™. An aspiring TV and film writer, he was a recent Second Rounder in the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition.