NEW YORK – Lately, Hollywood is like a game of "Who Wants to Be a Filmmaker?" — and anyone can play.
Most people know about how Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and My Big Fat Greek Wedding star Nia Vardalos — all once ordinary folks — shot to the top of Tinseltown with a killer screenplay. But these days, not only is the film industry receiving such up-and-comers with open arms, it's helping them get their movies made.
"Now that we're more established, we're helping other people get this thing done," said Chris Moore, the executive producer for Project Greenlight, Damon and Affleck's amateur filmmaking competition. "Hollywood is very tight to get into."
In addition to Greenlight, Kevin Spacey's TriggerStreet.com and Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope are also examples of A-list efforts to assist those not even on the list in the quest for silver-screen success.
TriggerStreet.com, the most recent of these efforts (it debuted in November), has two options for participants, one for writers and one for directors. Writers simply upload their scripts and hope they get noticed. Directors must rate two short films before uploading their own.
"It stems from Kevin's belief in sending the elevator back down," said TriggerStreet.com president Dana Brunetti. "If you don't nurture new talent and give it a chance, it will die."
The 10 best-rated films go to a panel of celebrity judges — currently Mike Meyers, Cameron Crowe, Annette Bening, Danny DeVito and Bono — who narrow it down to three finalists. The first three winners will be announced in May.
While there isn't a "prize," Spacey's team has been approached by several independent film channels about partnership possibilities — and the Tribeca Film Festival will showcase the top 10 shorts next year.
Project Greenlight takes it one step further: Damon and Affleck actually make people's movies.
"We take it to the ultimate level," Moore said.
At the end of the contest, one director and one script are chosen — and HBO documents the making of the movie for their program Project Greenlight.
And dreams really do come true. Pete Jones, last year's winner in both the screenplay and direction competitions, was a 31-year-old insurance salesman in Chicago before he won the contest. In the end, Jones' movie Stolen Summer, about a 7-year-old with cancer, was a box-office flop, but he now lives in Los Angeles and has an agent and a manager.
Six of the other top 10 finalists sold their scripts and also now live in L.A.
Zoetrope.com, a workshop for writers funded by The Godfather director himself, is also filled with success stories, according to site administrator Michael Hudin.
"Through several revisions on the site, a woman — then unknown — recently won the Academy of Motion Pictures' screenwriting contest. A script that we auctioned off the site is in pre-production. Another guy who workshopped here is selling for six figures."
And why is Coppola bothering with a bunch of no-name wannabes?
"It's Coppola's baby — he loves the project," Hudin said. "You'd have to love something like this that's not generating any revenue."
But Moore says good will is only part of the heft behind these projects.
"Indie film has dried up. There are no independent distribution companies anymore," he said. "The big stars of today who are getting scripts, they're not getting anything good. They'll get the same stupid movie over and over again. So they're getting out and encouraging new voices."
"A-listers are looking for great material. In the studios, everyone's always saying, 'think outside of the box,' but no one thinks out of the box," he said. "When a farmer in Idaho can write a script at night and submit it using our tool, there's a truly fresh idea."