Once upon a time, breaking into the film business was a tough assignment, requiring massive amounts of determination, confidence and credit cards, usually used to finance an independent movie that might get you noticed by the people who count.

But that was, oh, three years ago.

Now young would-be filmmakers have found a faster, cheaper and far more entertaining method: composing short, witty parodies of hit movies like "Titanic" and "Star Wars" for Hollywood insiders, in hopes of landing a deal. Or at least an agent.

And you know what? It works.

Last July, 26-year-old Sanford Bookstaver was slaving away as an assistant to Hollywood honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg. Several weeks ago he trotted out his "epic short," as he calls it, "ScriptFellas"--a parody of the Martin Scorsese film "GoodFellas"--about a mob family that runs Hollywood.

Now he no longer works for Katzenberg, at least not as an assistant. Katzenberg's studio, DreamWorks SKG, is after him to direct a one-hour television special, but it first will have to negotiate with the two agents who signed Bookstaver within hours of seeing his short.

"I'm reading a lot of scripts around town, trying to find the perfect first project," Bookstaver says.

He has plenty of company. The underground hit "The Blair Witch Project," about three film students who disappear in the woods, has spawned no fewer than half a dozen parodies, including: "The Blonde Witch Project," "The Griffith Witch Project," "The Watts Bitch Project," "The Bigfoot Project" and "The Walt Witch Project."

The most successful among them, judging from the buzz, seems to be "The Blair Princess Project," an eight-minute film about three Jewish American princesses who get lost in the Malibu hills on their way to the wedding of their friend, Blair. No word yet on whether its creator, Paula Goldberg, has landed a deal.

But it's getting crowded out there. Groaned "Walt Witch" author Mark Ramsey on the Web site that carries his short: "If I had ever imagined that 'Walt Witch' would be at the leading edge of a veritable flood of Blair spoofs, I might very well have abandoned the whole project. A little spoofing is fun; a lot is mind-numbingly derivative."

So what? It's the latest rage.

The most talked-about parody this year--"George Lucas in Love," an eight-minute sendup of the creator of "Star Wars"--landed its writer-director a gig to direct a romantic comedy for DreamWorks. He is 26-year-old Joe Nussbaum, another former Hollywood personal assistant.

His short shows film student George Lucas struggling with the script for an agricultural space tragedy, "Space Wheat." Or should it be "Space Corn"? Or "Space Oats"? But Lucas finds inspiration in a lovely young film student who wears her hair in two bagel-like twists on either side of her head.

"Search not," counsels a strange-spoken professor who sounds like Yoda. "Inspiration will find you."

The minuscule film made the rounds of every agency, every studio and the VCR of every young, would-be director in Hollywood. Nussbaum recently sold it to an Internet company that plans to put it on its site.

"It's definitely a snappy entrance," says Jeremy Zimmer, head of the literary department at United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills.

Zimmer is sent parody tapes on a regular basis, but he has yet to sign someone as a result. "The good thing about a parody is you can send it out, and people identify with it immediately, so they feel they've been entertained, and they're interested in going further. But it's not necessarily an indication of somebody's ability to tell a story."

Says Charles Segars, a senior executive at DreamWorks television: "The good news about a spoof is the viewer already knows what the story is. It tends to relate to great comedy, and you can compare it to a multimillion-dollar film, and say, 'Oh they matched that shot.' " But Segars quickly adds, "We do not take unsolicited material. We don't. We only really take stuff that's by agents. But sometimes you watch them."

Sure, you watch them if all the other Hollywood insiders are watching them. Or, as in Bookstaver's case, if Jeffrey Katzenberg recommends you watch them. Katzenberg sent "ScriptFellas" to Steven Spielberg, who reportedly loved it.

"I needed to make my calling card," says Bookstaver, who has a film degree from the University of Southern California. "So many people in this town say, 'I wanna be a director, or a writer.' The second you say that, it's, 'Whaddya got? Show me.' "

The trend toward takeoffs started a few years back, when most would-be filmmakers were making guerrilla-style films--maxing out their credit cards to make feature-length movies to send to the Sundance Film Festival, hoping to be the next Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino. By 1995 there were so many that a spinoff independent festival called Slamdance took off, and recently one called Slumdance has started.

In the meantime, a couple of slacker-nobodies from Colorado named Matt Stone and Trey Parker made a short animated spoof, "Jesus Meets Santa Claus," which made its way to George Clooney. The "ER" star sent the tape out as a Christmas card in 1996. And Stone and Parker landed a gig to create "South Park" for Comedy Central cable.

Then came "Swingblade," a cross between "Swingers" and "Slingblade," and "Saving Ryan's Privates," which spoofed Spielberg's epic "Saving Private Ryan," and the parody idea swiftly caught on.

Kevin Rubio, who spent two long years dressed as the Universal Studio character "Kit the Car," set a new standard when he scraped together $2,100 to make "Troops," a spoof of the Fox TV show "Cops" and the movie "Star Wars." The film depicts two storm troopers trying to catch a couple of droid-thieves "Cops"-style in a "Star Wars" universe.

"There were countless times in my circle of friends where we'd sit around and watch a movie and say, 'We could do that,' " says Rubio, 31. "But this was one I just had to act on. The timing was too perfect: It was during the rerelease of 'Star Wars' in 1997."

It was mostly the special effects--done on a home computer with help from friends who worked at a special-effects house--that got Rubio noticed. The short became an underground hit among special-effects artists; it was reviewed in an alternative magazine called Film Threat and eventually made it onto the Web at theforce.net, from where it got onto every "Star Wars" site, from where it was written up in Newsweek, then Entertainment Weekly.

Rubio has been working for the WB network ever since, creating in-house commercials. Last year he made a pilot for MTV that didn't sell, and is now developing a sci-fi series for the USA Network. "Everything I'm doing now derives in some way from 'Troops,' " says Rubio.

"Park Wars" was a 2 1/2-minute route to a career for Lincoln Gasking, Phillip Nakov and Tim Doyle, the three friends who became nationally known for starting the line for "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace" by camping out at Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood six weeks before the movie opened last spring.

In April, Gasking, 22, wrote a shot-for-shot parody of the "Phantom Menace" trailer using the characters from "South Park," putting it together from his home in Melbourne, Australia, with other fans he met over the Internet. The spoof became a huge hit even beyond Hollywood insiders--it aired on the E! cable channel, received notice in the Los Angeles Times and was posted on the Comedy Central Web site.

"The attorneys for 'Star Wars' and 'South Park' met to figure out how to deal with us," says Nakov, 30, a Los Angeles resident. "They called to say they could sue us, but instead they asked if they could put it on the Comedy Central site."

The three are now developing a TV series about movie fans for cable, and are about to move their office from Nakov's one-bedroom apartment to a production company, Triage Entertainment, which is interested in working with them.

Since the debut of "Park Wars" has come a host of "Star Wars" and "Titanic" takeoffs, such as "Thumb Wars" (done on painted thumbs) and "Tie-tanic" (something about "Titanic" threatening the box-office record of "Star Wars"). And the trio of line-sitters has a Web site, countingdown.com, where they intend to broadcast these parodies and others that come their way.

Sandy Bookstaver set out to make the parody to end all parodies. "ScriptFellas" is not exactly a "short"; it's 36 minutes long. And it didn't cost just a couple of thousand dollars. The personal assistant managed to persuade a wealthy South American family to give him $40,000 to make his mini-movie, which looks, Bookstaver insists, "like it cost $2 million. I pulled every string known to man."

He explains: "The problem I had is, most shorts were only five to eight minutes. I didn't think I could show filmmaking skills in a five-minute movie. . . . I was hoping to raise the bar on these short films."

Bookstaver says he spent three years on his project. He got Paul Sorvino to act in it for free. Kodak donated film. Panavision gave him use of cameras. It helps when you're Jeffrey Katzenberg's assistant.

Like the other parodies, "ScriptFellas" is a takeoff of a famous film that relates to entertainment insiders. The opening shot, as in "GoodFellas," shows three mobsters in a car, with a horrific thumping emanating from the trunk. When they open the trunk they find an alien, and try to beat it to death. The scene turns out to be the set of a film.

"It's a real movie," says Bookstaver. "There's a three-act structure. There's symbolism--the bagels and lox throughout the movie is a symbol of life. Everything comes full circle."

With Spielberg's studio signing up one parody-maker and showing strong interest in a second, with Chris Rock doing a parody of the parodies as a promotion for MTV video awards last month . . . could these be signs the wave is already over?

"I think as long as there's something innovative and fun to watch, it will be a good way to break into the business," says J.C. Spink, Nussbaum's 26-year-old manager.

Says Rubio, "If it hasn't peaked, it will peak, and there'll be something different next year. Believe me, my piece is old news by now."