“[In my latest script] I intentionally created a passive main character, but the feedback I received said all main characters should be active. Do you find that many readers share this particular bias towards the standard active protagonist cliche?”
It’s true that you generally want to avoid using a passive protagonist in your screenplay. It’s something a reader will easily identify in the script and will offer it as the first point of critique for your story. Most of the time, it’s an accurate reflection of how the hero is not driving the story but occasionally, the use of a passive protagonist is a perfectly acceptable way to characterise the main player.
A lot of films successfully use passive protagonists. It just takes a specific skill to put this approach into practice. The main hurdle that new or inexperienced writers fail to jump over is that they let the story happen around the protagonist, thus making him passive to everything that’s going on in the plot. He/she makes no active choices or decisions for herself and the plot feels contrived rather than organic to the character’s main desire.
The main difference between a passive protagonist and an acceptable passive protagonist is that the former lets the story happen around him while the latter makes decisions that affect the story based on his passive characterisation. Still with me? Let’s run with the paradox. What’s important is that a passive protagonist is forced to act, or that he makes choices to maintain his ‘passivity’ but they completely backfire on him, making his situation (the story) worse.
Look at The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Throughout the film, he just wants to chill out, do nothing. The ultimate slacker. Lazy. Unmotivated. Completely passive. But once the mistaken identity kicks in, The Dude is very active in trying to restore the balance of his life and as a result he gets himself into all sorts of mess. And take a look at Griffin Dunne’s character in After Hours. He's just the helpless passenger to the wild night of events but he does have a narrative drive, to find Rosanna Arquette, and that keeps the story more interesting.
So yes, passive protags are fine. Inexperienced readers will jump on a passive protagonist as it's an easy comment to make but someone with a more insightful or appreciative knowledge of story will accept a passive protagonist. But beware. A passive protagonist can't do 'nothing'.
Take the most famous passive protagonist of all, Hamlet. Although he dithered about murdering his Uncle, he made very active choices in his procrastination that only made his story worse for him... From Hamlet to Neo. It’s been argued that Neo in The Matrix is a passive protagonist: “he doesn't even want play the role of the protagonist, and so doesn't make an active decision that drives the plot until page 92 of the shooting script.” But I disagree with that particular notion. It’s an interesting argument but Neo’s story seems like a strong Hero’s Journey template that was extremely effective and entertaining (just don’t mention the sequels).