Screenwriting contests: Are they worth the money?

August 9, 2011 § 7 Comments

Over the last decade there’s been an explosion of screenwriting contests that dangle the possibility of winning the grand prize and your big chance at exposure to the top players in Hollywood as an incentive to pay the entry fee and toss your script into the ring with potentially thousands of other entrants.  It seems like the more people who want a career in screenwriting the more contests spring up to meet the need for a chance at exposure.  In my opinion there are only a handful of contests worth the money because they are recognized industry-wide as legitimate and the readers and judges involved are real industry professionals of merit.

The top screenwriting contests are extremely competitive with entries from around the world.  If you do win, it’s almost like winning the lottery but you don’t always have to win the top prize to have it help your career.  If you don’t win the top prize and place as a runner-up, it’s better to place in one of the top five industry recognized competitions and not in some unknown smaller contest that doesn’t garner the credibility that someone’s grandmother isn’t helping read and judge the entries (unless Grandma is producer with Hollywood credits).  It’s the same as having your film win some award at a small, unknown festival or placing runner-up in Sundance or the NY Film Festival.  Even placing in more recognized contests will help to get your script read. Remember—not all contests are equal.

As I’m sure you’ve discovered, every screenplay contest charges an entry fee with some upwards of $50 to $75.  This is why you must do your research, read blogs, and find out as much about the contest before you send off your treasured project and hard-earned money.  Anyone can start a screenwriting competition with offers of money to the winners and a chance to meet Hollywood insiders.  Three months later you receive a form letter that says you didn’t win, but thanks for entering and please enter next year.  This means nothing.  In fact, the rejection can be very unsettling to a writer’s psyche especially when you’ve paid money to enter and placed your trust in the contest only to have no idea who read your script.  Did the contest advertise “working professionals in the film industry” as the panel of experts judging the scripts?  Did they list these pros?  I might take the rejection a little easier if the opinion came from someone respected as a working professional with credits. A mysterious rejection form letter and not knowing who read my script would leave me empty and wondering if it was even read at all.

I was shocked to read an online ad looking for “script readers” to help with a major screenwriting contest.  I thought only industry professionals were diligently sorting through these scripts to find the best ones.  If they are using free readers, anyone with an opinion is reading your script and who knows their qualifications to spot great material.  If you want that kind of consideration you can always have your friends read your script (also not a good idea).  Some of these contests receive thousands of entries and the more scripts entered, the more they need a small army of readers to sort through the work.  It’s your hard-earned money you might be wasting on a second-rate contest only to get back a form letter telling you “thanks and good luck with your future endeavors.”

Always make sure to read the entry forms very carefully and especially the fine print.  Some contests claim rights over your work and some contests are actually companies that produce films and claim rights over the development if you win.  Always protect your project by knowing what you are signing and if you don’t like the terms do not enter.

Just after graduating from UCLA film school, I entered my script in few competitions with the dream of winning or even placing.  The competition is always fierce and the year I entered the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship there were 3,541 entries worldwide (for 2013 it was 7,251 scripts—up 54 scripts since 2012).  Back in the day, my script made it as far as the semifinals and placed in the top 3% of all entries.  I received a call from Greg Beal the coordinator who told me that my script was in the next dozen scripts after the eight who received the fellowship.  My script placed in the top twenty out the thousands of entries and he gave me notes and suggested that I enter again the following year.

It was then I really knew I had written something special and worthy of continuing to send out to producers. Amazingly, a year later my script was under option and then purchased thus making me a professional and ineligible to enter again.  I then entered a comedy screenplay in the Chesterfield Writers Film Project created by Paramount Studios and Steven Spielberg where my script placed in the top 50 out of thousands.  Again, this was another example to show I was on the right track with my writing.  The same script that nearly won the Nicholl also was one of four runners up in the John Truby Writers Studio screenwriting contest back in the day out of hundreds of entries.  I knew something good was brewing with my screenplay.

At the time, the pedigree of placing in the quarterfinals of the Nicholl Fellowship helped to bring credibility to my script and it got me read by agents and managers.  Many times it made the difference between someone reading and not reading it.  Winning the fellowship would have been nice, but I was much happier that my script went on to be produced into a movie and distributed globally.  I was now a professional screenwriter and sold my first spec (my fifth overall script written at the time).

The top screenwriting competitions are a great way to gain much-needed exposure for beginning writers.  If you win it can lead to representation and your first writing job in Hollywood.  Even if you don’t win but place in the finals, you can use that achievement to bring attention to your talent and producers will be more receptive to reading a script that came close to a win.  Again, do your research, pick the more legitimate contests the industry recognizes, and read the fine print on the entry forms.  Keep writing and best of luck!

Scriptcat out!

My Top 11 top suggested screenwriting Contests:

*The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships

*Disney Writers Fellowship

*Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship

*Sundance Writers Lab

*Warner Brothers Writers Workshop

*Final Draft Big Break

*BlueCat Screenplay competition

*American Zoetrope  (Francis Ford Coppola)

*Slamdance Writers Competition

*Scriptaplaooza

*Austin Film Festival

reading guy“Keep screenwriting and the winner is… YOU!”—Scriptcat

You have to be very productive in order to become excellent.  You have to go through a poor period and a mediocre period, and then you move into your excellent period.  It may be very well be that some of you have done quite a bit of writing already. You maybe ready to move into your good period and your excellent period.  But you shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a very long process.”—Ray Bradbury

“It’s such an exhausting thing, you know, facing that empty page in the morning.”—Billy Wilder

“For the warrior, there is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’; everyone has the necessary gifts for his particular path.” — Paulo Coelho

Did you just complete your new screenplay? Congrats! Is it time for in-depth consultation/analysis/proofing/editing? Check out my professional consultation services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website. You never get a second chance to make a first great impression with your screenplay. Make the time to get it right without excuses.

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§ 7 Responses to Screenwriting contests: Are they worth the money?

  • Wish I would have read this a year ago!

  • John Buss says:

    Thank you for reposting and the recommendations. My fear with contests is sending uncopyrighted material to who knows who, receiving the dreaded form letter of rejection, then seeing an oddly familiar movie on the big screen.

  • Phil Gladwin says:

    The Screenwriting Goldmine contest offers real meetings with real producers, script execs, script editors and so on, AND every single entry is read by a working screenwriter with many different reputable screen credits. Of course we have to reject the vast majority of the submissions that we receive, but that is in the nature of a competition, and surely is obvious from the outset.

  • cydmadsen says:

    It’s a good idea to register with The Library Of Congress, but even that isn’t going to help. I made the quarters in the Nicholl back when there were only 3K entries, and won a Gold at WorldFest Houston that same year. I got a very bad agent out of that win, several low-paying options, and eventually got the script ripped off by one of the production companies that had optioned it. I had a good legal case, but so what. You sue, you don’t work again. Things have changed a great deal since then and I have big doubts about entering those contests. However, they can give you that ray of hope that keeps you writing, and that’s what’s important in the end. I’ve also heard very good things about places such as Script Coverage and The Black List. Just keep truckin’.

    • scriptcat says:

      As a screenwriter never owns the copyright on a script (once it’s purchased it becomes a work for hire) it’s an extra cost that can be unnecessary—and you’ll need to sign over the rights to the company anyway. I once registered a script with Library of Congress too, but I think with e-mail you could sent a copy to yourself and there is a record of a time and date stamp. Or if you really feel it’s necessary, register the script with the WGA. Yes, those two places you mentioned are getting heat lately. Contests are a different animal and be careful of always reading the fine print on all screenwriting contests as some may be “development” shops in disguise and when you “win” they own the rights to your script. Also many do not allow a script to be under option or being shopped around so be aware that if your script is being “looked at” by production companies, it’s best to read the fine print.

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