Screenwriting contests: Are they worth the money?

August 9, 2011 § 11 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 top 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.

Hollywood cashAs 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 2017 it was 7,102 scripts!). Back in the day, my script made it as far as the semifinals and placed in the top 1% 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 and it was just a matter of time to find the right producer.

At the time, the pedigree of placing in the semifinals 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) and it’s what launched my screenwriting assignment career.

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. Make sure to do your research, pick the more legitimate contests the industry recognizes, and read the fine print on the entry forms.

Keep the faith, your eye on the big picture, and keep filling your blank pages.

Scriptcat out!

My top suggested screenwriting contests (in no special order):

*The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships

*Final Draft Big Break Contest

*Page International Screenwriting Awards

*Disney Writers Fellowship

*Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship

*Sundance Writers Lab

*Warner Brothers Writers Workshop

*Screen Craft’s Screenwriting contests

*BlueCat Screenplay competition

*American Zoetrope  (Francis Ford Coppola)

*Slamdance Writers Competition


*Austin Film Festival

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§ 11 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.

  • Tizio says:

    “I was shocked to read an online ad looking for “script readers” to help with a major screenwriting contest.”

    Which one? I’d truly like to know – though generally speaking I’m not surprised to hear of the practice of unprofessional readers based on my recent experience:

    I made the mistake of entering BlueCat. I received six sentences of ‘notes’ that read as if they’d been written by a 7th grader. I do not exaggerate. Even the complimentary notes were ill informed. Of course I was encouraged to reenter the contest to ‘improve my chances’ based on my ‘professional’ coverage. My money was clearly wasted the first time. All future emails from BlueCat went strictly to my trash.

    The very same screenplay went on to finish Quarterfinalist at Cynosure (sponsored by Paradigm, Fox Searchlight and Showtime) as well as Quarterfinalist at Zoetrope.

    BlueCat receives over 4,000 entries. Screenplays by their very nature are notoriously difficult reads. The intelligence and sophistication required for script reading are a rare occurrence. Finding scores of people with this ability and paying them ultra low (or no) wages to perform the arduous task of reading scores of screenplays is a scenario that simply doesn’t exist in the real world.

    I can understand the need for a vetting process based on the number of interested potential screenwriters – but the process is astonishingly flawed and random.

    • scriptcat says:

      The ad was for one of the big contests. Yes, I too was astonished. Final Draft is a good one. Their big break contest is very legit and they have great judges. The Nicholl Fellowship (I was in top 1% back in the day) is totally legit too. Sorry to hear about the others. Yes, Nicholl receive over 7,000 entries last year from all over the world. Most are probably poorly written, but the good ones quickly rise to the top. I offer consultation services, you can check my website or this blog for more information.

  • S. Gold (aka Wolfman Alabaster Jones) says:

    Good post. I definitely agree with the sentiments that it is worthwhile to enter a screenplay competitions for no other reason than to practice your craft and for the small, small, small (did I say small) chance that you win. If anyone is interested, I share my thoughts on whether screenplay competitions are worth it, at:

    Good luck to all those who enter!!!!

  • michael p. goodman says:

    Nobody reads in Hollywood, anymore. It’s become a sad and tragic fact. We live in an age of cell phones/smart phones and facebook. The addiction is endemic and still spreading. Even the so-called “readers” at the major studios and the vaunted “big agencies” are notorious for skimming. Believe me, it’s happened to me– and I’ve got numerous produced films/credits/studio options, etc. I’ve had the pleasure to work with many “A-listers” over the years (And many of them don’t read material, either). Beyond frustrating and so, so unprofessional. Sending your treasured manuscript out into the world of unknown readers, uneducated “assistants” and careless cranks is a dangerous proposition. Be on guard…

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