Screenwriting contests: Are they worth the money?
August 9, 2011 § 10 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.
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 2014 it was 7,500 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.
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
“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
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