Consider screenplay contests as just another tool in your arsenal to get noticed—not a guarantee of a career.
July 19, 2017 § 1 Comment
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 some of the top players in Hollywood. Every year the top contests are filled with thousands of entries all vying for the grand prize. It seems like the more people who pursue a career in screenwriting, the more contests spring up to meet the demand 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 same credibility. It’s the difference between having your film win some award at a small, unknown festival or placing as a 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 hopes that you enter again 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 but apparently not. 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 please enter again next year.” Ah, the dangling carrot for a shot at success.
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.
A short time after graduating from UCLA film school, I entered my fifth spec 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 making too much money 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 was also 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. It’s always about timing and having your project find the right home.
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.
What happens if you continue to place in screenplay contests, but you don’t win and can’t seem to use your achievements as a way to further your script’s chances of being read by producers, agents and managers? The reality is there are no guarantees, even if you do win a screenplay contest, but it certainly helps and brings validity to your talents in the eyes of the film business. The reality is that you’ll still have to fight and claw for every inch of forward movement down the field to plant your flag. You might be taking a huge step through the door by winning a screenplay contest, but the key is staying in the game and having a solid body of work to offer and being a workhorse screenwriter. You’ll realize that once you achieve some any type of success, you have to do it again, and again for it to be considered a career.
Look at contests as another tool in your arsenal to some noise, but don’t put all of your hopes and dreams into them. Get out into the world and make those necessary film industry contacts to start getting your work noticed by producers, agents, managers, and executives. Find a way to go directly to the talent if you can like actors, directors, and producers. Always consider creative ways to break through Hollywood’s gates, but don’t keep trying the same methods over and over again if they are returning the same results. That wastes precious time and helps to drive you crazy. If your specs aren’t moving your career forward, consider writing an original TV pilot or creating your own web series as a proof of concept. Think outside the box.
The top screenwriting competitions are a great way to gain much-needed exposure for beginning writers, but don’t look to them as the only way to further your career goals. If you can’t win a contest, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to land representation or your first writing job in Hollywood. Make sure to do your research on the contests, pick the more legitimate ones the industry recognizes, and read the fine print on the entry forms.
As always, keep the faith, your eye on the big picture, and keep filling your blank pages.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
My top suggested screenwriting contests (in no special order):
*The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships (I was in the semi-finals—the top 1%)
*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
“Keep screenwriting and the winner is… YOU!”—Scriptcat
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