Here is the good, bad, and ugly of screenplay competitions: art is subjective. For everything everyone tells you, in the end it all boils down to taste. That’s why you just have to write your passion. One reader (producer, manager, agent) might not have any interest in your story. But another will. We write for the one who will.
A script that is a semi-finalist in the Nichol one year might not even place in any other competition that year. That’s because the Nichol reader liked it. If your script doesn’t capture the heart of your first reader, it will likely get a pass, and sometimes this just boils down to subject matter and taste. Sometimes that has nothing to do with the quality of your story or writing.
The quarterfinalists were recently announced for one of the competitions for which I read. A list of 60 screenplays was distributed with numerical scores on a 250 point scale. I was very surprised by the scores. My scores were at the bottom. There were an abundance of scripts that were incredibly highly rated, with many having merited a near-perfect score.
The interesting thing about this is that scores come from individuals, and each of us would approach scoring differently. To my mind, a screenplay with a near-perfect score should be a near-perfect script, requiring no rewriting. I haven’t read many near-perfect scripts, especially at the competition level, and so my scripts were scored appropriately. My recommends fell at the high end of “very good” and the low end of “excellent.” I did not give any script a perfect score because I did not find them to be perfect.
However, after I submitted those “appropriate” scores and received the aggregated totals, I immediately saw that my scripts, although recommends, were scored very low in comparison to others. There were a good bunch of scripts that got near-perfect scores. My absolute highest scoring script was still in the lower 10% of scores.
As you can imagine, I was dying to read some of these “perfect” scripts. My initial assumption was that these “perfect” scripts must have been WAY better than my recommends. Or not.
In reading for the quarterfinals, I read four very highly scored scripts, two of which I wouldn’t have recommended. Basically, if I’d gotten these scripts as a first reader, they wouldn’t have been in the quarterfinals. One of them I would have given a “consider” and the other I would have said it needs a rewrite before recommending. However, both of these two projects scored higher than my recommends. In fact, all of these recommended scripts scored higher than my recommends.
I found that disappointing because I understood my quality scripts would be at a significant disadvantage within the competition. These two scripts that I wouldn’t have recommended scored much higher than my own scripts, which I thought were outstanding in comparison. One of these I felt was anti-climactic and did not grab me emotionally (in fact, I found it annoying in the lack of dramatic conflict or stakes), and the second was tonally off and about Russia. I lived in Russia for four years and know something about that place, and this author clearly knew absolutely nothing, so to me that made the material ridiculous despite the prose. However, I would assume the first reader who gave that script an outstanding score also knows nothing about Russia, which is why that script was given a recommend.
The other two scripts I did recommend and score highly. They were the mid-range scorers. One was about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the other an animated family movie in the vein of “Lilo & Stitch.” They were both really well written and emotionally evocative. However, I still did not feel these scripts were better than my recommends.
I will be very curious to read the other near-perfect scripts and see how mine fare in comparison. Despite the fact that my top scores were a good 50+ points under other scripts, I am liking my scripts better.
This just goes to underscore that reading is subjective. Don’t take it personally.
Fight the good fight. Write what you love. Eventually, it will find its way.