Q&A: All Screenwriting Competitions Are Not Created Equal

Jamie asks:
So, I’m just starting to get familiar with the world of screenwriting competitions, and I’m assuming they’re not all created equal. Are there any drawbacks to entering more than one (several even) with the same script? It seems like some contests might require that you don’t submit your script to any other contests? Do you have any strategies for approaching contest entry for a new screenwriter with only one script (besides, the advice that I should write a few more!)?

Monica says:
Jamie, you’re absolutely right – competitions are not all created equal.

There are several different kinds of opportunities for newer writers to get involved. There are professional fellowships that offer work experience and professional mentorships, there are competitions that can get you industry exposure and a nice cash prize, film festival competitions, and then some producer-driven smaller competitions that don’t have name recognition or much upswing for the writer.

There are a few specific benefits to the better screenwriting competitions:

— Money. Many competitions offer a small stipend to the winner, however some competitions, such as the Nichol, offer enough for a writer to not have to work for a year and just write.

— Networking with industry professionals, such as professional screenwriters, producers, agents or managers.

— Mentorship with industry professionals to help you improve your writing and build professional relationships with professional screenwriters, producers, agents or managers

— Getting your name out there: Sometimes, if your script places in a competition, producers, agents or managers will contact you to read your script. It is possible to get an agent or manager through placing in a competition if an agent or manager reads your material and thinks he/she can sell it.

Any competition that offers a professional fellowship or a sizable cash prize ($15,000 and up) is probably a safe bet, because that means they likely have proper sponsorship and legitimate professional connections. The Nicholl, Final Draft’s Big Break, PAGE Awards and Scriptapalooza are all legitimate competitions.

Film festival competitions can also be a safe bet, depending upon how well regarded the festival and competition are. The Austin Heart of Film offers a great screenwriting competition, as well as the Nantucket Film Festival.

Professional programs such as the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop or the Disney ABC Television Writing Fellowship, the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab or the Film Independent Screenwriters Lab offer professional education with industry professionals that could help launch a career.

Opportunities for mentorship from industry professionals as well as peer writer networking are offered through CineStory, a non-profit that mentors writers.

Other Things To Keep in Mind
It’s really only the bigger name competitions wherein you will have industry professionals contacting you for your work. If you enter Joe Nobody Cares screenwriting competition and win, it’s likely nobody will be banging down your door – so you might as well save your money for the competitions or professional programs that matter. You might think it’s a nice thing for your resume, but nobody in the industry will care, so in the end it’s a wash. In addition, legitimate organizations want to help you become a better writer and network. To that end, you shouldn’t have to give anyone any rights to your material. Your script is your script. There are a lot of shady producers who hang a “screenwriting competition” shingle and basically want you to pay them for them to read your script – and if you’re the lucky “winner,” you might get a $500 option and they claim they’ll shoot your project. These contests to me are scams. Be absolutely sure you know where your material is going and what the expectation is before you send someone your screenplay.

Beware the Coverage Upsell
When I was at CineStory in October, several of the writers there told me that they entered competitions to get some form of coverage or feedback on their script in return for the entrance fee. I personally don’t think this is a good investment of time or money. This is basically an upsell of services so that company can charge you more. The worst coverage I ever received on a script was from a Film Independent submission to the Screenwriters Lab. The coverage was clearly written by a male USC student who had smoked too much pot and was porn addicted. Now that I’m a reader, I have to laugh at that “coverage” – NO ONE who has EVER given coverage professionally would ever write the crap that that douchebag wrote to me. In the competition season, readers are slammed with screenplays. Proper coverage takes me hours – especially if there is any kind of synopsis requested. If these readers have hundreds of scripts waiting to be read, there is no way they will be able to pay proper attention to your script to give it decent coverage. If you’re looking for objective industry-standard feedback on your material – a great idea, especially before sending it out – find a reputable reader with professional reading experience (agency, producer, studio). Pay them for full coverage on your script. You will likely learn a ton – because you’ll get a taste of how other readers will be covering your material when you submit it.

Can I Submit to Multiple Competitions With Multiple Scripts?
Yes. Well, perhaps it depends on the requirements of the competition, but for an open screenwriting competition, such as the Nicholl, I’d say submit everything. If you really want to participate in something, go for it. That said, here’s a little trick – screenplays are bundled for the readers, so if you send in 4 submissions, it’s likely they’ll all be read by the same reader. I’ve written before here that reading is completely subjective. It is. I had a number of multiple submissions, and once I’d read that writer’s first crappy script, it negatively predisposed me to the other submissions – even if some were better than the others. For example, there was one writer who submitted 4 scripts, and I read one first that I found a tad offensive and very poorly written. I saw that one of his scripts – the better one – was placing in some competitions. Personally, I’d assumed that maybe those other readers hadn’t gotten 4 of his horrible scripts together but had maybe just gotten one very mediocre script on its own, so it looked better. I wouldn’t submit your scripts together, but as separate entries – that way, you will be more likely to get different readers. Or, perhaps it’s possible to request from the contest administrator that they can manually assign them to different readers – but that would be a pain for them, so best to just send them in at different times. That aside, know your audience. For example, if you’re submitting to the Warner Bros Writers Workshop, they’re looking for either drama or sitcom writers. To submit one of each won’t help you – it will make you look unfocused.

Submit Early
Scripts oftentimes come in slowly in the beginning and then as the season ramps up readers are slammed. A reader might only get assigned 20-50 scripts for a several week period, but then will get several hundred due within 2 weeks once the deadlines get closer. I can say that I will pay a lot more attention to a script if it’s in a pile of 20 as opposed to a pile of 100. The earlier you can submit, the better for you. Try to avoid being in the 100+ pile.

The Bottom Line
Check your expectations. I’d say if you’re placing within the top 10%, you can be assured your writing is somewhere in the ballpark. It’s not many people who have their career break right off winning a competition. In fact, a friend was telling me recently that she met a Nicholl finalist who wasn’t working afterward. That’s a little disheartening – if a Nicholl winner isn’t working, who is? However, it is still a great way to get your name out there. I do think to some degree it depends on the material you’re writing. If an agent or manager sees your logline or title and it sounds commercial or high concept, they might call you – and then you have a foot in the door. That said, I think the movie business is really about sticking with it. There are a number of previous CineStory winners and semi-finalists who are now working – and very successfully so. However, it’s taken them years to do it. But, it can be done.

I plan to interview several people who’ve either won or placed at any level in several of the major competitions and find out what the result was for them. I’m going to pursue several interviews over the next few months and post them so you can have a better sense of what the specific outcome might be.

Also, MovieBytes is a great resource for information on competitions.

Good luck, and let me know if you have any other questions!

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One Response to Q&A: All Screenwriting Competitions Are Not Created Equal

  1. Jamie November 20, 2009 at 2:49 pm #

    Thanks for the comprehensive response. It was worth the wait!