Let’s talk screenplay contests. Are they worth the cost of entry, and what can they actually do to help you should you win? Well, that’s the $64,000 question, and the answer can depend upon who you talk to and which contest you enter. And there are plenty of contests to enter. An entire cottage industry has developed catering specifically to the aspiring screenwriter with promises of cash awards and development deals. But the brutal fact is most award-winning screenplays never advance further than the contest into which they were entered. So why enter? Access.
The primary reward for winning a larger, legitimate contest is the access it provides to the industry. That 1st place script can open doors that would normally remain locked. Even if a script doesn’t win the top award, a top 10 script in a major contest can bring attention to the screenwriter, and in this business what an aspiring screenwriter needs is attention. The chances of your script actually getting produced, even the 1st place finisher, is small. But that open door may get you an assignment, the chance to pitch another project or possibly representation. As a bonus, you might also receive a small cash award and a copy of Final Draft, which you probably already own.
Now somebody always wants to point out the exceptions like Evan Daugherty who won the Script Pipeline contest with his script Shrapnel that was produced as the film Killing Season. Mr. Daugherty went on to write and sell his spec screenplay Snow White and the Huntsman. He has since written the scripts for Divergent and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s interesting to note, however, that his retelling of Snow White was produced before his award-winning script for Killing Season.
And for every Evan Daugherty there are literally hundreds of screenplay contest winners who never see anything more than a certificate to hang above their computer. Take, for instance, Kimi Howl Lee. Ms Lee won last year’s Blue Cat contest for her screenplay Mouth, but the script has yet to find a home. That’s not to say it won’t eventually get produced – these things take time – but as of right now, she hasn’t had a single script produced despite being a highly praised writer and an award-winner to boot. She has, however, secured representation with Industry and is actively sending a number scripts around town.
To further drive home the point, a writer in one of my online forums is constantly mentioning the fact that he was won something like 34 script contests with just a handful of scripts, but not one of those scripts has been picked up, let alone received a greenlight. While the continual reminders of his achievements can be annoying, he is obviously doing something right in his writing to garner so many accolades from so many different readers. And yet he hasn’t been able to sell one of those scripts. But those wins have gotten him noticed. It’s probably just a matter of time before he sells one of his scripts or receives an assignment.
But it’s a little trickier than just winning a contest; you have to win the right contest. Many of the competitions out there, though they may be legitimate, are simply too low on the prestige scale to be of consequence beyond an ego boost. And then there are the less-than-legitimate contests that really only exist to take your money. A quick Google search will bring up pages of them with the legitimate contests sprinkled in between.
So how do you tell the legitimate from the illegitimate? A big telltale sign is how many contests they run. If an organization sponsors monthly contests spread over a number of genres, it’s probably a money-grabbing scheme. Ten winners a month in each of ten different categories is a factory gig where the factory’s primary purpose is to print money. By giving so many “awards” they dilute their cachet to the point that a win is essentially worthless. If it’s a contest you’ve never heard of before, say the Truxton Screenwriting Contest, no one else has probably heard of it either. That’s not to say a win would not be legitimate, but if it doesn’t advance your career, you’ve just thrown your money away.
Another way to judge the legitimacy of the contest is by the judges themselves. Does the contest list the names of the people who will be doing the judging? If so, do the judges have the credentials to be evaluating your work? Even if a reputable judge makes the final decision on a screenplay, you may not know who was reading your script in the early rounds. I recently received a notice from a company looking for readers to do the preliminary pass on screenplays for their contest. Once the scripts had gone through quarter-final and semi-final rounds with the readers, the ‘real’ judges would go through what remained. Do those early round readers have the bona fides to make a decision on your script? The smaller the contest, the more likely your script will be read, at least initially, by someone who may have less experience than you do.
A case in point comes from a member of one of my online forums who just announced his screenplay has been selected as a quarter-finalist in The Monthly Film Festival screenplay contest. First, there’s that monthly contest thing right in the title. That should raise some red flags. And it’s not just a monthly contest for screenplays. They have contests for trailers, shorts, features and featurettes. Plus, they have an option for purchasing promotional reviews for any submission. Not a critique, mind you, but a promotional review from which you can pull quotes to use in your marketing. Now, no one is going to use bad reviews in their marketing, let alone pay for bad reviews, so how legitimate do you expect those reviews to be? Paying for a critique is one thing, purchasing a promotional review is quite another.
The second red flag for this company was the list of judges. They are virtually all just out of film school with only a couple of student films listed on IMDB. One judge did claim 15 years in the business, but in those 15 years he had only managed to get 3 industry credits on IMDB and minor credits at that for visual effects. Is that who should be judging your script for story structure? Character development? Dialogue?
The writer who submitted was one of 49 quarter-finalists. I’m guessing there had to be at least 98 submissions. 49 quarter-finalists would cut the field down by half. Anything less than that and they might as well have just accepted everybody as a quarter-finalist. And maybe they did. But let’s presume roughly 100 screenplays a month are submitted. All 100 have to be read in addition to the feature films, featurettes, trailers and shorts that have to be watched, not to mention all the promotional reviews that have to be written, by a small group of still-wet-behind-the-ears film students. And they have to churn this out month after month. No wonder they don’t have time to work on developing their credits.
Winners of this contest receive bragging rights. There is no access to industry professionals, no meetings, no sending your script to an agent for evaluation, no cash prizes, not even a copy of some screenwriting software - just the honor of adding laurel leaves to your marketing materials for a contest probably no one in the industry has ever heard of. So is it a legitimate contest or a money making scheme? You be the judge.
So where does one find a legitimate contest? Well, screenwriter and blogger Ken Miyamoto has compiled a list of ten top screenwriting competitions where a win can get you past the studio gates. You can find his list on Screencraft.org by clicking here. The list includes the Nicholl Fellowship, which is the Oscars of screenwriting contests. In fact, it is run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Other contests include The Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Competition, the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition and the aforementioned Script Pipeline. There have been plenty of arguments in the various online forums about whether this list is the list. Some writers think other contests are better or that some on this list should have a lower ranking. Whether you agree with the particular rankings of Mr. Miyamoto’s list or not is beside the point. These are all top screenplay contests recognized by the industry and many screenwriters have had their careers jump-started by winning or placing highly in these competitions. It’s certainly a good place to start if you are considering entering your script into competition.
One word of caution however, some of these contests also offer ‘coverage’ for an additional fee. As coverage goes, these notes are very light on substance and usually don’t provide more than a page. I entered two scripts several years ago into the Austin Film Festival competition. I bought the coverage for an additional $100 each. Neither script placed in the competition, so I was anxious to see what the notes would be. The notes never arrived. It took several rounds of emails before I finally received my feedback, and when I did receive them it was literally months after the promised date. The notes offered little in the way of detail, and in one set of notes it was clear the reader had not read past the first act. Waiting months for a one-page set of notes for $100 is not worthwhile. Using a coverage service like Screenplay Readers will get you a four-page set of notes, an analysis grid and follow up questions in 72 hours or less for $97, a much better deal. If you enter a contest, forgo their coverage notes and get your own.
So what am I doing for contests? Since the beginning of May, I have entered four contests:
Austin Film Fest – Everyday Clowns
Script Pipeline – Come Ups
Festival for Horror – The Calling
Breaking Walls – Come Ups
Two of them are contests from Mr. Miyamoto’s list: Austin Film Festival and Script Pipeline. I entered Come Ups in Script Pipeline and the first two episodes of Everyday Clowns in the Austin Digital Series Contest. Script Pipeline will have results beginning mid-June and Austin will begin their announcements in September.
The other two are lesser-known contests, and at least one of them has some questionable characteristics. Breaking Walls is a genre contest focusing on Action-Thriller. It seems to be a legitimate contest, but does not have the cachet of the larger contests. Any type of win here will probably not get me anything other than bragging rights, but it will be interesting to see how Come Ups fares. One of the issues with genre contests is that they seem to take the genre to an extreme. If it’s an action contest, there needs to be plenty of action with big set pieces, car chases, crashes, explosions and plenty of gunplay. Come Ups has some of that, but it is on a much smaller scale. These types of contests seem to follow the mantra of go big or go home. You might have a well-written script, but a less well-written script may score bigger if the action is over the top.
The same applies to horror genre contests. They seem to care less about the story and more about the gore. If someone gets dispatched in graphic ways with an axe, that’s a winner. And a solid ghost story doesn’t seem to get the same attention as zombies chewing their way through a victim’s stomach. For these types of contests, the bloodier the better. I’ve entered The Calling (supernatural-horror) in the Festival for Horror contest, which is an offshoot of Wildsound Film Festival, though you’d be hard pressed to show that as there is no mention of Wildsound on the website. This is also one of those contests that repeat every month with multiple winners.
I only entered this contest to be able to blog about it here on The Screenwriter’s Journey. It’s certainly not a well-known contest, or at least known in a positive way. There are numerous scathing reviews online about Wildwood and its various subsidiary contests. It’s virtually impossible to find information about past winners other than some videotaped cold readings of scripts on YouTube. That’s the award for this contest, a reading of your script by actors. Every script also gets feedback. That’s an awful lot of feedback for a lot of different contests going on year round. The rules also seemed a little sketchy. They can essentially be summed up as write a screenplay, send it to us, pay us. Paying was also a little sketchy as there were numerous prices listed depending on where you landed. I found submission costs ranging from $35 all the way up to $60. I submitted on the $35 page. There also seems to be some discrepancy about when the contest ends. I entered at the beginning of May and was told results would be in around the middle of June. I just checked the site and there is a new deadline for June 6, but no info on when results would be available. I don’t know if the June deadline is for a new contest or an extension of the old one. All in all, this is one of those contests that just doesn’t feel right or at the very least, isn’t run well.
I’ll keep you posted as information on any of these contests become available. For now, if you want to enter a contest, I would stick with the bigger organizations featured in Ken Miyamoto’s list. Here’s the address one more time:
Once you enter, it’s best to forget about it and get back to writing.