EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SCREENWRITING CONTESTS* BUT WEREN’T AFRAID TO ASK


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For my next blog entry, I will address an issue that appears every once in a while on Facebook screenwriting pages. This entry is especially prompted by two posts: one wanting to know all about contests and one wanting to know how much credence to give to coverage or feedback from a screenplay competition. I will do my best to address the former and will definitely share my opinion on the latter.
In addition, on Facebook I gave people the opportunity to ask questions for me to cover here and I will do my best. I am also open to further questions.
I should start out with a caveat. I am an unsuccessful screenwriter. I was paid to write a screenplay that never got made and I revised another that was shot and never made into or out of post production, so from a purely technical point of view, I suppose I am a professional screenwriter, though I don’t really consider myself so. However, in my favor, since moving to LA in 2002, I have made much of my living doing script coverage and reading for several competitions. So I do have some background when it comes to the topic.

 

I have also published a book on screenwriting, More Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader (the second edition), based on what I learned from reading for said contests (it can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07GD1XP9Y ). But I have written very little on contests themselves. So I will rectify that here. My observations will not necessarily be in any particular order.

 

I was asked how have my screenplays done and have they helped me in my screenwriting career. I have done rather well, relatively, with scripts making a nice number of quarters and semis and a few finals (though not in the top contests). To be honest, as far as I can tell, it has done nothing for my career. But they have been ego boosts and gave me confidence that I do have something as a writer, which, I suppose, is nothing to sneeze at.

 

However, I am going to prelude with another, but even more important, caveat. What new screenwriters need to understand is that in today’s movie world, you will probably need to make your first few or more projects yourself, whether a short, web series or feature. That is the way to work yourself up the ladder. So enter contests or don’t enter contests. There’s no harm in it. Still, I suggest there is little point to it if you are not making your own projects; but contests can be beneficial if you are doing so.

 

  1. How do contests work? Most people probably have an understanding of the basics. There are no real surprises here and most contests are basically the same. In the first round, a screenplay is read and scored by a reader (a few contests always have two reads for the first round). If the reader recommends the screenplay for a further read or they give it a high enough score, it continues on. But the judging gets harsher as the quality of the scripts get higher.

When all first reads are done, the quarter-finalists are announced (and often this is what it says, a quarter of the screenplays). Then when the scripts get their next reads, the semi-finalists are revealed (which are often half of the remaining screenplays). Then finals are announced (somewhat arbitrary, but top ten, five, three, etc.). In addition, some contests have different finalists for genres (sci-fi, horror, comedy, etc.).

Though there is no set rule, I usually recommend one out of every twenty screenplays I read. I noticed this one day as I was sending in an invoice. I would bill for every twenty screenplays. After a while, I realized I was recommending one entry out of each invoice. And then I heard other people say the same thing. Again, there is no fast rule. One year I felt I was recommending one out of every fifteen, another year fewer than one in twenty. But overall this was the average.

So, I’m no odds maker, but another way to look at it, you have a one in twenty chance in making it past the first round. Except, of course, chance doesn’t have a lot to do with it. The quality of the screenplay does.

 

  1. Who reads for screenplay competitions? Well, pretty much people like me. People who have some experience in the industry, but haven’t gotten very far (because if we had any success, we probably wouldn’t be reading for a contest since we wouldn’t need the money). Some are new to reading, some have done it for a while. If prominent people in the industry read the screenplays, it’s usually only the finalists. Most of my reading for contests came about through recommendation from another reader and that is probably true for most. But I have gotten work simply by sending my resume to a contest.

Though I have met a reader or two into development, most are aspiring screenwriters. It’s possible they may have some development background, but if so, I venture to guess it was from some internship or working as a secretary or personal assistant. I would also guess their development background is limited on average.

However, it should be noted that that as readers we are not asked to base our decisions on whether a screenplay can get made or how commercial it is (though that can be one part of the scoring system), but on the quality of the screenplay. Especially since no one really knows what can get made or not (if they did, they wouldn’t be reading for a contest-they’d be worth their weight in gold to a management company or agency).

And we readers do have different tastes. At one competition, I am nicknamed the AFI reader (dramas, independents, art house, etc.). Another person is known as the AFF reader (more commercial, genre and bigger budget, etc.). Sometimes the contests takes this into consideration when assigning scripts, but it’s not always possible. But I don’t feel I am any harder or unfair on scripts outside of the kinds of movies that I tend to gravitate toward. I can’t say that genre scripts have a disadvantage-it always seemed to me that all sorts made the finalists. But as I mentioned earlier, some contests have separate finalists for genre scripts to try to offset any possibility of that.

This can be true in judging television pilots as well. I tend to go for the edgier and more unique stories on cable, pay cable and streaming; others prefer network type series.

Not all contests pay their readers. But since I make most of my income from reading, coverage and consultation, I only read for those contests that do (though as most readers would say, not enough).

 

  1. Some myths. “Readers don’t read the whole script.” Well, to be perfectly honest, I can’t answer for every reader, but this is rarely the case. This is especially not the case for contests where we have to provide coverage (because you can’t provide coverage without reading the whole screenplay). But I will say that if by page fifty, I know that I am not going to recommend the screenplay, I tend to read much, much faster. And every once in a while, not often, maybe one in every thousand, I will read a screenplay that is so incomprehensible, so badly written, that I might give up-especially if I find I am now only reading words on the page that make no sense to me. I have heard rumors of readers who don’t read screenplays all the way through, so I can’t say they don’t exist. But if it gets to the reader coordinator, that reader will be dismissed.

 

“Readers will reject screenplays based on minor spelling mistakes and imperfect formatting.” Though I recommend proofing your screenplay and making your formatting as industry standard as possible, this is simply not the case. However, there are some screenplays that are so badly proofed or badly formatted, it makes it much more difficult to read the screenplay such that much of the story is difficult to follow, the characters never come alive and the pacing is deadly. This can sometimes be saved by a screenplay having a unique or original voice, but this is rare and it is usually killed by a reader higher up. But these are extreme cases. And if I provide coverage for an extreme case, I will tell them they really need to fix this issue before submitting it anywhere else.

 

“Readers know by the first ten pages or even the first page whether the screenplay is any good or not.” This is only true for bad readers and they do exist. In response to someone on Facebook who claimed than one can tell on page one the quality of the writer and whether the screenplay is any good, I called shenanigans. One page can tell me what I need to know about a really bad screenplay, but tells me absolutely nothing about a good one. But again to be honest, if the screenplay hasn’t gotten me by, say, the first act, that really is it. I have read only a couple of screenplays that have a first act salvaged by a strong second and third act.

Here I will answer a Facebook question. Are competitions scams. Well, I certainly can’t answer for all of them, but the top tier certainly are not. I have heard rumors of competitions that take the money and never read the screenplays, but I can’t point to one. But vet the competition. Ask on Facebook if anyone has had any problems with a certain contest. In addition, the website moviebytes can be useful as they have discussion groups where people can talk about experiences with a contest and where they score them.

 

  1. To enter or not to enter, that is the question. And there really isn’t a yes or no answer here, it’s more of a strong and resounding maybe. But here are some thoughts.

If you are entering to win and have no other reason for doing so, more likely the answer is not. Some screenplay competitions have thousands and thousands…and thousands…and thousands of entries. The likelihood of winning is very small, even with a good screenplay.

If you are entering to place and show, make semis or quarters, say, that’s a much better approach. The odds are more in your favor.

If you are entering to get representation or your screenplay bought, that’s more of a not. As above, when it comes to winning, the odds are against you. And relatively few of the contests can significantly help you here, though there are some that pride themselves in having bona fide industry contacts, which is great for winners, but not so great for non-winners, with some exceptions, like The Nicholls. But every contest has their success stories and will usually include them in their website.

If you are entering to get a general feel about the quality of your screenplay, entering contests can be one way to go about it. Say you enter a large number of screenplay competitions and you never get out of the first read, that suggests you may have a problematic screenplay. Now this is not absolute; I have seen many movies where I doubted they would get past round one simply because they are unique and have such an original vision. But c’mon, for most of you writers, you know the difference.

If you are entering to get a general feel about the quality of your screenplay, consider entering contests that offer feedback and coverage. These are more expensive and there is no guarantee, but at least you will have some idea as to why your script isn’t moving ahead, or is.

I was asked whether a first script by a beginning writer should be entered. Though most entries may not be first scripts, most entries are from beginning or still unestablished writers (most contests have a restriction on how much a writer can make and still be eligible), so a writer is more or less up against their peers. When it comes to a first script, I have seen many first scripts do very well. I would recommend getting as much feedback as possible and doing suggested revisions and really honing it before entering (or focus on contests that give feedback). And while you are doing this, be writing your next and then your next screenplay. Don’t depend on a single screenplay to make your career.

I was asked when to enter, the first, second or final deadline. I have read scripts that did well submitted at the last minute, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Other than that, it really shouldn’t matter. I would recommend first and second deadline. Last minute entries can be problematic since readers have read so many screenplays, it may get harder to have a screenplay that now stands out.

 

  1. There are other reasons for entering contests other than just placing first or even making finals. This is especially true if you are trying to produce your own content. For example, if your script is placing in semis and finals, and even quarters, than can help you raise money on something like Indiegogo.

It’s possible that with a cumulative number of placings, it might get you attention when your query managers, agents and production companies. However, I think I still have yet to hear of someone who got in this way.

Many of these competitions have get togethers at awards time and it can introduce you to a whole group of like minded individuals. In addition, you can try to contact others who have placed like yourself through such media as Facebook (I have to be honest here; I am amazed at the number of screenwriters who don’t reach out more in this manner).

It can also be an ego boost, even to place in some way in several contests. Your screenplay must have something going for it to place so consistently. And an ego boost is never to be taken lightly.

 

  1. If you want to try to place in more contests, then enter contests that are relatively new and haven’t been in existence for very long. Especially if it is their first year. They are generally cheaper and you will have less competition. In addition, be sure to enter genre or niche competitions (sci-fi, horror, gay, female lead, etc.); this also means less competition.

 

  1. Be sure your screenplay is ready or has something going for it such that it will be worthwhile to enter it into a contest. I am going to be ruthlessly honest here. I am constantly amazed by some of the entries. And I’m not talking about the bad ones, but also the average ones. I am unsure why most of these authors think that their script would make it very far in a competition, especially one with over 10,000 entrants. So get some honest feedback before committing all that money.

Someone asked what really makes winning scripts winners. That’s not an easy question. But generally speaking, character is most important. Without vibrant characters (and dialog, which can be a chief component of character), it usually doesn’t matter what else you have going for her you. Concept alone rarely gets you anywhere. In my years of reading, I bet less than a handful were recommended on concept alone. So characters should be at a 9 or a 10. For some genres (horror, sci-fi, etc.), you can get away with an 8. Remember, this is a competition and if you have a sci-fi screenplay with characters at an 8, and others have a sci-fi script with characters at a 9 or 10, the latter has more chance of getting recommended. However, this is not as true for production companies for which concept and story may be enough.

However, when it comes to winning scripts, here I will be ruthlessly honest. Look at all the scripts nominated for an Oscar, WGA and critics awards. Those are the kind of scripts that have a quality to make them winners. This doesn’t mean you have to like these screenplays-I don’t like all of them. But studying them might give you a better idea as to what makes it.

At the same time, your screenplay doesn’t need to be this good. These scripts have been put through the fire when it comes to revisions and making them work, while yours have only been put through some high heat. But these are the qualities you probably need to aim for.

Again, at the same time. These are for winners, top ten, five or three, say. They don’t necessarily need to quite reach this quality when it comes to finals and semi-finals. Which can be worthwhile, as well.

 

  1. One post asked the question as to how much credence to give to some coverage they had received. But the credence they were asking about was based on the background of the reader giving coverage. They wanted to know if the readers were successful screenwriters, as if that was the best criteria. But the background of the readers is, in one way, irrelevant. Either the coverage resonates with you, or it doesn’t. I always say, if a screenwriter who has won ten Oscars and critics’ awards tells you something about your script and it doesn’t resonate with you, then don’t do it. If someone who has never seen a movie in their life tells you to do something and it resonates with you, then do it.

Not all coverage is helpful. So if you receive coverage and it doesn’t help, then you might reconsider ever entering that contest again. If the coverage seems to be getting things wrong, like plot turns, character names, etc., be sure that it’s not the fault of the screenplay and then contact the competition.

But the coverage, in the end, is either helpful or not. Finding out the qualifications of the reader won’t change that.

Connected to this is a question as to whether if a reader is a script consultant and receives a script they have consulted on, are they required to excuse themselves from a script. Well, it’s never been a stated requirement. But it is one of those things that all readers know to do. We can’t score a script we’ve done consultation on or the author (if we know it) is a friend in some way; at least on the first round. If someone is a judge for third or fourth reads, they can generally score those. As a finalist judge, they’ll have to read and score it some time. But if it gets that far, then the unfair advantage of knowing the author is nullified. This is also true if I’ve read a script for one contest and are assigned it in another. I also recuse myself then.

Another question is whether it’s an advantage for the author to have used the contest’s coverage service. It shouldn’t, mainly because readers have no way to know this and contests would probably find it time consuming to see which scripts used their services and which didn’t.

I was also asked if the coverage, if positive, can be used when submitting to a manager, agency or production company. To be honest, I can’t believe that any of them would be interested in coverage received from a screenplay competition.

 

In the end, there is no reason not to enter contests if you understand how they work and what they can do for you. But no matter what, entering contests will probably be of little help if you are not also working on creating your own content.

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Very informative. But (and this is a really big BUT), you drop the terms “good” and “bad” as carelessly as Hansel discards bread.

    We’ve discussed this previously, but I still don’t understand what you mean. A script that is considered “a bad script” by one judge could very possibly be a “best script” by a different judge.

    For example, this year “The Favorite” received a “Best Screenplay” nomination in many respectable award competitions. But, most people I’ve talked to who have seen the movie seem unimpressed. And quite a few writers have called it “silly” or “shallow.”

    Personally, I think The Favorite has a very good chance of being the “most popular” screenplay this awards season, but it can’t possibly be “the best” unless the academies have jointly applied some secret means of unbiased, objective measurement.

    Has everyone agreed on how to recognize a “strong character” or what “good dialog” sounds like? If so, please share the secret handshake.

    Perhaps we only like the shade of Blue Valentine, or the length of The Wolf of Wall Street. Even if everyone agrees The Favorite is the Best Screenplay this year, isn’t that more indicative of fashion than substance?

    • First, thanks for responding. Second, I’m not sure I drop good and bad as much as you say I do. Yes, you have a point. We don’t live in a world of absolutes. And we have different tastes. But knowing that, how does that help you do better in competitions? You can say, well, there’s no point in entering any contests because it’s the luck of the draw and absolutely nothing else. Or you can try to achieve more objectivity about screenplays and screenplay writing. If it is all luck and absolutely nothing else but luck, why try to improve your own screenplay and fix issues, since whether they are issues is totally a personal opinion? I think writers would find it more helpful to consider that yes subjectivity plays a part, but along the way objectivity also plays a part and we, as writers, need to develop being more objective, not just about other’s work, but out own. If you think it is nothing but personal taste, how would you run a contest to make it more objective in determining the winners?

  2. Hi Howard. Your conclusions and advice seem to be spot on. I’ve read scripts for two annual competitions and can vouch for much of what you’ve said. The one thing you didn’t mention that I think many screenwriters (or aspiring screenwriters) can benefit from a reading standpoint is how it helps your own writing. As a reader, you get to see firsthand what’s working and what isn’t. Yes, you will read a lot of bad scripts, but those are helpful in terms of showing you what not to do in your own script. But couple those bad scripts with produced/finished scripts (like the Oscar winners) so you can learn from those good scripts too.

    • Totally agree. I think it’s made a difference in mine. What I sometimes tell people though, is that in reading scripts don’t go, Oh, I liked that, I think I’ll do it, but, Oh, this doesn’t work, I won’t do that (mainly in formatting and narrative and there are always exceptions). But reading scripts can be a big help. Thanks for writing and commenting.

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