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I wrote a blog entry sometime back called Everything You Wanted to Know About Screenplay Contests* But Weren’t Afraid to Ask. For those intrigued, the link is here: https://howardcasner.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/the-future-is-now-a-pretentious-essay-for-screenwriters/
Since then I have been doing some rethinking about contests. Most of what I’ve said above, if not all of it, still applies. But there is one area that I did want to address based on my own experience and based on some facebook posts I have come across.
What sort of screenplays do contests look for?
Now, first, I want to be clear. I have no empirical evidence for this and I could be completely wrong. So everything I say has to be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, could be incredibly wrong. And I would love to hear from others, especially readers and judges for contests, and what their experiences have been.
I hope I’m wrong and have the wrong view on this. At the same time, since I think that every screenwriter needs first to be making their own product and trying to win contests second, it may not matter in the long run. And here is a blog post I wrote on what I think new filmmakers should be doing now: https://howardcasner.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/the-future-is-now-a-pretentious-essay-for-screenwriters/
When I first began reading for contests in 2002 and for the next fifteen or more years, I would ask what sort of screenplays they were looking for and the answer was always the best screenplay. I was careful to ask, do you want commercial and marketable screenplays? And they said very clearly, no, they want the best, regardless of their marketability (and I am defining best here as a screenplay that has those qualities that give it value outside of how much money it might make or the likelihood of it being sold in some way).
As a screenplay reader, I am wiling to search for any sort of screenplay a contest or producer wants, so I am always careful to ask.
But a few years ago I sensed a sea change. This first time I felt this was when I was let go from a screenwriting contest where before this I had been doing quite well. It was not unusual for my choices to move up the ladder and even reach the top three. I was even told a few years ago I had the highest number of screenplays that were further recommended after a second read of my first read.
And the screenplays I was championing were those that were highly original and unique, that were of high quality and showed incredible talent on the part of the writer.
Then suddenly, the screenplays I chose for the last couple of years never seemed to make it any further. I wasn’t exactly sure this is so. It isn’t always easy to tell or remember which screenplays are yours. But I was sensing something was amiss.
And then I got the email. I was not going to be reading for them this year and that perhaps I should read the screenplays on the Blacklist that came out every year to see the sorts of screenplays they were championing. I still wasn’t sure what that meant, but the more I thought about it, I got the idea that the screenplays I were choosing were not marketable ones. They were not the ones that managers and agents and production companies might want to, well, market.
Another way I thought to phrase this, while I was looking for screenplays like The Favourite, The Death of Stalin and First Reformed, they wanted screenplays like Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody and Blackkklansman, enjoyable and above average films (I liked them and could watch them again), but also rather formulaic and safe and more crowd pleasing.
I wrote back and said I could easily change what I was looking for in screenplays. I could make the marketability of the screenplay far more important than uniqueness and originality. But alas, it was not to be.
This feeling I had that contests might be changing was supported by a post in which a reader, who was championing incredibly original and unique and exciting screenplays, screenplays that were not that marketable, was told by the person running the competition that they weren’t looking for great writers, but great screenplays (and here, the implication is that great meant marketable).
And I think maybe things have changed. For example, I’m not sure that The Death of Stalin, First Reformed or even The Favourite (though that might be the exception) would do well in competitions.
Or, taking last year into the consideration, I doubt very seriously that the best films of the year, Once Upon a Time in America, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Marriage Story and especially Parasite would have made the best in a contest. Only Little Women (and this might be doubtful because of the innovative and controversial use of the non-linear time line) and Ford v. Ferrari (a fun and entertaining, but somewhat safe and formulaic film) would have done well. And just think of Moonlight a few years ago.
And also think of the movies of the new generation of filmmakers that arrived this year. How well would Under the Silver Lake, Uncut Gems, Queen & Slim, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Lighthouse and many, many others have done?
Again, I could be wrong. To be honest, as far as I know, many of these screenplays were on the blacklist or did well in contests. But still, I wonder?
This doesn’t mean the contests are wrong. There is no shame in getting on the blacklist (I would love to be there) and probably a lot of plusses. And they may be right in the long run in championing screenplays that are more marketable.
But there may be an irony here. If I am right, then screenplay competitions are looking for screenplays that are not like the new screenplays that are actually getting made and doing well today, both with critics and audience. The New Generation of screenwriters may be forging ahead with a new wave of films like was done in France in the 1950’s, Germany and Poland in the 1960’s, American in the 1970’s, and South Korea and Romania today.
At the same time, since every art form needs a constant influx of money to keep the art going, then the films that the contests are championing may be playing an important part in the future of film by providing that intake of cash.
And it’s every competition’s right to look for the screenplays they want. My only objection is that if I am right, then I think the rules should state clearly that marketability will be of high or even most importance in determining how well a screenplay does.
What does this mean for a screenwriter? Well, you might not want to enter your most unique or original or best screenplay, but one that is successful on its own terms and is above average and is safe and formulaic. It might also help to be based on a true story or to have a highly original concept or idea. And character now becomes very important; the stronger a central character is, the more vibrant and three dimensional, the more attractive it will be to a major actor who can help in getting a project greenlit.
Again, I could be wrong and again, I would love to hear from others who read for contests. Again, to be honest, I hope I am wrong. But if not, it is what it is and we writers will just have to adjust to it.