Reader Question: What’s the low-down on screenwriting contests?

April 23rd, 2012 by

From Marc Teichmann:

Is there a website or database somewhere with a list of grants available for screenwriters? I know of the Nicholl contest, but what other ones? I absolutely love writing, and I feel like if I just had more time to work I could be so much better, but I gotta pay the bills!

Marc, to quote the late great Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist for The Band: “Music don’t owe anybody a living.” There is a parallel to that about the movie business and you can read my thoughts about that here.

Re screenwriting contests: I’ve always been ambivalent about them. First off, I never entered one, unless you consider submitting K-9 as a spec script to Hollywood a contest, which I guess in a weird way it is, perhaps the Big Contest. So because I’ve never entered one, I suffer a pretty significant lack of knowledge about them. Oh, sure, I know a lot of their names as I get peppered with emails from them all the time, asking me to promote their particular contest on the blog [which I never do]. I only actively cover the Nicholl [because it's the premier screenwriting competition with a proven track record of its winners getting representation] and the Austin Film Festival [because the Festival itself celebrates screenwriting]. But that’s about it.

So in the past when writers have asked me if they should enter this screenwriting competition or that one, my answer has always been pretty much the same: “If you have the time and money, why not? It may serve as motivation to finish your script, enable you to get some feedback, and who knows… you may win.”

But maybe I should revisit that response. Bumping around the Internet, I found this site with links to over 300 screenplay competitions.

300! Who knew?! Is there something going on out there I [and we] should know about?

At this point, I’d like to turn over the conversation to you, the GITS community. Maybe you can help out Marc with some good resources about screenplay competitions. Maybe you can help me out and let me know are they worth it? If so, in your opinion which ones are the best?

How about this: If you do submit a script to a competition, what should you be on the lookout for: entry fees, written coverage, who reads the scripts, track record of the competition, etc.

Maybe this, too: What type of writer do you think would benefit most from entering a screenplay in a competition? Beginner? Intermediate? Advanced?

And this: Is there a good, logical argument to be made why a writer should spend their time and energy on submitting scripts to competitions instead of going after representation directly?

While I hope we can answer Marc’s specific questions, I’ve rephrased it to solicit your honest feedback on a more fundamental subject:

What’s the low-down on screenwriting contests?

Thanks for your feedback.

UPDATE: A HT to @Thriller_Scribe for tweeting this link as being the definitive list of all screenplay competitions.

10 thoughts on “Reader Question: What’s the low-down on screenwriting contests?

  1. My first suggestion would be go to moviebytes.com and do some homework. Readers there can submit report cards on all the various contests, rating things such as whether the contest is actually worthwhile, how professional, any feedback, etc.

    As someone who has won a couple of contests, been a numerous finalist, top 2%, top 5%, blah blah blah… I’m not a big fan. The only ones that appear to be really worth anything are Nicholl and Austin Heart and potentially Page – but they get thousands of entries and if you hunt around the net, you can read a number of the winning scripts and some of them will leave you scratching your head.

    I tend to find it more beneficial to enter competitions that offer categories based on genres – or competitions that are for specific genres only. But beware, there are a lot of scams out there. 300 competitions? Somebody somewhere is making money off of a number of them. Just do the math.

    As for the benefits themselves, I personally entered the contests I have with the intent of using any placement(s) to build up a bit of a credibility when it comes to marketing. Does it help? Well, I honestly haven’t really tried to market my stuff on my own… yet. But I would like to think that contest placements and very positive coverage will help to show the material has been vetted.

    Aside from that, I’ve been too busy continuing to learn – though recently, within the last few weeks, I did have a referral to someone at WME based on my competition wins so who knows, maybe someday I’ll have something more to report back on.

    1. Well there lies the rub:

      If you’re entering contests for the purpose of garnering attention as a feature writer, then Bark, you’re right: Nicholl, Page, Zoetrope and a handful of others are worth entering *precisely* because so many other people are entering. These are the contests that attract the people who are ready to move up to the pro level and placing in one of these means that you’re ready to start working with representation.

      On the other hand, for a novice writer it’s well worth it to enter contests like the Scriptvamp Attention Grabber (1st 10 pages), A/Exposure monthly or the CWA, where the rapid feedback is a great way to develop craft and more importantly a sense of objectivity about your own craft. Otherwise, make sure to check with the moviebytes site so you’re not entering a scam, don’t spend huge amounts of money on coverage, but do make sure you only enter contests that give scorecards (which is more than enough feedback, imho).

      To that point, the kind of feedback you’ll get from a contest is going to be far more concise than paid coverage and in some senses equal to the process a reader would go through, as opposed to a script consultant who offers coverage.

      The key is to define milestones against which to measure your progress and use to help you decide if you’re ready to move up the chain to more prestigious contests. Then when you’re finally really to enter one of the big contests you’ll be doing it with well earned confidence.

      1. Well, even the big boys prove to be a crap-shoot; that’s why I’m somewhat reticent to sing their praises after having read some of the winning scripts.

        There are the occasional winners who place in all the contests – I forget the writer’s name, but he was both a winner at Austin Heart and Nicholl for his script Pure. I managed to get a hold of it and found it to be very deserving – just one minor flaw from my pov.

        But then there are those who win out of the blue, who, in interviews, say they’re very surprised because they’ve entered other contests and never managed to even make the quarterfinalists.

        And from my own experience, I had a top 25 script in the drama category at Page two years ago – that was out of 1150 scripts in that particular category. For shits and giggles, I submitted the exact same script last year and zilch. Not even a QF.

        That’s what I mean by crapshoot. There are just so many variables. Getting it through that far is quite an accomplishment in itself, but I’m often left feeling that it has less to do with the writing than perhaps the particular reader the script is assigned to.

        And of course I’d be a fool not to acknowledge this is more akin to the real world experience, anyway. :)

        1. Well yes and no. I used to think the same and I have a TV script that gone through the same ups & downs.

          But I now do believe that there is actually a common “objective” standard that applies in the industry, by which I mean to say that there are scripts that everybody loves and those that everyone hates and writers who are able to produce either kind on a consistent basis.

          The problem comes for the rest of us in the middle, where our process is still hit & miss and our facilities for self criticism are weak, keeping in mind that contests are by definition for those not yet good enough to play pro.

          As someone with a science & engineering background, the only way for me to build the foundation for a screenwriting career without the benefit of a USC/NYU/UCLA film school education has been to read every single screenwriting I can get my hands on, figure out the salient points and grok the why of what I just read, then use it to deliberately and incrementally increase the range and complexity of my writing, measured through contest, and repeating until I’m confident enough to move to the next level of contest.

  2. Scott,

    Anyone who quotes Levon Helm is alright with me.

    Michael

  3. Purely on a whim, I entered a very old script in the Blue Cat Screenplay contest that got me hip pocketed by CAA over a decade ago. This script had gotten me a million meetings, got some of the best coverage in the history of the agency and the likes of Sean Connery and James Lapine wnated to direct it. Cut to today. It didn’t even make it to the contest’s semi finals. So, I guess ya never can tell.

  4. It’s nice to see you quote Levon! :) I really wasn’t expecting that. My heart goes out to his wife Sandy and his daughter Amy. He’ll be missed, but his musical legacy will live on, through music & film.

  5. Carla Cyr says:

    I read an answer to this question early this year and it has stuck with me. Here’s my paraphrased version:

    Imagine you are in a classroom and the teacher tells you to write a report about what you did this summer. She will then post the best one on the front board for the school to see. You win and your paper and your name are on display.

    What we can’t see is the grade on the back of this paper is a C. That means all the others were C- or lower. Yes, this is the best paper of the group but is it the paper you want everyone to read and to associate with your name?

    I know this may be an overly negative view but it doesn’t make it any less true. Each contest has to pick a winner and it will be the best of what is available.

    You can argue that the Nichol’s gets better submissions but I bet the get more average and below averages scripts than they do the A++ scripts than we think they do.

  6. davidbishop says:

    As noted above, all contests are a crap shoot. I’ve entered contests, won some [Short Film Script at Page in 2007, a local Scottish contest in 2010] and sunk without trace in others – often with the same script!

    I’ve also read [i.e. been a preliminary rounds judge] for contests and open call opportunities, where I was given dozens of scripts and paid a few bucks to pass judgements on each one.

    So the standard of judging in the early rounds may not be high, and is often only one underpaid person’s opinion, made in haste.

    Get through to the final rounds and it means your work has impressed multiple readers, so that has some value.

    Contests can be useful near the start of your career – the deadlines are a good motivational tool, any recognition a useful boost for your confidence.

    But if you win for almost the first thing you’ve written [as I did in 2007], it’s actually not that much help. You don’t have a portfolio of work to display if people ask to read you. You might not even know how you managed to produce that prize-winning script. It’s hard to repeat a fluke.

    After winning the short film category in Page, my script got read a lot and several management companies asked to see my work [I didn't have representation at the time]. One producer sought funding to get my short made – it’s an animated project – but couldn’t make that happen.

    But there were fringe benefits. My win got me local publicity, and a free ticket to the Scottish BAFTA awards. There I sat next to an indie producer and we got chatting. We’ve met several times since and have plans to work together one day, if our projects and the planets align.

    My win was also useful in persuading the BBC TV drama series DOCTORS to give me a trial, and from that I’ve had four eps commissioned.

    And my win helped me secure representation, along with all the other things I’d done.

    It wasn’t a magic bullet, but I turned it into a useful kick start for my career.

    Arguably, I’d say focus on features over scripts for shorts. Build a portfolio of at least three, so you’ve something else for people to read besides your winning entry.

    Only enter the big contests that get lots of entries – ideally those that also give feedback. Be wary of entering every contest going, as they can be a money-making scheme for the organisers. Look at what the prizes are carefully – will it get you read by significant people? Will it help you career?

    I’d suggest the Nicholl, Blue Cat and my old friends at Page.

    If you’re based in the UK, you should definitely enter the Red Planet Prize, which is free and offers mentoring for up to 30 finalist – a brilliant contest!

    There’s a new kid on the UK contest block, Screenwriting Goldmine, run by a working industry scribe looking to give emerging writers a hand. I’d go for that one myself, but rules deem me too successful to enter.

    In short: screenwriting contests can be useful near the start of your career, but do your research! As always, caveat emptor.

  7. Liz Swan says:

    Maybe in the UK things are a bit different. The BBC have a web site (Writers Room), which is helpful for both new and established writers. They list opportunities – and competitions – some of the more well known initiatives don’t carry an entrance fee. It is a way of getting your name out there.

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