Screenplay Contests: What They Are, Are Not, and Can Be
by Michael Moan
Although opinions differ greatly on the importance of screenplay contests, they are undoubtedly a popular way for novice, intermediate-level and even seasoned professional screenwriters to gain feedback on their work and hopefully an insider’s pass to moviemaking in the US and worldwide. Though I’m not the go-to expert in screenplay contests, I’ve spent about a year learning as much as I can to use them to accelerate my career. I’m confident, based on extensive recommendations from people who have either won or placed in the semifinals of juggernauts like Nicholls and Sundance, that I can help you maximize your chances of placing or winning them. More importantly, I hope you learn what they can do for your writing career. It’s always nice to win an award, but a trophy doesn’t do much unless you showcase it.
With that, here is the sagest advice I’ve received about screenplay contests.:
Temper your expectations: Hundreds of thousands of scripts are submitted every year. Yours may be excellent – maybe the best you’ve written – but you’re up against dozens, maybe hundreds of others in every contest you enter. It might not even be your writing. You may have just applied to the wrong contest, or a more competitive one, or at the wrong time. Even for professionals, knowing which prodco is interested in what genre, subgenre, subject, theme at any given time is akin to discovering the secret to life.
Also, even if you win, your script may not earn you a dime. I spoke with someone who won 17 contests, including Nicholls, and none of his entries has been optioned or produced. A winning contest accolade could at best be a nice addition to your portfolio. If you are lucky enough to get in the room with a studio executive to pitch an idea, they will almost without fail ask you about your previous work. If you won a contest, you must have some talent.
Research: I’ve come to understand that this is the most important element to placing in contests. Subscribing to imdb.com Pro is a good idea. If you are serious about making even a part-time living as a screenwriter, you will need a subscription anyway. You need to learn about the readers especially: What have they written? Have they written anything of note? What production company and development execs are involved? What genres and themes typically place highly in your contest (Hint: It’s usually horrors and romantic comedies. Period dramas are like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber: “So You’re Saying There’s a Chance…”). If you know the likes and dislikes of the readers and company, the odds are in your favor… But as I said above, even all the research in the world won’t always indicate who wants what and when.
Notes: Fork over cash for extended notes at least once. Most scripts receive some liner notes in addition to a rating, but five pages of extensive coverage will really tell you what an experienced reader thinks about your work. Additional coverage usually costs another $50-$100, maybe more for the bigger contests.
Speaking of cash: I once told myself I would never spend a dollar on screenwriting until I made a dollar doing it. Recently I drop-kicked that thought through a plate glass window. You need professional screenwriting software, paid subscriptions to critical listing services, maybe a script consultant… Budget what you are willing to spend on contests. I plan on doing so this year, but I’m not going to sell my car. Maybe a good idea would be to do research, find a few that seem relevant, and apply. Unless you are flush with cash. Then apply to all of them for kicks.
Submit your best work: Don’t apply with a first draft hoping that the liner notes will lead your final draft to the promised land. In fact, NEVER submit your work anywhere unless you are convinced it is the best draft you can produce – not to an agent, manager, script consultant or contest. Follow the rules. Learn the craft. Screenplay structure. Three acts. Five lines for dialogue. Fewer for action lines. Bend the rules only when absolutely necessary. Spelling and grammar. A clear inciting incident. A midpoint. 120 pages tops. 121 is too many, no exceptions. 105-110 is better, even for dramas.
I hope these tips assist you in placing or even winning a contest or two. If you do, please tell PSA about it. But prepare to buy drinks – you’re the one with the cash prize!