Screenplay Contests Pros and Cons

It’s that time of year again, when thousands of aspiring — or blindly naive — writers from all over the world enter the big screenplay competitions that have May deadlines. Never mind there are dozens of other contests throughout the year that actually offer better odds of winning cash and prizes.

I know many professionals in the TV and movie business dismiss them as being a waste of time and money. For most entrants, that’s probably true. Writers who start out with half-baked ideas, haven’t learned the craft, or just don’t have the chops, are subsidizing the prize offerings with their entry fees.

However, if you have a great concept, decent writing skills and choose the right contests, you could very well make connections that advance your career. I know, because I’ve gotten requests from producers, agents and managers as a result of winning or placing in both small and large contests. Did those contacts lead to deals? Not for me. But I did get offers of representation from making the Nicholl Fellowships quarterfinals cut, and I know other writers who sold scripts that did well in the contest circuit.

Of course, those same writers might have succeeded on their own merits anyway. The cream generally rises to the top. You’ll see a lot of the same scripts and names appearing in multiple finalist/winners lists on websites like Moviebytes, which specializes in covering screenwriting comps (they even offer “Report Cards” on how well the contests are run).

The chief benefit of entering contests though is that it forces writers to finish scripts and provides a source for unbiased feedback. Unlike your spouse or mom who will say you have written a masterpiece, contest readers have no attachment to your work. So it’s really a crapshoot when it comes down to relying on readers, who may or may not know what makes a good script. All contest readers are not equal in their abilities.

That’s why time and again, people recommend the Nicholl Fellowships. For starters, nearly every script gets at least two reads, so it doesn’t come down to the personal likes/dislikes of a reader who might be having a bad day. They also hire professional readers who provide coverage to agents and producers for a living. Nicholl readers are not novices or wannabe writers.

Most of the smaller contests rely on the tastes of a single reader in the first round, and that can be very dicey (I’ve gotten back notes that indicated the early round “judge” in one well-known contest was probably a college student who was given a checklist to work from).

Here’s another thing I always look for: Who is judging the final rounds? If there are industry professionals (agents, managers, producers with legit credits) listed as judges, anything can happen. Plus, if the contest is part of a film festival or writers conference that you can attend, you may have a chance to network with these pros if you’re a finalist.

When I was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival contest, I got to meet an upcoming assistant at Zide-Perry, who now has her own management company; I also got script requests from major producers. Ditto for the Maui Writers Conference — Andy Fickman, who produced ANACONDA and now directs movies for Disney was one of the judges, as was Chris Vogler, author of “The Writer’s Journey,” a seminal screenwriting book. Placing in the Nicholl quarterfinals (twice) also got me some attention from agents and managers.

Unfortunately, I had some bad luck with the Austin and Maui contests. In past and subsequent years, both had the winners publicized in Variety. But the stringer who covered the Maui Writers Conference turned in his story late, so Variety didn’t run it the year I came in second place. And for some reason, the year I was a top finalist at Austin, the Hollywood trades opted not to report it. Which brings me to my last point…

The real reason to enter contests is that the publicity could open doors for a writer who lives in Podunk or Liverpool and has no networking contacts in L.A. It’s not necessarily the best written script that wins either. It’s the best executed screenplay that strikes an emotional chord with readers. And once it gets recognized by a major contest, agencies and managers will have someone cover it just to be sure they aren’t “missing” that rare diamond in the rough — which was mentioned in the trades. If it’s not in the trades, no worries (for the agents or managers, that is). They didn’t “miss” anything because no one else heard about that script either. In Hollywood, everyone is looking to hop on the bandwagon after it starts rolling.

As for the cons of entering contests, the main one is cost. Many writers have two or three scripts they’ll enter in multiple contests. At $30 to $65 per entry, you can easily rack up a few hundred dollars each year in contest fees. That’s why if you enter smaller contests offering cash prizes of $500 to $1,000 or more for the top three winners, you might at least break even. Besides, you’re competing with “only” 200 to 500 other writers in the smaller contests, as opposed to 5,000 in the Nicholl or Austin comps.

That said, it’s no easier winning the top prize in the small contests. The cream rises to the top in those as well, and if you’re fortunate enough to make it that far, you’ll find most of the other finalists are published book authors or professional journalists and produced playwrights.

Today’s relevant links:

Nicholl Fellowships info.

Moviebytes – the place to get info on screenwriting contests.

Done Deal – I subscribe to their pro services (less than $30 per year) to see who’s selling what on a daily basis; also gives you access to lists of agents, managers and producers.

The Done Deal forum is free, and you’ll find threads on contests, along with lots of other useful info!

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One Comment on “Screenplay Contests Pros and Cons”

  1. richfigel Says:

    Clarification: the Nicholl contest does NOT provide actual feedback on scripts. What I meant is that whether your script advances or not in contests is an indication of whether it’s on the right track or not. Not making the cut doesn’t mean your script sucks… but if you find none of your scripts are advancing in any contests, chances are it needs work or the idea just isn’t very cinematic.

    On the other hand, you can win or place in a bunch of contests, and that may not mean anything to agents or producers if they don’t think your story is commercial enough. So take all contest results, good or bad, with a grain of salt!

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