Screenwriting Contest Results

And so it begins. Some of the bigger screenwriting competitions have sent emails announcing first round results, and more contests will soon be notifying nervous entrants on whether they advanced or not to the next level of judging.

The Page Awards received over 4,000 scripts in various categories. I entered three screenplays (drama, action, family). Two were in the top 25 percent that made the first cut — STUNT MEN and LEGENDS OF THE MENEHUNE. Yet my drama/suspense script, THE DOLL, which has been a finalist in a bunch of contests is already out of the running. So if your script is still alive, congrats! If it didn’t, don’t despair. Sometimes it just comes down to a single reader’s subjective tastes or mood the day they picked up your screenplay.

To me, what’s more important is what you do with the results, good or bad. Since all three of the above scripts have been finalists or just missed the cut in major contests such as the Nicholl Fellowships, I have some experience in that area.

When THE DOLL did well in smaller comps, I got to talk to judges and the people in charge of the contests to get feedback from them. Of course, I was trying to make connections since the judges included producers such as Andy Fickman (made ANACONDA, then went on to direct and write movies such as SHE’S THE MAN, THE GAME PLAN and RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN). The doll script was more of an indie film, so I didn’t think Andy would have any interest in it. Instead, I tried to pitch him a more “commercial” idea I was working on. He pointed his finger at me and said, “I like THAT script about the doll! It was wicked-weird! Call me when I get back to L.A.”

I did call — several times. He never got back to me because he had just signed a deal to write and direct another movie, which led to more projects. Now he has something like 11 movies in development. However, I kept entering THE DOLL in other contests, and two other producers contacted me. Alas, both times other factors prevented them from moving forward on it.

THE DOLL did better in contests when it made the finals and got read by working professionals, who weren’t necessarily looking for the same things early round readers are checking off on their lists. It was written in a no-frills, minimalist style because I had a pretty bizarre plot and I didn’t want to get in the way of the story. I think many wanna-be screenwriters who do coverage or get paid to judge first early rounds, are sometimes more impressed with style over substance.

In fact, I think a lot of agents and managers fall into that same trap. They say they’re looking for a unique “voice” — one that sounds like another Tarantino or Charlie Kaufman, or whoever the flavor of the month is. Script consultants who also judge these things also like to see writerly descriptions in the narrative and zingy Juno-ish dialog, which I like to read too. But is it a movie you’d pay to see? More importantly, is it a movie a producer can visualize in his or her head that is feasible in terms of cost.

This brings me back to my other two scripts, STUNT MEN and MENEHUNES. Both are big budget pictures that would cost over $100 million to make. Early round readers probably liked the action and visual stuff I put up on the screen, but real producers and managers would say it’s not likely they could do anything with those scripts since I have no track record for writing huge tent-pole movies. Still, I figured it was worth taking a shot at going big.

When those two scripts just missed the Nicholl quarterfinals, I sought feedback from produced writers and aspiring writers I network with. It turned out both professional and wannabe screenwriters had similar criticisms about tone and dialog, so I took another pass at them before entering STUNT MEN and MENEHUNES in this year’s contests. We’ll see if it pays off.

BTW, one of the pros who gave me notes on MENEHUNES and my STUNT MEN premise, was Charles Leavitt. He wrote BLOOD DIAMOND, THE EXPRESS, K-PAX and a very good, underrated movie called THE MIGHTY. This is where networking and doing good deeds comes into play…

A bankruptcy lawyer I met in a screenwriting workshop here in Honolulu, asked me to read his work in progress. Being a little more experienced than him, I was happy to share what I’ve learned. We became friends and I tried as best I could to give him constructive criticism on other scripts of his. He wanted to pay me for my time, but I said no thanks — I do it because it helps me be a better writer myself.

Long story short, through the lawyer’s family connections, Chuck Leavitt generously offered to take a look at his script. My friend asked Chuck if he would read my MENEHUNES screenplay too, as a favor to me. The gist of his comments was that I had a solid concept and knew how to tell a story visually (no small thing, he said ) but it needed substantial work in the character and dialog departments.

It wasn’t the “I love it and gotta show it to my agent!” response I hoped for. But it was honest, constructive advice from a working pro, which I took to heart. Now it’s up to the contests judges to see if I delivered the goods.

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