Playing the Odds

When I go to Vegas, which is like a second home for most Hawaii residents, I am a fairly cautious gambler. My wife and I start out with a set amount to play with, then stop betting or decrease the amount of our wagers if we hit our daily limit for losses. We try to play the odds, and know what “the book” says you should do at the black jack tables, depending on the cards in front of you.

Yet there are times when I just go with my gut. I’ll see a slot machine or roulette table, and feel lucky. Sometimes my hunches have paid off in jackpots. I once got so hot at roulette, the croupier looked at me as if I was crazy because I cashed out after I kept picking winning numbers while only playing three or four chips per spin — and no one else was playing at that table. It looked like I was psychic. But I knew if I kept playing, eventually the odds would even out and I’d lose back my winnings.

And so it goes with any game of chance, or even screenwriting contests. Yes, talent and skill matter. However, there is always an element of luck involved in who reads your script, what that person likes, and where your work stands relative to the competition. Sometimes it’s a numbers game, and the “points” or score a single contest judge gives a script can mean the difference between making it all the way to the finals, or just being another first round dink.

Still, there are things you can do to improve your odds of advancing or winning contests. In past years, I’ve been a finalist in a bunch of competitions and won thousands of dollars. More importantly, doing well in bigger contests led to script requests from producers, agents and managers. Some of the smaller contests were judged by Hollywood people with clout too, so you shouldn’t dismiss those kind of opportunities.

Which brings me to my first tip on boosting your chances: enter more contests. That should seem like a no-brainer, but over and over I hear writers say the only ones worth entering are the Nicholl Fellowships, Austin Film Festival, and maybe the Page Awards or the TrackingB.com contest. Think about it though. If you truly believe your screenplay is good enough to beat out 5,000 to 6,000 Nicholl/Austin/Page submissions, why would you pass up better odds to win money and prizes in contests where you’re competing with “only” 300 to 600 entries?

I’m not saying you should enter dozens of contests just for the sake of spreading your bets around. Be selective. Pick the ones that have more than one winner because the odds are you will not come in first place. But placing in the top three in some contests can earn you enough cash to pay for all your other contest entries that year. You can also win some nice prizes for being a finalist in smaller competitions, or receive discounts to attend film festivals and screenwriting conferences — which can be good for networking and making personal contacts that could help you.

Also, choose contests in which finalists will be read by industry professionals who have good reputations. Even if you don’t win, there’s the possibility one of those judges might be impressed enough to contact you and ask what else you have to show them.

Speaking of judges, here’s another tip: you can learn to “read” the contest admins and judges. How? Check out their blogs and contest websites. Look at what type of scripts have won before, and what the contest director said about those screenplays. They may claim to be objective in the way the scoring is set up, but who they hire as early round judges usually reflects their own opinions and values. Some are sticklers for things like formatting and structure. Others are more interested in story concept or character development.

I’ll give you an example: one year I entered THE DOLL in a medium-sized contest that is run by a script consultant. It made the quarterfinals, and that was as far as it got. After the semifinalists were announced, she wrote in her blog that there were good scripts that didn’t advance because they scrimped on details in the opening. I had purposely written a minimalist type opening for THE DOLL because it’s a bizarre plot and I didn’t want the writing to get in the way of the story. In other contests that were judged by working TV and film professionals, they told me they really, really liked that script… in part, I think, because it was a very fast read with lots of white space — the minimalism this other contest director didn’t care for.

So I decided to re-enter it two years later and made some revisions in the opening. I added details to the descriptions of the protagonist and her apartment. Nothing else was changed. This time though, the script became a Top 10 finalist. It was the contest director’s perception that changed — not the story or the characters. And you’ll encounter the same thing with agents or managers. They’ll suggest revisions, and even if you don’t agree, you’ll have to at least make it look like you did what they requested (sometimes they’re right, so be open minded).

Another intangible is timing. For whatever reason, it seems certain topics and scripts get “hot” while the next year that very same script fizzles. It could be the zeitgeist. Or maybe word of mouth and news of other contest results prime professional readers for that particular script. Who knows. This year, I dusted off an old sci-fi spec that had never done well in contests… and it placed in the top 10 percent of both the Nicholl and Austin contests. The changes I made were minor. But since it was about genetically-engineered seafood turning humans into food, it seemed to resonate more with today’s readers than it did when I first wrote it 10 years ago. (Back then, there was a little event called 9/11 that was on peoples’ minds.)

Ultimately though, your goal should be to become ineligible for these contests. And you do that by putting yourself in a position to actually sell a script — the real jackpot. Everything else you do is about getting in the game, and doing whatever it takes to keep playing. Placing all your bets on one or two contests is going to be a losing proposition for 99 percent of the writers who enter. Play smart, but don’t be afraid to take some risks. Trust your intuition.

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