Back in 1998, when I went to list the BlueCat Screenplay Competition as a new screenplay contest on the Internet, I was surprised to see there were already well over a hundred contests already in existence. This was 20 years ago! I can’t tell you how many have come and gone since then, but there are a bunch more now.
Screenplay contests do not have a good reputation. Why?
Because they’re a rip off!
Well, that’s not an accurate generalization, but like everything in the film and television industry, some experiences are more valuable than others. Writers do derive a legitimate benefit from entering screenplay contests, and some do not.
With so many screenplay contests, fellowships, labs, festivals, grants and competitions out there, what should a writer look for? What separates the best from the rest? Is there a single reason why you should enter your script?
Here are some things you might consider when choosing a screenplay contest:
Who are the judges?
Do you know who’s in charge of evaluating the scripts? What are their qualifications? Are they writers themselves? Who reads the scripts? Who hires the readers? Can you Google the administrators of the contest?
It’s important for a contest to be transparent. They might have a giant cash reward, but if you don’t know who runs the contest, what does that say about the competition?
What if they cite industry representatives involved in the judging of the scripts—do you know what their role is? Do they read all the submissions? Or only the top ten?
Does your script get read completely?
When you enter a contest, do you have proof they read your entire script? Is that important to you? It might not be. You might be comfortable with a contest reading the first 30 pages and then making a decision. Again, they might have the track record to back up their adjudication system. Yet reading your script until the end would be a fair expectation when submitting to a contest.
Does the contest have a history of finding writers that go on to have careers?
You can rely on contests with a record of previous winners going on to become professional writers. Taking a second look might reveal some of the alumni highlights could be seen as being more impressive than others. Study the careers of the previous winners. Are they now professional writers? Have you seen the work of the alumni yourself? Evaluate the track record of their “success stories.” And if they don’t have a track record, ask yourself why you’re entering screenplay contests.
How many contests do they run? How long have they been around?
There are a lot of first-year contests that are very exciting to submit for. And competitions that have been around for decades might not be what you’re looking for. But in general, new contests have not been tested, and the older ones have. Keep your mind open for the exceptions.
Does the contest run multiple times a year? Different niche contests? It’s fun to enter a genre contest, for example. Yet, how effective can they be in adjudicating all these contests? Who’s to say they can’t run all of them professionally. But the larger and established competitions run once a year. They do not have an 8-12 month submission period for a reason. What’s the reason?
What do people say?
Check for reviews on social media and message boards. Ask members of forums and writing groups for their experience in entering contests. Don’t take the first bad comment about competition and decide not to enter. A writer might be upset they didn’t advance in the contest or feel personally hurt over feedback they received. Do the research you would if you were checking out a new restaurant or school.
Be sure to see if the contests kept to their deadlines. Use Google to see if they have extended their deadlines in the past, or took a while to announce the results after they said they would. Why would a contest extend their deadlines or delay announcing their results? Is that in the interests of screenwriters?
Look for regional contests
Here’s a tip: look for contests held in your state by the local film offices. Or the chamber of commerce in your city might be having a screenplay contest. These contests are usually judged by industry folks that grew up there. Plus you won’t be competing against a lot of other scripts. Always enter any and all local writing opportunities.
What do you win?
Some competitions offer cash prizes, feedback and/or access to the industry. Review the prizes carefully. When they say $100,000, is that cash? Or value? Sometimes when you throw in a photo editing software that’s worth $3000, suddenly the actual cash they are providing as a prize is much less. What companies do they promise a relationship with? Go on IMDB and see who the managers represent. Always vet the prizes of the competition.
How much do they cost?
With so many contests out there, you would have to have a nice size budget to enter them all. Review how much each submission costs you. When you enter early, what’s the discount? Some competitions charge extra for additional services like feedback.
After reviewing these guidelines, you probably have a better idea of whether you want to enter a contest. Yet there’s one more very important thing to consider, something often overlooked.
How do they support writers when they’re not marketing and soliciting entry fees?
This is probably the best way to evaluate a writing competition. The mission of every contest is to help writers. Do they? If you have to pay for a chance to have them help you, and it’s worth it, fine. What else are they doing? Do they provide content that helps you as a writer? Some contests hold conferences and panels, write blogs and shoot videos, all in an effort to develop writers. Is it free? If not, why? Check your list and see what the screenwriting competition is doing for writers beyond a sales job and a “SUBMIT NOW” link. This is the best way to see the heart and mind behind the contest and how it will serve you best.
In the end, screenwriting competitions are not for everyone, yet they play an important role in discovering and developing talent, benefitting the writers themselves and the industry at large. And ultimately, the audience, which is what writing for film and television is for.
And always remember: writing today is the best way to win, and when you write, you’ve already won.
Gordy Hoffman is the Founder and Judge of the BlueCat Screenplay Competition. His screenplay Love Liza won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Winning Screenwriting Competitions: Lessons Learned
Years ago when I received word that my screenplay, Control; Alt; Delete, had won not one but two screenwriting competitions, I believed that all the hard work, years of struggle, self-doubt, and rejection had culminated to a glowing achievement that would forever wash away the specter of failure: I had climbed the mountain to see my shining new horizon as a working screenwriter.
And it was marvelous.
Things just seemed to be going my way: I got an agent, a manager, and a well-known producer who was going to make my script into a feature. I had meetings with big production companies with studio deals, pitched projects to major producers, was courted with screenwriting assignments – it was my time to shine.
And then it unraveled.
Not suddenly… no. It was more like an incremental closing of a window that you thought was wedged open by accolades of your winning script. One thing happens, and then another, and another.
In and of itself, not one was a devastating setback, but collectively they amounted to an avalanche of overwhelming loss. My agent left the industry, my manager ceased being a manager, and the producer moved on… so did those screenwriting assignments.
In the end, I was back to where I started from, a scribe in name only with little to show for but a glimpse at what could have been.
Was I crushed? You bet. I questioned everything I did; every decision made. What could I have done better? Was I too cavalier? Was I too dedicated? Did I try too hard; could I have tried harder? Was this window of opportunity squandered forever?
Well, was it?
It’s not an easy question to answer. I do believe that those changes have come and gone like that girl you didn’t kiss when you should have: that magic moment will never be replicated.
However, I did learn a lot from the experience – the stuff you don’t learn in film school – call it the film school of hard knocks. And with that, I would like to share some of those lessons learned.
Are You REALLY a Screenwriter?
For years I asked myself the question, am I a screenwriter? You would think it’s an easy question to answer. Living in Los Angeles I’ve rubbed shoulders with those who could answer “yes” to that question within the span of a heartbeat; however, for me the moniker held so much emotional baggage that to answer it with a resounding yes was virtually impossible.
Partly because to call yourself a screenwriter is to give yourself a label that requires proof on several levels:
1) Have you’ve been paid to write?
2) Have you sold any scripts?
3) Do you do it full time?
4) Has anything you’ve written been professionally produced?
5) Are you currently writing something that will be optioned, purchased or produced?
6) Do you have a literary agent?
7) Do you have a literary manager?
If reading this you felt the illusion of calling yourself a screenwriter quickly dissipated by the stark reality that you answered no to most of these questions, then you’re in good company.
At one time I was able to answer yes to four of the above questions, yet even so, I felt the unease of embracing the title because to call it a full fledged career had been as elusive as Tom Cruise winning an Academy Award™ — eventually you think it’s bound happen…eventually.
So maybe you do what I did when someone asked,
“what do you do?”
Squirm a little, furrow your brow, and say with a withered response,
“um, I… write.”
Hopefully that would be enough information, but invariably I would be expected to elaborate.
“Um… I write screenplays.”
I would then proceed to fill in some of the blanks,
“Nothing produced yet, but I’ve come close.”
So are you REALLY a screenwriter?
Well if you simply reserve the title of screenwriter to only those who are gainfully employed doing it, then yes, there’s only a few who can legitimately file their income tax return with the epithet “screenwriter.”
But, what if instead answering the above questions that focus more on the accomplishments of a successful screenwriting career, you were asked a series of different questions:
1) Do you make the time (not just find the time) to write everyday?
2) Have you completed a script? Better yet, have you completed multiple scripts?
3) Have you shared your writing with others and are accepting of constructive criticism?
4) Do you constantly seek ways to better your skills in the craft and discipline of being a screenwriter?
5) Are willing to forgo other career possibilities and weather through years of rejection, disappointment, and at times abject failure?
6) Do you actively search for stories to tell with a unique voice to share with the world.
7) Do write not because you choose to, but because you HAVE to?
If you answered yes to most if not all those questions, then as far as I have come to discover you embody the true essence of what a screenwriter is.
And it is only by answering yes to the later questions that you will ever be able to answer in the affirmative the former questions. So the question remains, are you really a screenwriter?
Am I? Let’s just say in my soul I am and for that reason I proclaim YES!