The Ultimate Guide to Screenplay Competitions
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 submission? 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 a 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 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 audiences, 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.
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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. His short film Dog Bowl recently premiered at Sundance in 2015.
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