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Return of Balls of Steel™: How to Find a Reputable Screenwriting Contest

Before I knew better, I entered every contest I stumbled upon. But like every great lesson in life, you learn from your mistakes. How do you find a reputable screenwriting contest?
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You peruse Twitter, hoping for some insights from writers on how to break into Hollywood … tap, tap tap … your #screenwriting hashtag search is set. Within minutes, tweets stream by, raging about screenwriting contests.

Some writers swear by contests as a legit way to break in. Others, throw shade and insist they are a waste of time and money. The debate and smack talk goes on for hours, leaving you more confused than when you logged into the blue bird.

Who do you believe?

Everyone and no one.

I’ll tell you why … some contests just suck. Yeah, I said it. Because they do.

And you know who else knows which contests aren’t that great at helping writers? Agents and managers.

When you excitedly tweet that you won East Nowhereville Screenwriting Contest, they’re scratching their heads because East Nowhereville is nowhere near Hollywood, nor does anyone in East Nowhereville have any connections that would get you even five inches closer to landing a manager.

Maybe if it were West Nowhereville you’d have a better chance. At least it’s a few miles closer to the Hollywood coastline.

Or there are the contests that list hundreds of semi-finalists. Sure, it makes writers feel ecstatic to see their name on that huuuge list, but what does that truly accomplish? Nothing. It simply makes you feel good for a day or two. Maybe a week. I get it. Been there, done that.

What contest you enter matters. What writers you listen to matters, too.

Some are just bitter and miserable. You know who you are. Hell, I’ve been Ms. Bitterman myself at times. It’s easy to let this industry rip your heart out and leave you limping home to your mother.

Get used to it. Rejection never ends, even after you become a pro. So, don’t expect the day you land a manager to be the end of your writer’s woes. 

It’s only the beginning.

If I may digress for a moment, a lesson I learned years ago in the dojo bears repeating. Writing is like martial arts. You train and sweat for years to earn your black belt, getting the crap beat out of you, but keep coming back for more because you want to learn. Writing is the same. You work for what feels like forever to get that script just right, and then send it out into the world, bracing for the hit of someone declaring your baby is ugly. 

The punch hurts, but you keep on going and dive back into those rewrites.

It's part of the process, so stop fighting it. Just embrace it, learn from the stings, and do better next time. That’s how you grow. That’s how you succeed. That’s how you create a screenplay good enough to get people’s attention, contest or not.

Sifting through the noise on Twitter to find the right contest isn’t easy though. The worst part about shady contests is they rub their cooties-of-shame onto the good contests out there.

So, how do you know if a screenwriting contest is worth your time and money?

Before I knew better, I entered every contest I stumbled upon. Man, I wish I had that money back! But like every great lesson in life, you learn from your mistakes.

Now, whenever I consider a contest, I always … always … reach out to past finalists to ask what their experience was. It’s not hard to find them. Most sites have a list of their past winners, then search for their social media accounts. 

One consistent quality among writers is their generosity. We’ve all felt scammed at some point and genuinely want to help other writers avoid our mistakes.

Politely shoot them a private message, asking …

How did you find out you placed? Did they call you, or did you accidentally stumble upon your name on their website (yes, there are contests that don’t even notify you directly that you placed!)? Did they get you any meetings? Did they ask about any other scripts you have ready to go? Did you feel respected and a part of their contest “family”?

And the big one … did they stay in touch with you, even years later?

Any contest that truly cares about writers will want to help their finalists, even after a decade. That is not a myth. It’s real. I know because I’ve seen it.

Illustration by Graham Sisk, created for Pipeline Artists.

Illustration by Graham Sisk, created for Pipeline Artists.

Allow me to indulge in an example to prove my point. When we launched Pipeline Artists a year ago, Matt Misetich set up meetings with past finalists of all the Pipeline contests to not only reconnect with them but to also see if any would be interested in contributing to our online magazine. To my shock, some of these finalists were from more than 10 years ago!

In the spirit of full disclosure, yes, I now work for Pipeline Media Group. But if you’ve followed my career, you know I've never been anything other than honest the dozen years I've been writing “Balls of Steel,” and that will never change.

I don’t blow smoke. Not now. Not ever. I am a writer, just like you. I give advice the way I want to get it—real, raw, and honest.

Honesty is hard to find, but it’s out there, as are honest contests. Find one that will embrace you, want to follow your career, and open doors for you to other writing opportunities. Every time your words are seen by someone is a chance that a reader will want to learn more about you and your work.

A legit contest also needs to care about the quality of their contest readers and compensating them fairly. There was a lot of Twitter buzz last fall about a well-known contest bringing on unqualified readers, with no experience in the industry, and not even paying them. Nope. No pay. Just a potential to earn credits toward a conference badge.

Yeah, I have no comment on that, except that the writing community was as gob-smacked as I was to find out a trusted contest was slipping into the swamp.

I can hear you now, “Jeanne, why aren’t you giving us a list of your research to save us time … huh, huh?”

Simple. The previous example is why. Everything changes. Favorite contests slip, some recover, new contests come along, companies get sold, staff quits, and judges change. Lately, a lot of contest companies have been bought up by larger corporations and consolidated. Yet the individual contests still exist, leaving writers unaware of the change of hands.

Know who owns the contest you enter and who is judging it. You need to do current research.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Scams and money grabs will always be part of the contest equation. Your job is to protect your wallet (and pride) by doing your due diligence.

A great contest can change your career. It really can. This year’s Script Pipeline winner got repped and made The Black List … the #1 spot on The Black List, no less.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t add one more contest thought: They ain’t nothing but a thing. If you don’t place, don’t panic, don’t take it personally, and don’t slam the contest on Twitter.

Yes, Twitter is a great place to share feedback on all things writing, but remember, people you don’t even know are reading your feed. Some of those people are managers. Some of those managers have great relationships with said contest.

But more importantly, no one wants to work with a sore loser.

What if you had a meeting with a production company, set up by Mr. Twitter Manager—your script gets requested, and the production company ultimately passes. Does Mr. Twitter Manager want to be confident you won’t jump on Twitter and complain that the production company did not buy your script?

A thousand times, yes! They want to be sure you aren’t a freak on social and know how to be a pro and take the hits.

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Bottom-line: Contests are just one way to break in. They aren’t the only way.

Do your research, be professional, don’t take it personally, and keep swinging for that brass ring.

Above all, never, ever give up.

Speaking of never giving up, It feels great to be back in the “Balls of Steel” saddle. If there are any topics you’d like me to take on, feel free to find me on Twitter @jeannevb. My DMs are open. And if you want more Real Talk, check out the podcast I co-host with Scriptmag's own amazing Sadie Dean—Reckless Creatives. We carry the honest "Balls of Steel" theme to the airwaves. 


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