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Screenwriting Contest Success: Beating Your Way to the Top of the Hollywood Heap

Judy Burns has been a reader and a writer who, like many others, had to network to get noticed. She shares advice on choosing contests for screenwriting contest success.

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So much is made of who you know in Hollywood that it tends to discourage many of us, and indeed, it is true. One good friend on a television show, in a production company or in a studio position (any studio position) is worth more than years of pounding the pavements alone, trying to push your latest script. Years ago, this fact was pressed home when I was a student at the University of California, Irvine and I was trying to break into Star Trek. I had written a script, tried submitting it to agents and finally in frustration, asked Buddy Ebson, the actor, if he knew of any writing agents I might meet.

And how did I know Buddy Ebson? Sheer luck. I was tutoring his kids in math to make enough money to survive college. Buddy didn’t know any writer agents but he did know Tom Blackburn, the writer of the old Davy Crockett series that Disney had made, and he gave me his phone number. Tom read the script as a favor and called his agent, Polly Connell, an old story editor for Walt Disney. She also handled the fledgling Steve Cannell, who later created Rockford Files and many other fine series. Tom asked Polly to read the script, and the next day I had an agent.

That same year I took an Irvine extension class in screenwriting taught by Bob and Wanda Duncan. They had a long track record in shows like The United States Steel Hour, Wild Wild West and Lost in Space. Bob read my Star Trek script and called Fred Freiberger, the new producer at Star Trek. Three days later, Trek bought it and I was on my way.

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I learned early about the power of being noticed. And now, after more than 30 years of writing, story editing and producing, I’d like to tell you a secret … one good way to get noticed. Take classes with people who know people you want to get to know. And more to the point: Take classes that offer contests to their students. Why? Because the odds of being noticed by somebody who counts are greater.

It is estimated that well over 100,000 scripts are written every year around the world … perhaps twice that number are actually being generated. It would take the studios years to read even the first 10 pages of all those scripts. So the ones that do happen to get through the studio doors often sit on desks for weeks, months or even years. I know because I was on the other side of those desks, reading, trying to find that one great writer in the mountains of scripts before me.

Most of those scripts were terrible, and those were the scripts that had actually found an agent. If I found a script that worked, I was ecstatic, and I tried hard to find a place for that writer on the show I was staffing. It’s too bad most of those writers hadn’t taken good classes in screenwriting. In the past, there weren't any classes. Today, there are many, and the classy ones are taught by folks who actually know how to write and who have long credits in the industry.

There are screenwriting classes all over the country. Most major universities offer something. In California and New York, you can check out UCLA, UC Riverside, Irvine, Berkeley, and in New York there is NYU and Ithaca. Austin has its own classes. Most of these are on campus, but some are online with professionals you could never meet any other way, and you never have to leave your living room. Sometimes these programs have their own contests which offer you a chance to be read by professionals, and in the case of programs like UC Riverside’s Screenwriting Program and UCLA’s Professional Program, there are five equal winners whose names are published in the Trades (The Hollywood Reporter and Variety) and in the Writers Guild Journal. What is the impact of winning such a screenwriting contest? Barbara Covington, past winner of the UCLA Professional Program contest, put it this way:

"Winning the contest was thrilling. I believed that I was 'on my way' ... and I did get an agent out of it, or sort of. It was a friend's agent, but having won the contest gave the script a little more credibility. Having an agent, as you know, makes you more legitimate in Hollywood.”

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Barbara went on to become the story editor of the Pax/NBC series, Mysterious Ways. Another young writer, Hugh Stebakov, went from an unknown student at Ithaca College and UCLA’s MFA program to a sold writer with a screenwriting contest win along the way, The Philadelphia City Screenwriting Contest. Hugh’s script made it through the mountain of scripts to get that win … nearly 6,000 according to one estimate. But 6,000 scripts? Come on. Compare that to the “under 100 entries” in the Goldwyn contest, the premier contest offered by the Samuel Goldwyn company to students of the University of California system. The odds of breaking in, if you happen to be amongst the winners of the Goldwyn are estimated at well over 80 percent. Only a handful of the winners actually sell a script that wins the contest, but the newly acquired status, the contacts made through the win, and the confidence gained from the win actually helps these writers stick with the business long enough to succeed in their careers.

Hollywood is a “numbers” game. It’s all about the numbers and writers have to think about the “numbers” game, too: How much does it cost compared to how much it will bring in? How much will you gain by putting out between $30 and $50 per entry in contests that are prestigious but have thousands of entries compared to the bigger dollars needed to take classes and face perhaps 50 or fewer entries in a contest that gives equal publicity? That’s a tough one. What do you get in the former? Well, you might become a Motion Picture Academy member if you win the Nicholl contest, and you can vote for the Oscars®. Oh, and there is that grand prize for up to five winners. You might even break in. BUT you cannot enter if you have earned more than $25,000 in film writing. What if you have been out of the mainstream for a few years and want new validation? It’s not going to happen if you have made a little money by writing scripts before. And I guarantee you, there are thousands of contestants you have to surpass to get that prestigious first-place vote. What are the odds you will get noticed after winning it? Terrific. What are the odds in winning? One in six to 10,000.

Compare that to the odds of winning one of the little screenwriting contests with publicity that guarantees you the same kinds of phone calls from agents and producers? Perhaps one in 50 or one in 100. UCLA Extension’s Diane Thomas Award used to be sponsored by DreamWorks. You could be assured that somebody at that studio would read one of the winning scripts. Generally there were no more than 300 entries. All of these scripts had been mentored by a professional writer while being written in one of the classes. Do the math … one in 300 compared to one in 6,000.

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This isn’t to say that you should not enter the Nicholl, the Chesterfield, the Chris Columbus, the Austin and a slew of other wonderful contests that can thrust your work into the limelight. Disney offers a $30,000 (give or take) fellowship to its winners. I say, go ahead, enter that contest … but don’t forget the smaller ones, and don’t forget the day-to-day workshopping that happens in the university classes to get your scripts in tip-top shape.

Take a class. Spend the $200 to $400 dollars to get your script in the kind of shape where a Hollywood agent would WANT to handle it once they read it … and then submit to a writing contest where you have an incredible chance of winning if you have done your homework right. In addition, your script may generate interest with the agents, writers or producers who are reading all the entries, even if it doesn’t win. When the pool is small enough, a good script will get noticed even if it doesn’t win.

In UC Riverside screenwriting competition, an agent who read the final group of scripts remarked with amazement at the quality of the scripts. He noted that every single script was better than most of the scripts that come across his desk from credited writers. He was ecstatic with the quality, and he invited all of the finalists to call him to discuss their work and/or representation. Those invitations are priceless.

Finally, when you consider the price of getting a good “read” in town, classes with contests are a bargain. A top script doctor reader will charge around $1,000 to read and give notes, perhaps up to $5,000. You could get a whole year’s workshopping for that … and two or three good “tickets” into that “little” contest that could change your life.

About This Author
Judy Burns' credits include writer-producer credits on shows such as Star Trek, Mission Impossible, The Six Million Dollar Man, Ironside, Magnum P.I., Knight Rider, T.J. Hooker, MacGyver, Airwolf and countless other shows as well as several pilots for TV. She has taught undergraduate and graduate classes at UCLA, Ithaca College, UC Irvine and UC Riverside as well as seminars in writing around the world. She consults on scripts for studios and professionals in Hollywood and is working on two books, Star Trek and the Craft of Screenwriting and Fixing Your Script.

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