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Most contest readers are story analysts for film companies and agencies, where deadlines are just 24 to 48 hours. Hand me a thousand-page book and you want a five-page report, with an accurate synopsis, by tomorrow morning? No problemo! Frankly, having months to read, say, 200 contest scripts, where all I have to do is write a very brief summary of each, check off a few ratings, and then vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, feels like a nice, relaxing vacation in Barbados compared to the detailed reports and tight deadlines I’m used to. Of course, I’m exaggerating. But no story analyst worth his salt will even break a sweat at having to read large numbers of screenplays and make decisions rapidly. We know what we are looking for. It’s lots of experience reading scripts that enables us to do this job efficiently and accurately. THIS IS WHAT WE DO.
Contrary to myth, contest readers do NOT read scripts quickly. We only read the bad scripts quickly. Having read thousands of scripts over a period of many years, we know how to spot potential excellence right away. Once we do, we SLOW WAY DOWN and read even more carefully.
As a screenwriter, you should be entering screenwriting contests to further your career. The reason for that is not necessarily to try and win a cash prize. It is to make significant contacts that can lead you to your ultimate goal of selling your scripts.
There are contests that you should enter and many more that you should avoid. There are now hundreds of screenwriting contests that are out there. Many have become moneymaking propositions for the people who are running them rather than opportunities for new writers to launch their careers.
I would not recommend that you enter any contest because of the allure of possibly winning a cash prize. Money should not be the motivating factor for your submissions. Contests that offer a cash prize, software, or a screenplay analysis as the top prize should be passed over.
The contests that you want to submit to are those that offer referrals and contacts to industry professionals such as producers, agents, or managers. At this stage in your writing development, meeting and working with industry decision makers trumps any other outcome.
The best website for screenwriting contests is Moviebytes.com. Contests are broken down by various categories such as Most Significant, Upcoming, Festival Contests, TV Contests, Production Company/Agency Contests, etc. I would visit their site and determine which type of contest is best for you to enter. Make sure that you read the eligibility requirements carefully and that you follow their submission guidelines and filing dates to the letter.
Beyond winning and losing, it depends on you.
With the allocation of time required for reading guidelines, financial resources for entry fees, and research required to identify the best contests, writers can find themselves investing more time on entering contests than on writing. While the wrong approach to contests can be counter-productive, a win (or even an honorable mention) can often be better for furthering a writer’s career than a hundred query letters sent to the executive inbox abyss.
One of the main reasons industry people are hesitant to read unsolicited material is because they fear wasting time. Since no one they know vouched for you, the assumption is not that you don’t have the contacts but that you don’t have a strong piece of work.
Unless an insider they respect has said, “You have to read this script. This writer is someone you need to know now,” it’s difficult for executives and representatives to believe quality will be on display when they read your script. The first “This writer’s awesome!” is the hardest to attain. Once people respond to your work enough to vouch for you, the positive endorsements snowball. A contest win can be that first step toward legitimacy.
One example of what a contest can do for you is the story of Tyler Marceca who I coached during the third run of the Industry Insider Contest for The Writers Store. Based on winning the contest and the feedback we provided, Tyler felt confident enough to submit his script The Disciple Program to the popular Script Shadow blog. The script was reviewed by blog host Carson Reeves as part of the site’s amateur Friday and became the first amateur script to ever break the blog’s top twenty list, landing in the top five, which generated a buzz all over the industry. Tyler was able to parlay that buzz into representation from Anonymous Content and William Morris Endeavor, and the script was bought by Universal after Mark Wahlberg became attached.
Sometimes you don’t even have to win the contest. Industry pros are usually judges for the upper level contests and entering your script may be your best chance of having it read by someone in a position to help get it sold. Even if you don’t win.
Larry Brenner, a third place finalist in the 2010 running of Final Draft Big Break Contest, impressed a contest judge enough that even though Brenner’s script didn’t win, the judge—a high-power studio executive—decided to help him get it to market. The executive developed the script further with Brenner, helped him acquire representation, and eventually set up the project at Roth Films and Universal. Brenner has continued to generate industry heat and recently sold a pitch to Disney.
One of my scripts was a quarterfinalist for the Academy Nicholl Fellowships last year and when the contest results were posted in the Fall, my inbox was bombarded by different management and production companies asking for my script’s logline and those of any other scripts I’d written that might be a good fit for their company. This is just another example of what a contest can do for you: Instead of you sending out queries, the queries come to you. The farther your script advances in the contest, the more requests you’ll have.
Another option is to enter the script into as many contests as you can, whether big or small. Strong scripts sent to smaller competitions may have a distinct advantage, as a lot of other writers do not submit to lesser-known contests. The smaller contests offer the potential benefit that you can run away with several wins in a row and the accumulation of victories can look good for your credentials. At least it shows that many people respond to your material and that the material surpasses many of its competitors. Two clients of mine employed this method and both have found themselves being contacted by companies interested in making their scripts and looking for new writers to hire on other projects.
I recommend getting as much feedback from trusted sources as possible on the script before you make the investment of submitting to contests. One way to gain feedback is the ScriptXperts at The Writers Store. It will give you an idea of what an experienced reader has to say about your script in terms of strengths and weaknesses and will provide creative options for raising the material to the next level.
The odds of winning a contest are better than winning the lotto so why not go all in. If you believe in your script, don’t have contacts, need more contacts, or could just use some validation, then contests are a way to pad your brand as a writer and push forward your career. A win could change your life. The prize packages aren’t so bad either.