In the last year I’ve won some screenwriting contests (Pillage Hollywood, New Century Writer finalist) and lost some (Slamdance, American Accolades) and entered about a dozen others. The scripts are now in revisions based on feedback either from the contests themselves or producers who requested copies of the screenplay. When I was asked to write this article I found myself facing the same questions that I had when I finished my first screenplay and didn’t know what the hell to do with it. It’s a daunting task, especially when you’re trying to lead someone else in the right direction.
On that note, here’s my guide to the funhouse commonly referred to as the screenplay writing competition. Check your height, fears, and spare change at the door, kids, as this hall of mirrors ride is an ever-changing reflection of the biz.
Choosing the right ride
There are a lot of contests out there and each one will cost you. You’ll pay for copying your script. You’ll pay for postage. And since most competitions an charge an entry fee of $30 to $60 you’ll pay just to be considered for the crown. (Most competitions have early bird specials for entrants who send their scripts in before a specified deadline.) Unless you have a magic piggy bank full of infinite funds, you’ll want to target the competitions looking for your specific type of script. If you’re into gore, look for those contests out for blood, literally. There’s simply no use in laying out hard-earned, easily burned cash at Kinko’s only to send in a copy of your script to a group of people looking for the next Titanic or A Beautiful Mind if your script is more along the lines of Memento.
There are a couple of different types of organizations throwing these contests: film festivals, writing competitions, media centers, some schools, production houses, and most of the major studios. If the piece you’re sitting on revolves around a two-hour conversation between friends or the less glamorous sides of life and skips the happy ending, you might want to save the extra postage and pass on the Disney competition for one of the more autonomous options. If your script is running long or short, you also might want to steer clear of competions sponsored by companies that specialize in films with action figure tie-ins. Find the proper nest for your potential nest egg.
Buying your ticket
Aside from the masochists out there, I’m assuming you wouldn’t willingly get involved in a relationship with nothing better to offer than a bruised ego and barren pockets. Therefore, it only makes sense to find out a little bit as to what to expect from “winning,” and in some cases even “losing,” a particular screenwriting competition. In other words, check into the benefits damnit!
With all the time and money you’re investing you’d better know what’s in it for you. Some competitions don’t hand out jack-squat unless you’re deemed worthy of the top accolade, and others will provide praise/suggestions/criticism for the price of admission. You might even score some dough. But if it happens that there’s a production promise hidden in the ol’ rules and regulations, make sure you’re not selling something that could be worth a pretty penny down the road, for a wooden nickle now.
Frederick Mensch of moviebytes.com, a site that lists several hundred of these contests a year says, “When writers ask me for advice on this topic, I urge them remember what they’re hoping to accomplish. Some writers want feedback on their scripts, and in that case they should be sure the contests they’re entering offer feedback to all contestants, and not just winners. Others want exposure to the industry at large, and in that case they should enter contests with an established track record for publicizing their winners, and at the same time they should probably stay away from contests sponsored by production companies, since those folks are presumably looking for their own material, and not material for the rest of the industry.”
Addresses reveal a lot, and the last I checked, there wasn’t much filmmaking going on in Geronimo, Texas. Cred is important. It’s probably one of the major things you’re hoping to get out of a contest. It only takes a bit of common sense and research to figure out which contests are worth the time, effort, and loose coins under your futon mattress. Many well-known film festivals now promote their own screenwriting competitions and dole out various prizes, from labs to readings to everything in between. Since production houses usually hold contests in order to increase script flow, remember to pay attention to what you may get out of it, and what they’ll get. Look into their past work. If Abbie Does Albany is listed as their latest output, you should probably steer clear, unless you’re writing a porn script. According to Peter Scott, director of the American Accolades competition, “One specific way to see if a competition is legit: Find out who judges their material. The next thing to check is who runs the competition and how long the competition has been running. Longer = better.”
Being named a finalist or actually winning one of the more prestigious competitions can get your name, and more importantly your script noticed, but be aware of the company you keep. Contests that ask you to pay extra for them to push your script probably aren’t reputable and most people in the business will know it. All your money will buy is an association with a group of people who don’t have your best interests at heart and are only looking at their bank account. Those 120 pages of text you laid down shouldn’t be wasted on fifteen minutes or less of fame. “In my opinion, no competition should charge a fee for ‘introducing’ a writer to Hollywood. That should be one of the free perks that comes with the entry fee. Ideally the competition has ties to the entertainment industry and can link screenwriters to executives during the course of competition,” Scott explains.
Like everything else in life you have to be pragmatic and read the small print.
Read the posted rules before entering
It doesn’t matter if your script is the cinematic second coming of Hamlet, if you don’t submit your work in the competition’s format, it might as well be labeled “Forward to Wastebasket.” Every competition has their own R&R. If you thought I was referring to Rest & Relaxation, you should pay particular attention to the specifications section of every entry form, also known as rules and regulations. Submitting a script without the requested font size, bind number, page limit, and title page can tip off the jury that you’re an amateur and that you didn’t take the contest seriously enough to send in a properly formatted entry. It’s all in the details, so show a little respect for the bug-eyed intern sifting through all those scripts. Yes, it takes extra time to put together differently formatted scripts for every competition, but it’s a bigger waste of time to send out a script that will spend more time bumping nasties with last night’s takeout than on somebody’s desk, because it didn’t follow the specifications. This is one case in which conformity is your friend. The amount of time you’ll spend reading the rules and regulations and reformatting your script is another good reason to target your submissions rather than sending out your masterpiece to every competition you can find.
Other areas to pay special attention to are the logline and synopsis requests. The logline is the sentence under the title encapsulates the movie. Pulp Fiction’s logline was “Three stories about one story,” followed by a definition for “pulp.” The synopsis gives you a page to do pretty much the same thing. It may sound easy to wrap up your story in a page or mere sentence, but try it. Studios have entire sections of their marketing departments working on these things. It will take you some time and effort to come up with something that works. This is a good activity to enlist the help of a trusted friend or two. The logline’s got to convey the idea of the film while at the same time sounding witty and tight enough to sell a greeting card. And not your mother’s hallmark. Your first efforts will probably be more akin to an unfortunate advertising campaign than the clever tag you hope to see gracing the poster of your movie some day.
As for a synopsis, keep it simple but let your personal style and passion for the narrative come through. Don’t write a whole treatise on your screenplay. The work should sell itself. Keep your writing tight and clear. It’s not a great idea to use overly flowery language in this exercise either. And since later this same synopsis will be what the money guys are most interested in, catering to short attention spans is most advised. More than likely, your first draft will be a few thousand words over the single page limit most festivals impose. Just treat it like any other writing: Trim it. Edit it. Distill it, until it’s as strong as it can be. This is your cover letter; give yourself to time to get it right.
Riding the ride
There it is, an e-mail or a letter printed on an official stationary: Your script, “TITLE,” has been singled out of all the other sweat squeezing scribbles for recognition. Screw all those who said, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Your prayers have been answered. Bright lights, big city, here you come.
Whoa, Nellie! Not so fast. If you’ll remember, a couple of hundred words ago I mentioned you’ve got to approach this whole deal a little more pragmatically than a starry-eyed contestant gazing at the goodies behind door number one. Know what to expect from winning. The likelihood of Daddy Warner-Bucks knocking on your door the next day and begging for your script, is slim to none. This ain’t no charity ball, even if you are wearing a crown.
If you were hoping to get an agent as part of your prize package, think again. While a few contests actually guarantee representation, most only promise to grant you “consideration for representation” as a prize. “I can’t imagine any really good agent wasting their time on a project they didn’t like just because it was the winner of a contest. Winning a contest is no guarantee of an agent’s enthusiasm, and that’s really what you need,” Mensch comments. “What happens to scripts that win contests? It really depends on the script and the contest. In many cases nothing at all happens, but in others writers can win the exposure they need to start their careers.”
The most proactive thing to do is make some edits, make some more edits, then start shopping your script around. Go ahead and tell your mama. She’ll probably provide the most word-of-mouth out there. Even a quick write-up to your alma mater wouldn’t hurt. But ride the wave without expecting someone else to do the surfing. Self-promotion never hurt anybody. Hell, look at Anna Nicole Smith! Okay, perhaps a bad example, but what I want to make clear is you can make yourself hot. And you can use a contest to help you sizzle, but you have to do it.
Don’t bask in the glory too long—write another! “What’s next?” will be the first question of any legit inquirer.