A Real Screenwriting Competition Believer - Complications Ensue
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Thursday, October 21, 2010

One Friend of the Blog is a strong believer in screenplay competitions, has participated in many and won / placed / shown repeatedly. As you know, I don't believe in screenplay competitions, except for the network fellowships and the Nicholls. So I asked him what he gets out of them.
Screenplay competitions help me in four ways.

1) They impose a motivational deadline on my writing. And if I miss a deadline, no producer's gonna fire me and/or come after me because I've been found in breach of contract.

2) If I place or win, they provide validation. Some argue it's validation of a lesser kind than finding a producer willing to purchase your work or hire you on assignment. I'm not entirely convinced that's true. I think we can all agree that any low-level producer/creative exec with a modicum of business sense and a strong desire to climb up the Hollywood ladder will shy away from material that isn't likely to be easily marketable or won't get teenagers to giddily hand out their parents hard-earned money over two or three weekends. If you've been to the movies lately, you'll know that financial success and quality don't correlate. So, kudos to the screenplay contests that purposely reward financially doomed projects.

3) I can get notes on my work at a discounted rate. Granted, since you do not control who reads or judges your work, sometimes you receive inane notes from readers who are clearly less experienced than you are. Oftentimes though, well-respected screenplay contests do provide useful feedback notes. I would even argue that there's still more value in receiving notes from newbie readers than the classic "not for us at this time" (a.k.a. the title of my newborn blog) you get from producers who say they read your work. At least ridiculous notes you can laugh at and choose to ignore. A generic PASS letter from an established producer will only leave you confused and wondering.

4) If, like me, you're still at a stage of your career where your best marketing tool remains the (infamous?) query letter, a long list of placement and wins provides for a dense, awe-inspiring paragraph in the middle of your one-pager.

I'm curious to hear why you're down on contests in general EXCEPT the Nicholls. If you've read the winners of the Nicholl Fellowships, you know that they're often heavy dramas, war movies, period pieces, westerns - in other words - material that is highly unlikely to be produced. I got more requests for my work by making the quarter-finals of the Nicholl Fellowships than all my other win and placements COMBINED, but the vast majority of those requests came from managers and agents who aren't established yet. My impression is that most of them haven't understood yet that the reason why you did well in the competition is NOT because you've written the most marketable script ever. So why aren't you also down on the Nicholls, the Holy Grail of screenwriting competitions we all aspire to win, but a contest that does not even provide feedback? And yes, I know of a few notable exceptions (Allison Anders, Ehren Kruger...) who managed a post-Nicholl Fellowships career.
As you say, making the quarter-finals of the Nicholls got you real attention. Imagine what winning it gets you?

There are a slew of screenplay competitions out there. I can't help thinking that most of them are money farms for their owners. Say it costs fifty bucks to enter. I can probably get a recent college student to give notes for thirty bucks. Or free, if I can find one to intern. Hey, I just made twenty bucks? Now all I have to do is get a couple thousand people to submit, and I've got $40,000. Pay out $7500 in prizes, and I've made my nut for the next six months, with almost no effort except putting up a website and sending out some publicity.

That's why there are so many screenplay competitions, I feel. And if there are 2000 entrants, how many quarter-finalists are there? How many finalists?

Ooh, what if I can get 10,000 entrants? I've made over $350,000! Can anyone out there tell me how many entrants these screenwriting competitions get, or what percentage of their fees go to awards?

(Why do I keep running down competitions! I should open one! Ah, well, too late now.)

How does an agent know that a screenplay that gets into the finals is a truly commercial script with a great hook? As opposed to a "good" script, whatever that means?

The problem with screenplay competitions is that the economics means that the people evaluating your scripts are probably kids right out of Harvard or USC, who think they know everything, and don't. Industry veterans don't read scripts for Scriptapalooza, so far as I know; unless, like this notorious competition reader, they don't have to do notes, and they can knock off 75 scripts in 3 hours.

In the real world, pros read scripts because they are looking to make money from selling them (agents) or producing them (producers). And if they like something, they option it. That's the real prize. Sending a query email to an agent or producer is free, and if they like your hook, they will read your script for free too.

I take your point about cheap critiques. The problem is, you get what you pay for. You're getting a critique from someone who just started reading scripts and has no idea what gets a movie made except what she sees in the theaters. They'll tell you something they read in Syd Field, or possibly even Alex Epstein. But do they know what they're talking about?

You'll get far, far better feedback by telling your story out loud to someone, anyone, off the top of your head. If they stick with you to the end, you've made the quarter finals. If they say they would totally pay money to see that on a screen, you're in the finals.

The Nicholls is different because it's run by the Academy and people take it seriously. I bet the readers are professionals. The network fellowships, Sundance, etc., are different because you don't get a prize, you get a job, and the people reading you are professionals.


UPDATE: As Tommy points out in the comments, there are various goodies that Telefilm Canada hands out that are based on your screenwriting, and obviously those are worth competing for -- e.g. the currently defunct Writers First and Feature It! programs, the CFC, Screenwriter's Bootcamp, NSI and so forth. There's a world of difference between culture grants -- where a taxpayer-funded cultural agency already has a big basket of goodies and they hire professionals to decide whom to hand them to, and there is no fee to enter -- versus screenwriting competitions, where all the money is coming from the fees, and the ultimate objective for the competition is either profit or brand publicity.

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5 Comments:

I agree and disagree with you, Alex. I think there are literally dozens of screenplay contests out there and many of them are there simply to make money. I also think there are more than two or three good, legitimate contests out there that employ judges who are well respected in the industry.

At the very least, winning or doing well in a contest, any contest, can give a writer a little validation in a profession that seems to have very little of that. Don't underestimate the importance of giving an aspiring writer an emotional boost. When you toil in obscurity and don't have the sale or optioning of a script to tell you that you know how to write, a contest win might help you.

And as already has been stated, having a win or placement in a contest or two, even if it's not one of the two or three big ones, tells whoever reading it that you do have talent.

As

By Blogger Tim W., at 7:40 PM  

Fair enough. When I was starting out, I got that from my agents and from producer responses to my material, and from people occasionally hiring me to do stuff. But if it helps, great. That's why I put up the post -- everyone's mileage varies.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:33 PM  

All valid points. I own www.coverageink.com and run the Cyberspace Open writing tournament for Creative Screenwriting, as well as our own Writers on the Storm screenplay competition. The reality is, however, that in four years of running WOTS we barely even cover costs. Our readers DO have to give feedback, which means we pay them a premium to read the whole screenplay (through three rounds), and the cost of advertising ($$$$) as well as the prize money ($10K for the winner and $11,200 total in our case), not to mention the sheer amount of man-hours to administrate, makes running a contest well very prohibitive.

That said, yes, there are vipers out there, and most competitions aren't worth their weight in dung. If you don't get feedback, don't waste your money. If they don't shop the scripts to the industry, don't bother. Right now I'm marketing last year's winners and so far we have gotten 50+ script requests from top companies. Who knows if any will hit gold. But we do it in the hope that someone WILL respond, that some of our folks will make connex and get traction, because that reflects well on us when it does. In that sense, our contest is basically a loss leader.

I don't know about the other contests out there, but that's my take on it all.

Jim Cirile
Coverage, Ink

By Blogger Admin, at 11:01 PM  

I have to say, I agree with Alex. I've won two contests, placed in a third, and spent a lot of money I could've saved for more important things.

The contests I won, I got feedback from (A live audience that had paid anywhere from $5 - $10 to be there, depending on the contest) that more often than not, undermined whatever validation I'd gotten from winning; In fact, it was downright discouraging. I began to wonder how it is my script won this contest in the first place, if there was so much wrong with it.

In my semifinal win, they told me I was in the running, and provided all the positive quotes, then when the winners were announced, they added the negative comments on top of that - LOSERRRR!

In a recent contest win, the feedback was split, people offering completely opposite advice on how to fix my script. In the end, the only notes I found really useful were from my friends (who are nit-pickers who spot plot holes as a hobby), and I could've gotten that for free.

Having a live reading however, does show you which jokes really work, which lines of dialogue are really awkward for actors to say, so there is some benefit there, but it works better with a multicamera sitcom script where it's pretty close to a play anyway.

By Blogger Gmajor, at 7:53 AM  

My career was (sort of) born from a competition win. And this was a tiny little competition out of Atlantic Canada. I made a great contact, and I was able to leverage the win into bigger things that all eventually combined to form a bigger break.

I won another competition that did absolutely nothing for my career, but it got me $1000 bucks in my pocket and it fills some space on my resume.

By Blogger tommy, at 6:39 PM  

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