Screenplay competitions and Coverage AgenciesComplications Ensue
Complications Ensue:
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Thursday, June 04, 2015

A reader hired me to take a look at his query letter, which is something I do. A couple of paragraphs of the letter was about the story. The rest was listing screenplay competitions his script has been a finalist in, or a semi-finalist, or a quarter-finalist; and then listing positive comments that "coverage agencies" have given.

It's been a long time since I've been without representation, so maybe I am off base here. If you are a development executive, and you think coverage agencies and screenplay competitions are the cat's pajamas, please let me know. 'Cause I don't think they are.

Coverage agencies may provide a useful critique for writers just starting out. They can point out obvious flaws. But they are not professional readers in the industry sense. An industry reader gets paid by someone who wants to know which scripts he or she should buy. The reader provides a commercial judgement: this is or isn't something that I see our company developing.

Who is doing this coverage? This is a problem common to both industry readers and coverage agency readers. By the time anyone knows anything about critiquing scripts, they're not a script reader any more. At least, not a $50 one. Even my young friend Tommy Gushue charges a multiple of that for his excellent notes. You might get someone just out of film school. You might get someone who's in a film program at university.

Moreover, a coverage agency is hired by the writer. So they are going to tend to be really polite about the scripts they're hired to read. So I would never include a coverage agency's feedback in your query letter.

Meanwhile, a whole raft of screenwriting competitions have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain. As I've been saying in this blog since its inception, there is only one screenplay competition that really counts. It's called "getting your movie made." Entry fees are free. You just send queries to agents and producers, and if they like your ideas, they read your script, and if they like your script, they give you money.

There is, yes, the famous Blacklist, which is a poll of development executives on what they think is this year's best unproduced script. But that is not a competition you can enter. You have to already have an agent getting the right development execs reading your script. (There is also a website called The Blacklist, which has to do with scripts, but it is not the same thing at all, though I think it's the same people.)

All it takes to set up a screenwriting contest is a website. You make up a name, market a bit, and watch the money roll in. If you can get 1000 people to send in their scripts and pay a $50 entry fee, well, you have $50,000. I could probably winnow 1000 scripts down to 100 in a week. Hint: I'm skimming the first three pages. Takes about a minute or two, so I could, say, 25 in an hour with coffee breaks. If they don't sing, the script goes in the recycle bin.

The surviving 100 scripts might take another week to go through, because I've already trashed the really obviously bad ones. Maybe I read two or three an hour. Oh, who am I kidding. I read the first ten pages. Takes about six minutes. So I  can read ten an hour. Ten hours, all in.

Now I've got ten scripts to read. Takes maybe a week to read them carefully and think about them. (It's really the thinking about them that takes the time. I read a script in 30-40 minutes.)

Hey, now I've made $50,000! Oh, sure, I could hire a "jury" and pay them something, and get them to do the winnowing for me. And marketing costs time if nothing else.

Oh, I probably have a $5,000 prize, and some runner up prizes, so I've really only made about $40,000, but still, not bad for a couple weeks' work. Too bad I can only have a competition two or three times a year, four at most, before I lost all credibility.

In case you're wondering: the reason I've never done this, in spite of having a couple of successful screenwriting books and a blog, is because I'd hate myself.

The point I'm trying to make is: what makes a screenplay competition legit? The people at the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition or Reel Writers or whatever may be very nice people, and they may have a passion for good screenwriting. But what qualifies them? What keeps absolutely anyone from setting up a screenplay competition?

There are legit screenplay competitions. They are associated with legit organizations. The Nicholls is the big one. It is run by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The Writers Guild of Canada has the Jim Burt Prize for the best un-optioned script. But legit competitions are few and far between. Maybe the Austin Heart of Film Festival?

And here's the big problem:  I think most of these evaluate scripts in terms of the reader experience. Is it a good read, the way a novel is a good read? Is it a movie they enjoy imagining?

As opposed to an agent reading your script, whose sole question is: can I sell this? And a producer, who is thinking can I get this made?

So a successful competition screenplay may be a movie that, in the abstract, might be interesting. It would get you an A+ in your film writing class. But it is not necessarily the kind of screenplay that is going to get optioned, set up, packaged and made.

Successful competition screenplays, I suspect, tend to be well written. Successful spec scripts have a great hook. Great execution is a plus, but it is not a requirement. Snakes on a Plane was not a spectacularly well written script, or even a good movie, but it got made. So Snakes on a Plane was a great spec. I doubt it would have won any screenplay competitions.

So, yeah: if you want to pay for critiques to make your script better, by all means, do it, especially if you don't know any good readers. (There are very few good readers.) Hire Tommy Gushue, or Victoria Lucas, or even me if money is no object. I would not recommend spending money to get positive coverage from a coverage agency; I don't think it will help. Do not spend money so you can say that your script is a "quarter-finalist" in the Bridges of Madison County Screenplay Competition and a "semi-finalist" at the Overlook Hotel Screenplay Convention. I don't think the industry puts too much stock in those things.

Get your writing to agents and producers. And go and write. Once you're good, you'll option something, and then sell something, and then something will get made. That's the real prize. 


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