Film & TV Writing Contests: Are They Worth the Price of Admission?

wheel of fortune

by Lew Ritter

Every few weeks, my email brings me a breathless announcement for a new or established screenplay competition. It proclaims in bold headlines, ‘Want to Break into Industry?” or “Looking for New Blood.” Can your ticket to fame and fortune be far behind?

There are literally dozens of screenplay competitions out there. Some of the most famous ones are the NICHOL FELLOWSHIP, SCRIPTAPALOOZA, AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL and of course, the contests run by our fearless leader Larry Brody. He runs two contests yearly, the PEOPLE’S PILOT and SPEC SCRIPTACULAR. Other worthy contest are run by various networks or studios.

There are other lesser known contests that deal exclusively with short films, comedy or horror scripts. The fees are reasonable. The fee is usually around sixty dollars per script. (EDITOR’S NOTE: The PEOPLE’S PILOT and SPEC SCRIPTACULAR are $50.) Sometimes, they offer reduced fees for early bird entries.

So, you breathlessly upload your work of art, pay your fee and hope to hear that you have been selected to be the grand prize winner. Usually, you have to wait a few months before receiving the results of the contest.

Promises, Promises

Many of the contests promise that your script will be read by “industry professionals” and winning gives you entry into the glamourous world of screenwriting. Some even promise the winners an all – expense paid week in Hollywood. Fame and fortune is just a click away. Who could resist?
In order to be fair about writing the article, I asked a sampling of writers that I had met over the past year about their contest experiences. The response from these writers, as they said on the old Shell Gas commercials was (YMMV) or “Your Mileage May Vary.” In short, the experience were varied, but enlightening.

The Reality behind the Glitz

My favorite contest promise is the offer of an all-expense paid trip to Hollywood with airfare and hotel included. In addition, some contests sweeten the pot and offer mentorship by famous executives for a year.

After entering the contest, it occurs to me, the odds against winning the grand prize is like winning the lottery. The contests receive hundreds or even thousands of submissions based on their reputation. Does the contest really have the financial backing to make good on it’s offer to pay for the trip to Hollywood? Unless they are sponsored by a company like Final Draft, do they have the resources to make good on their promises?

Another contest offers to “Table Read your Screenplay.” Does this mean that your script is read by professional actors? This sounds really enticing. However, who are the actors? Are they A- List actors, or just local actors making a few dollars? It is a sure bet that Tom Cruise doesn’t have spare time on his hands and goes looking for his next project.

The thing that bothers me about the lesser known contests are the unanswered questions, such as who are the industry professionals that the contest uses to read entries? Are they serious writers with credits or simply junior level assistants? Reading a script is a very time intensive effort. How much of the actual script do they read? How much money do these evaluators make, and how many scripts do they read? These are questions that probably remain unanswered.

Should you pay the extra fee for feedback? The catch is that it requires an additional fee. The unanimous opinion from the other writers is that extra feedback was a waste of money. The feedback tends to be of a general nature, and some might even miss the point of your script. In addition, the sheer volume of scripts precludes a serious in- depth analysis.

Many are answered, but few are called

If you examine the list of top finalist from many contests, you find many talented writers waiting for their big break. Even if you are a semi- finalist or place highly in the contest, there is no guarantee that at a later time someone else in the industry will read the script. Some contests promise to send out lists of winners or their loglines to entice industry people.

The writers feel that publicity from a contest win is highly over rated. Even if an industry professional receives your name or logline, how many take the time to read all of those loglines? How many will request your script? The best use for publicity gained will be as a calling card when you network with industry professionals.

A year from now, how many of these writers will have gained any significant in –roads in their careers? How many will have had the scripts optioned or gained representation? What happens if the list mentions only the top ten or twenty winners. Your script might have been number twenty one and doesn’t appear on the list. My guess is that only a fraction of the writers will gain any impact from a contest win.

Confessions of a Screenwriting Addict

Two years ago, I submitted a script called ‘”WHISTLEBLOWER.” to a script consultant that I used on a fairly regular basis. If I received the infamous “Pass” response, than it would have ended the journey right there. However, when I received her email, the critique of the script indicated “Consider with Revisions.”

It meant that she liked the script, but recommended some changes. I took her suggestions seriously and polished the script. Every few weeks, I re-submitted a revised draft to the consultant.

Several months later, I submitted it to “BREAKING DOWN THE WALLS” Thriller Screenplay competition. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my script became a finalist in one of their quarterly competitions. Later, I entered it in the AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL and became what they call a Second Rounder.

CONCLUSION

Some of the writers that I interviewed felt a contest win was helpful. They claimed that it got them optioned or gained representation. Others were less optimistic about contests. The one unanimous response was that it was best not to depend on the competition circuit for your career.

Having a script win or place in a contest gives you additional credibility as a writer and elevates you above the herd. Potential gatekeepers might be impressed and offer to read your script. However, there is no guarantee. Even after coming home from Austin, the response from cold calling and email queries to agencies and management companies was underwhelming. They still preferred to deal with writers with credits.

And yet, I have to admit, those finishes made me feel so good….They truly were inspirational, a step up or two up the ladder, a couple of notches in the belt. It makes me smile to think that even though I’m not taking a free trip on the Yellow Brick Road to the fabled city of Oz Hollywood, I’m heading in the right direction, and instead of fading out, my writing is…to be continued.