Screenwriting Contests: 5 Ways to Use Them In Your Career

1When it comes to contests, you may have noticed that there are countless screenwriting contests or script competitions that promise a great deal about the difference they could make in your career if you enter them.  The sheer number and variety of these contests can be overwhelming if you really start looking around.

In this article, I am going to give you some guidelines on choosing whether to enter them, and if you do choose to, how to determine which ones are  best for you.

First of all, should you enter them?  The industry has mixed feelings about them – some like them and others, like the late Blake Snyder wrote in his “Save the Cat” screenwriting book, think they’re a waste of time.

I personally think they’re fine to enter if you understand what’s really going on.  There is always a motivation behind the contest.  A contest is not just a contest, the sponsor has something else in mind – not always bad – but that’s a different article.

Suffice it to say that even if you win one of the top ones, it does not mean that you are going to have an immediate entre into Hollywood.  On the other hand, it might get you some extra attention if the producer of the contest really does pass it on to some Hollywood execs.

To help you sort them out, here are five ways to make the most of screenwriting contests.

1.  Know your goal as a writer before submitting.

First, realize that different contests can help you achieve different things as a writer.  If your goal is to get your first big break in Hollywood, then your best bet might be to enter only the biggest contests like the Nicholl Fellowship.

Other contests like the Samuel Samuel Goldwin Writing Awards Competition for Theater, Film and Television is geared more toward a large cash prize, but only University of California students are eligible.

The first step is to get clear on what you want to accomplish.

2.  Find out what contests will help you achieve that goal.

Once you know your goal, research which ones could best help you achieve it.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s “Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting” is the pretty much the Holy Grail for aspiring screenwriters if you’re looking for prestige.

On the other hand, if you are hoping for a “big sale,” look for contests who will pass it on to multiple production companies in Hollywood.

Other top contests with industry prestige include the Austin Film Festival’s screenplay competition and, on the TV side, the ABC/Disney Television Writing Fellowship (which rewards its winner with a one-year staff writer position and a $50,000 salary).  This one opens in the spring.

If you’re entering a major contest to truly try to give it your best shot and win it, then it’s important to make sure it’s the best it can be before you submit it to the contest.  You can do this by getting it analyzed.

James MillerWinner of the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition —  “Melody has an incredible talent for getting to the heart of a story and helping you target and improve specific weaknesses. The advice she gives through her Script Analysis and Critique services is honest, precise, and comes with a real understanding of the writing process.”

3.  Stay on top of your contest’s deadlines and guidelines

If contests are one of your screenwriting career strategies, keep a calendar of the various deadlines and entry fees for the ones you’re targeting.  They often have early entry fees that are lower than the standard or late fees.  Getting in early can add up to big savings.  Typically, “contest season” runs from after the holidays into late spring or early summer.

Also, make sure you are clear on what each contest’s guidelines for submission are.  You don’t want to get down to the wire on a deadline and suddenly realize you had to send a postmarked hard copy that day instead of an electronic or online version.

4.   Use contests as a way to see how you stack up against other writers.

A fringe benefit of screenwriting contests to your career is to see how you stack up against your competition – other writers.  Although a contest reader who just doesn’t “get” your script happens frequently, if you submit consistently and fail to reach even the quarterfinals, there may be issues with the script that need to be addressed in a rewrite.

On the other hand, if your script is reaching the semifinals or better on a regular basis, then it’s probably safe to say you’re on the right track.  Then it’s just a question of winning or placing in the right contest and using that to promote your work.

Although contests give you a general sense of how your script stacks up, they are not a reliable way to get specific feedback to develop your script.  Some contests are known to hire readers for $10 a script to review the entries, so someone at your level or even lower in skills may be reviewing it.

The important thing is to take contest feedback as a general guideline of how you’re doing, not the final word.  And if your purpose is to see how your script stacks up, don’t rely on just one contest,  enter at least two or three smaller ones.

5.  If you win or place, use that to make your bio and marketing sound good.

One final way to make the most of contests is that if you win, you can call your script an “award-winning drama,” or a Winner in the Comedy Division of xyz contest.  Although this won’t be super-impressive to a Hollywood exec, any time you can give them the sense that your script has been run through a valid filter and gotten a thumbs up, it can’t hurt to let them know.

In summary, screenwriting contests are one more way that you can take action as a screenwriter.  If you don’t have a wealth of industry contacts to draw upon, the best ones can potentially be one more way to get your foot in the door and get read.

Finally, just be realistic about what placing or winning even the top competitions can do for your career.  A win may provide you with some prize money or exposure to agents and managers, but you will still need to keep focused on marketing your script and making the most of that win, no matter what.