If you are a screenwriter, you can probably name a dozen of these contests off the top of your head. In reality, there are over 100 held every single year; some are stalwarts with built-in fan bases within Hollywood, some are start-ups looking to find great material, and some are worth avoiding entirely. There are several websites, including the fantastic MovieBytes.com, which can tell you the pros and cons of each individual competition. The question is, what happens if you win or place highly in a screenplay contest? What can you expect from such an honour and, most importantly, how much do contests really help unproduced writers?
It’s important to note that no contest guarantees untold riches to competing writers. For the most part, winning one garners you the following: a cash prize (the size of which can vary greatly); some sponsored gifts (screenwriting software, for example); and a promise to send your script, synopsis, or log line out to that contest’s particular set of industry contacts.
A contest win gives you that little bit of clout that everyone is searching for. This is Hollywood. Every little bit helps.
Those are the tangible benefits of winning a contest. First and foremost, you get well-deserved money for your writing. It may not be a check from Universal Studios, but it’ll do just fine. And you get your script publicised and pitched to production companies and agencies—many companies that you otherwise would not be able to get to read your material. Admittedly, that all sounds impressive, but what do all of those things mean for you? The answer is… complicated.
Before I continue, I want to point out the differences between screenwriting contests and fellowships. Contests are what we will be covering here because there is no debate about fellowships; you should apply to all of them. Most screenwriting fellowships are offered by actual film studios like Disney or Nickelodeon who offer several each year, all involving large cash prizes that allow you to take time out from your ‘day job’ and write full time.
The biggest fellowship of all is, of course, the Nicholl Fellowships. Given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Nicholl is the most prestigious honour an amateur screenwriter can obtain. Past winners include Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and Ehren Kruger (Transformers), among others. The Nicholl is looked upon with such honour that even making the quarter or semi-finals can often result in agents and managers trying to contact you. If you deem yourself ready for a career in screenwriting, you should be applying to the Nicholl every year. The competition is fierce, but the rewards are massive.
While the benefits of fellowships speak for themselves, however, the waters of screenwriting contests are rather more murky. The harsh reality is that winning one does little for your writing career. Winning a competition and having your script fast-tracked by a studio is a road that no one has travelled; yours is unlikely to be the first. So if you enter a contest, do so with realistic scenarios in mind.
Let’s get back to the lists of production companies, agencies, and management companies that most contests promise to pepper with your winning screenplay. It’s usually a mixed bag. Most contests post the companies on their websites, so be sure to check for quality. If they aren’t posted, that’s a major red flag. I used to work for a company that ran two major competitions. There was one film studio on our list, about a dozen major production companies (meaning these companies had deals set up with one of the major studios), and the rest were independent companies who are less picky when it comes to submissions. Most contests will have similar lists. There isn’t one out there that is likely to reach all the major studios or get you in the offices of the big agencies like CAA or William Morris. So once again, it’s all about your expectations. If that’s what you are hoping to get for your $50 entry fee, then you’re better off keeping it in your pocket.
Here’s a possible—and realistic—outcome if you win or place highly in a contest: you will get meetings. The content of those meetings will probably include some form of the sentence, ‘your script is not commercial enough’. But that’s nothing to get discouraged about; that’s just a sad reality of being a screenwriter. Not every idea is a golden one. Before you deem contests unworthy based on just getting a few meetings, ask yourself this: how many meetings did you have scheduled before you entered that contest?
So, are screenwriting contests ultimately worth it? To me, they are—but do your homework. In the unlikely event that you have enough spare money lying around to enter every single competition under the sun, you will need to pick and choose a few that fit your story best. Some contests are clear about that: they are genre-based. If you’re looking to just enter the big ones like BlueCat, PAGE, or Scriptapalooza, that’s fine, but also know that those are the ones with the most entrants.
The bottom line is this: though nothing is guaranteed, and you should proceed with managed expectations, don’t allow that to be a deterrent from entering contests. It all goes back to standing out. If an executive has to go through a pile of scripts and one of those is your winner, which do you think he will gravitate to? Your story still needs to pass a myriad of litmus tests from there, but your contest win gives you that little bit of clout that everyone is searching for. This is Hollywood. Every little bit helps.•