Every year thousands of aspiring writers submit their TV and film scripts to dozens upon dozens of fellowships, workshops and contests (including our own). There is no secret formula to “win” any of these uber-competitive programs — but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a chance. Lucky for you, we wrangled some advice from the VIP’s who run four highly sought-after screenwriting programs. Director of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Greg Beal, Screenplay/Teleplay Director Austin Film Festival Matt Dy, Manager of Warner Bros. Television Workshop Rebecca Windsor, and Executive of Entertainment Diversity Initiatives for NBC Entertainment Grace Moss spoke at the Austin Film Festival about how to approach these competitions and what they look for in their respective programs. Here are 7 key points to consider.
Pick your spec wisely
This should be a given, but it’s a very crucial point that all the TV panelists pushed. More than that, try not to get caught up in trends. Dy says that each year there’s trends when it comes to specs. This year wasn’t any different and Dy said that The Americans was over-spec’d. Perhaps it’s good to choose something in your wheelhouse that everyone isn’t doing to stand out.
However, Windsor said she doesn’t mind reading the same spec over and over again. She’d rather do that than read something obscure and unfamiliar that she would have to spend time researching.
The new kind of comedy
Windsor points out that comedies are starting to take on new shapes. Shows like Master of None and Transparent are put in the drama category at the Warner Bros. Workshop because they are dramedies. They are funny, but they don’t match the brand of a Warner Bros. comedy like Big Bang Theory, so to put a Master of None-type writer in that writer’s room wouldn’t be a fit. Something to consider when choosing your writing style.
In addition to typos and general syntax errors, Moss stresses to make your spec scripts sound like the show — something that is a problem more often than not.
And to no surprise, make sure your comedy makes people laugh. Windsor says there are many times that she hasn’t chuckled when reading a spec. “If I’m not laughing, it hasn’t done its job,” she adds.
Importance (or unimportance) of formatting
“When scripts look like scripts, they most likely won’t be a good script,” sayas Beal. “Good writing is what matters…good storytelling is what matters.”
Yes, formatting is important, but there are instances when the rules can be bent — especially if the writing is really good.
Beal says that when they received Mike Rich’s script for Finding Forrester in 1998, everything about the formatting was terrible — but it was beautifully written. It ended up earning Rich the Nicholl Fellowship and the script was sold to Sony.
“Structure is less important than voice,” says Windsor.
“If content is great, format can be taught,” adds Moss.
Diverse is open to all
Despite what people may think, Moss says that NBC Universal’s Writer’s on the Verge program is open to everyone, not only to people of diverse backgrounds.
“We are not only looking at ethnicity,” says Moss. “We are looking for what kind of diverse perspective a screenwriter could bring to the story.”
Voice is paramount
All four panelists agree that you should never take voice for granted. Voice and style make a screenplay and as Dy points out, a writer’s job is to tell a story. More than that, its a tool to alter existing stories.
“Every story has been told,” says Windsor. “You have to ask yourself, ‘how am I going to make this unique?'”
Moss adds, “You have to incorporate your own voice into a common story to make it memorable.”
Beal uses the example of Hemingway and Faulkner and their different ways of telling their war stories. “It’s their voice — it has nothing to do with their story — it’s their style.”
Be ready to win
Go into each competition, workshop, and contest, there is a possibility that you will win. Surprisingly, some people aren’t prepared for that kind of responsibility.
“We’ve had winners that weren’t ready — some win and then go home and never find success in screenwriting,” says Beal of the Nicholl Fellowship. “The winners need to know what they want to do is write. Those are the people who are more likely to be successful.”
Dino-Ray Ramos| Staff Writer
For more of our coverage of the 2016 Austin Film Festival, click here.