So you want to be a Screenwriter. You buy your screenwriting software, you read a book or two, or maybe go to a bunch of movies and take notes, and you sit down and crank out a piece of writing that you think is worthwhile. But even if you have Hollywood connections, getting someone of import to read your work is difficult — more so if you have no connections at all — which leaves you wondering, Now what?
After looking into it a little, you make the decision to send it off to a writing contest to ensure that someone gives it a read and responds to you. You pony up the entrance fee and send it off into the void, then sit back and wait. Ideally, you do this several times, figuring that the more places you’re entered, the better the chances that something positive will happen. Basic statistics, really. And it’s a good plan because it means you’ll get it in front of someone who might help.
Once you’ve sent it in, what can you expect? Well, each one is different, of course, and what your goals are definitely matter. For instance, if you’re looking to make some money, while that’s not a recommended source of regular income, there are literally dozens of smaller contests sponsored by second and third tier film festivals all across the land (just taking one, for an example: win the Vail Film Festival Screenplay Competition and get a check for $1500 and a round trip ticket to the festival). But if it’s access you want, as well as the feedback, the first thing you want to do is some research as to what might be the best fit for your project.
If you’re trying to break into the studio system, you’ll want something like the Universal Pictures Emerging Writers Fellowship, which is designed to identify and cultivate new and unique voices with a passion for storytelling. Emerging writers who are chosen to participate in the program will work exclusively with the studio over the course of a year to hone their skills, essentially offering writers a chance to learn via the system, like in the old days of Hollywood.
On the other hand, if you want some actual feedback for your work, win or lose, you might turn to something like the Austin Film Festival competition, in which all entrants receive free “reader comments,” a brief, overall summary of their notes. As an added bonus, for the top 10 to 15 percent of each category who at least make it to the second round, there are further comments from an additional two or three readers. They also send both postal mail and e-mail notifications to ensure everyone knows their placement in the competition.
One other thing you’ll want to do is check out the types of scripts that have won past contests. Some competitions push for more indie-oriented, edgier fare, while others focus on commerciality, so it depends entirely on which direction suits your strengths. The constant for judging, of course, is the quality of the writing itself, but to believe that good writing and an idea that lacks mainstream appeal or a general commerciality will get you where you want to be is probably unrealistic. The simple truth is, while beautiful writing might win you a contest, it’s the combination that will make industry professionals sit up and take notice.
But let’s come back to that. First and foremost, there are the inner workings of the contest itself. Obviously, each one is different, but talk to a few people who run them, and you’ll find that the same general process applies across the board, so for an example, we’ll take a look at the Launch Pad, and the way it handles your work.
Launch Pad is a medium-sized competition, with an average of between 1,500 and 2,000 submissions each year (for point of comparison, the Nicholls Fellowship is usually around 7,000). Each script is read blind, with no names attached, by a paid roster of professional readers. In fact, that’s where the lion’s share of your entry fee goes, to pay the very people who will be reviewing your work.
Once a single reader has read it and scored it, that judgment is filed and another reader gets a crack at it, without knowing who the other reader was, nor his or her score of the material in question. After a second reading, there’s a cumulative score and the script is ranked. For an additional charge, all writers have the option to receive feedback notes on their script, generally a page or two of notes, otherwise, the commentary and scoring are for internal use only.
This occurs over the course of about four months, after which the list of submissions is whittled down to 75 scripts that reach the second round. It’s at this juncture that entrants who have reached this point get a notice from the competition, telling them of their achievement and that the competition will now make an effort to match their work with industry reps who might be able and willing to take them on as clients.
The list is then narrowed from 75 to 50 (the quarterfinals) to 25 (semifinals) to a final 10. During this process, the judges change from the paid readers who must wade through the hundreds of entries, to a group of industry professionals who volunteer to narrow the list down even further, until there are just three works remaining. Those three, in the end, are the winners.
While the intricacies might differ, this process is pretty standard for a major competition, which means that, with this in mind, you’ll know what to expect. But there’s another side to it that is just as important to the success of your career, no matter how you fare in whichever contest you might enter.
For years now, novice filmmakers and new writers have been making the same mistake: they spend so much time and focus on one particular project, they don’t prepare themselves for what might happen once that project gets some notice. This was the case 20 years ago, when I first ventured into the film industry, and it’s the case now. I mentioned above that it’s the combination of writing quality and commercial prospects which is key, but the thing is, the latter isn’t nearly as important for competition purposes. On the contrary, your contest submission can be the edgiest thing to come down the pike since David Lynch broke into the business, as long as it’s well written. The key is to have something else to go with it that will make those producers and reps keen on your work.
Quality is great, but let’s not forget that this is, first and foremost, a business, and no matter how active a manager or agent might be, they are purely interested in selling you and your wares. The easier you make it for them, the higher the likelihood that you’ll get a quality rep to help your career. Countless are the times when reps will pass on talented writers simply because they don’t think the writer’s commercial prospects are worth the considerable time they’ll need to invest in helping build a career.
So, keep that in mind: either work on a commercial idea or have one in your back pocket, ready to go if and when that call comes, telling you that your work has drawn valuable attention from people who are interested in helping you. Otherwise, you could end up like the young woman I met at an industry mixer about 10 years ago. She had just won a major writing competition for a script she described as, “Crossing Delancey meets Stranger Than Paradise.” It should be noted that, at the time, one of those films was over 20 years old and the other was just under that, and both are tiny little movies that aren’t terribly commercial. Indeed, the latter is the first film by indie legend Jim Jarmusch (whose highest grossing film is Broken Flowers, which earned a grand total of $13 million at the domestic box office). She insisted that she had interest in the project and that she was going to focus all of her energies on getting it made.
Samuel Goldwyn Company
It wasn’t, nor was anything else she ever wrote. I lost track of her a few years ago, but I know that, whatever goodwill she might have earned by winning that contest, she lost it by not being ready for that success, and essentially missed her window of opportunity. Sadly, this is not an uncommon tale.
What does all this mean? Well, for one thing, if you want a career as a screenwriter, it takes more than talent. It takes preparation. Studying the best place for your work, setting yourself up for success once your work is recognized, essentially removing any conceivable reason why someone would not want to give you a chance, and even then, there’s no guarantee of anything.
The list of writers who nailed it right out of the gate and never looked back is minuscule, if it even exists at all, so expectations should be managed. You probably are not going to win a contest with the first script you ever write, so use that to gain some insight into what you need to improve. Then, with follow-ups, you can hone your craft and, perhaps, put yourself in a position to actually win one of these things and give yourself the boost you’ve been searching for.
Next week, in the third and final installment of this series, we’ll hear from some writers who used competitions to get their first breaks and talk about how they turned those breaks into thriving careers.