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Advancing In A Screenplay Contest Requires More Than Just A Strong Story

Updated: Apr 26, 2023


Article 7 of our 10-part Screenwriting Staffing Industry Series explains why the plot is only half of the judging process during the 1st round of a screenplay contest. To stay current, join our mailing list. Reach buyers.


I want to clarify that not all contests and festivals are as they seem, before we jump into the topic. Some of them have ulterior motives, and while factors like opinion, personality, and politics can come into play, emerging writers can be taken advantage of. An example of this is the Sun Valley Film Festival, which awarded Shia LaBeouf's "Minor Modifications" with the High Scribe Award, providing him with access to industry professionals and a $1,000 prize. It's worth questioning whether this contest truly values and supports up-and-coming writers. In fact, LaBeouf was also a Semi-Finalist at the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards for another script last year, which you can read more about on THE WRAP.

Advancing in a screenplay contest requires more than just a strong story.


Plot is only half of the judging process during the first round.


Allow me to explain why I think my perspective is valid before we start.


As an esteemed figure in the film industry, I have had the privilege of serving as the Screenplay Contest Director for the Cincinnati Film Festival. Additionally, I have held the role of Lead Screenplay Contest Judge for several years at both the Universe Multicultural Film Festival and the San Diego International Kids’ Film Festival.


My expertise extends beyond screenplay contests, as I have also served as a Lead Script/Pitch Judge at the Dayton Eichelberger Film Festival and the Sierra Vista 48 Hour Film Festival. Furthermore, I have been a distinguished Film and/or Screenplay Judge at reputable events such as the Pepperdine ReelStories Film Festival, the BlueCat Screenplay Competition, the Cincinnati 48 Hour Film Festival, and the Golden Lion High School Film Festival.


It is my extensive experience and knowledge in the industry that allows me to confidently share my insights on the topic at hand.


My site, Screenwriting Staffing, has been the official sponsor for many contests and festivals, including The Golden Script Competition, Branches Interactive, The Las Vegas International Film and Screenwriting Festival, Inroads Screenwriting Fellowship, UK's SWN Screenplay Competition, Reno-Tahoe Screenplay Contest, and El Salvador's Sivar En Cortos.


My site also just wrapped Season 4 of our SS Query Letter Contest.


On a more personal note, my passion for filmmaking has led to my films and scripts being accepted into over 70 festivals and contests, with over 20 of those earning prestigious awards. Of course, as with any artistic pursuit, there have been just as many rejections as there have been acceptances.


While my experience in the industry is not solely based on my festival and contest successes, I believe it's important to acknowledge that I've walked the walk. I understand the excitement and disappointment that comes with submitting a project, and the mixed emotions that arise when facing rejection or acceptance.


With that in mind, I implore you to at least consider the following points I'm about to make. You can accept or ignore them, but I believe they hold value and hope they will be taken into consideration.

Academy Nicholl Fellowship

Let’s first discuss the positives of screenwriting competitions:


-- Winning or placing in the “right” kind of screenplay contests puts you in direct contact with top agents, producers, and directors who have the power to change your life overnight. Plenty of meetings and sales started from a contest. -- The opportunity to be mentored by top film or TV writers; once mentored, they will introduce you to their large pool of contacts. -- Winning a contest can bring about exposure and publicity, which can range from publications to social media posts. This can have a positive impact on not only your personal brand but also on the visibility of your script or movie. In fact, it can help elevate your SEO, making it easier for others to discover and engage with your work. -- Whether you win or lose a contest, it gives you perspective of where your script stacks up against others. While readers tend to be subjective, entering enough contests will tell you if your script has “staying power”. -- Whether the contest is big or small, winning an award adds significant value to your resume. Being able to market yourself as an "award-winning screenwriter" can give you an edge when pitching yourself to potential employers or collaborators. Refer to my step-by-step guide to writing a Screenwriting Résumé. -- Any legitimate competition offers some sort of a prize: cash, screenwriting software, free subscriptions to top film/screenwriting sites, trophies, and round-trip flights to Los Angeles. These are just a few of the many perks that can come with entering a script contest.

Extant - Mickey Fisher

During the 2014 Cincinnati Film Festival, where we collaborated with Comic-Con, Mickey Fisher, the writer and creator of CBS's "Extant," Nat Geo's "Mars," and NBC's "Reverie," participated in our screenwriting panel. Subsequently, I had the privilege of interviewing him for my website. Mickey’s story is especially special and inspiring for all of us writers. Why?


His career was transformed overnight due to a screenplay contest, even though he didn't win first place! Here is a short blurb from our interview:

“In early March 2013, I was a guy who was living in Orange County and knew very few people in the industry. I entered my spec TV pilot EXTANT into the TrackingB TV Pilot Contest and a few weeks later I got a call from the contest organizer saying I was a finalist and they were working to get my script to some agents and managers. A few days later I got an exciting phone call from Brooklyn Weaver at Energy who said: There are no guarantees because that’s how this business is, but I think I can change your life with this script.
He started sending it around and two weeks later I signed with WME. The very next day, the folks at WME said: This show about aliens and robots, we think we should send it to Steven Spielberg.
We hired a showrunner named Greg Walker and by the end of July we were pitching it to nine different places before we ultimately sold it straight to series at CBS, on my 40th birthday. It’s been a blur ever since.” You can read the full interview HERE.

Amazing, right?

Shortly after, Halle Berry was brought on as the lead. The series lasted 2 seasons.

So how does one win a contest?

Well, it’s more than just having a good story… at least during the first round.

Go to your favorite screenplay contest. View their home page. Read through all the amazing judges that will be “reading” your script.

Excited?

Don’t be.

Your script won't be reviewed by the judges until it becomes a finalist, which could be when it's in the top 25, top 10, or even top 5.

So who reads the other hundreds, even thousands of scripts during the initial round?

Unpaid readers.

To make matters worse, most of these readers are film students (being taught recycled screenplay theory in class), or even worse, a writer who just penned his first short script and now thinks he’s Aaron Sorkin.

Since these jobs are unpaid, most contests will take on anyone as long as they can provide at least one solid coverage sample.

While some of the larger contests have you submit directly through their site, most festivals use platforms like FILMFREEWAY and COVERFLY (especially since Withoutabox is no longer in service).

FilmFreeway is the preferred platform among writers and filmmakers due to its user-friendly interface, and I will be using it as a reference throughout this series. It's important to note that although Coverfly is gaining popularity, it's primarily for scripts and has strict guidelines for contests wanting to post. That's why I will be relying on FilmFreeway as my example.

Alright, so we have an individual who reads 10 scripts per week, which amounts to a maximum of 50 scripts in a month. Surprisingly, this is a common occurrence.

The reader already knows that a good portion of these scripts are from unproduced writers who may or may not have any formal training, experience, or command of the English language. Already they are skeptical -- and rightfully so.

The quicker they get through these scripts, the faster they can add it to their resume and move on.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that readers for contests read scripts to learn the craft. If anything, reading contest scripts will create bad habits and bleed over into their writing. If they wanted to read stellar scripts, there’s a plethora of produced scripts available online.

TITLE PAGE

I’m not talking about the script’s title page. I’m talking about your PROJECT PROFILE -- every platform has one. This is where you will find a synopsis, bio writer/director statement, pictures, posters, links/articles to your work, and more.

If you are a reader or contest director, your first point of contact with a writer is often their FilmFreeway profile. Unfortunately, many writers leave this section blank, leaving only their script's title in bold letters as the main point of reference. It's crucial for writers to utilize their project's profile page to include essential information such as their full name, genre, a summary of their story, writing background, and their reasons for submitting to your festival over others.

So even before reading your script, the writer has already proven to me that 1) he/she is submitting to every festival under the sun, and 2) just plain lazy.

FilmFreeway, along with other platforms like Coverfly, offers the option to enhance your script's resume before the reader actually dives into the script. Despite this feature, why do writers often neglect to utilize it?


Your profile should have the following.


-- Your script should already have a LOGLINE. List it under OVERVIEW. If, by chance, your script wins/places, a logline will be required for publicity purposes. Having this already saves the contest time. Plus, it already proves you understand how the “industry” works.


-- Your BIO. Whether you are a produced screenwriter or first-timer, this should never be left blank. Introduce yourself. The contest wants to know more about you. Make them excited about including you in their festival.


-- When submitting your project on FilmFreeway, you will be prompted to provide its SPECIFICATIONS, including page-length, language, country of origin, and genre. This information is crucial because the reader needs to know whether your script meets the contest's requirements before clicking on it. Nothing is more frustrating for a reader than starting a script, only to realize halfway through that it's a horror when it was submitted under the comedy genre.


-- Unless your script has never placed in a contest before, the AWARD/OFFICIAL SELECTION portion should NEVER be left blank. Most festival directors want to know your script/film has been vetted. Your major festivals want first dibs at your script or movie. Mid-major to smaller ones always appreciate projects that have a proven track record. Let me repeat that. Mid-major and smaller festivals are particularly interested in knowing that your work has been recognized by others.


-- As a writer, it's easy to assume that project LINKS only apply to filmmakers, but that's far from the truth. In fact, it's equally important for screenwriters to provide project links when submitting their scripts on FilmFreeway. Since your script is likely a spec, it won't have an official website or Facebook page. However, as a writer in the 21st century, I'm sure you have your own personal Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook account, right? So, make sure to link them. Even if you don't have a personal domain, it's crucial to showcase your talents and who you are by including relevant links like IMDb, your blog, or anything else that highlights your work. Trust me, providing project links can make a huge difference in getting your script noticed.


Why is this important? Contests want to know you’re active and have a following. Because, if/when they select your script, they want to know you're going to promote the hell out of it. It’s a give and take relationship. You tagging a contest is FREE publicity for the competition. That’s a win-win situation. When someone introduces you to their network, it's expected that you reciprocate the gesture.


-- News & Reviews is a section often overlooked by writers. This doesn’t just pertain to your script. This pertains to you as a writer. Whether you were featured in a local paper for saving a dog from a burning building, or your last film won an Oscar, LIST IT. It shows them you’re relevant. If your script received positive coverage and it’s featured on the company’s site (like ours), share it. Again, like it or not, this tells the reader up front that they are reading a pro’s script. As someone who has reviewed well over a thousand scripts in the past decade, I can confidently say that when a script has received positive coverage, it sets me up for an enjoyable and fulfilling reading experience.


-- There’s a section where you list your WRITER’S STATEMENT. Don’t ignore this. Contests want to know you are in this for the long haul -- win or lose. They want to know what drives you to write every day. What’s your passion, your muse? Excite the reader even before they read your script. Film festivals don't just seek one-hit wonders; they're looking for writers and filmmakers they can establish long-term relationships with. Festivals highly value their alumni.


I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Brett Weiner and Emma Fletcher, which was later published by Final Draft. Their screenplay, "Social Justice Warrior," was recognized by the Sundance Fellowship Lab in 2017 for its powerful and impactful storytelling. However, it was their prior relationship with Sundance that gave them an edge in the selection process. Brett's digital series, "Verbatim," had been previously selected at Sundance a year prior, while Emma had worked as a driver at the festival ten years earlier. By leveraging their previous connections with Sundance, they were able to showcase their work and establish a lasting relationship with the festival. Read full interview HERE.


One of the most memorable moments from my interview with Brett was when he said:

“I think my previous work on a web series, like co-creating Honest Trailers, helped Sundance see that I've created stuff and will continue to create more stuff... I was so blown away by the atmosphere of generosity and creativity that summer … I’ve been trying to [make] my way back … as a fellow ever since.”

Allow me to emphasize this: diving headfirst into the festival scene can unlock a world of incredible opportunities, with each festival eagerly extending a hand when chances presented themselves. Following my 20018 conversation with Emma Fletcher, she triumphantly took on the roles of producer and writer for 11 captivating episodes of TRINKLETS (2019-2020) - an enthralling American teen drama series streaming on NETFLIX. Believe me when I say, contests make a difference! I think its safe to say that it all started from success at Sundance.


-- The COVER LETTER is not dead. Just read articles on sites like BUSINESS INSIDER, FORBES, & NEW YORK POST. Writing cover letters is a crucial skill for screenwriters, especially for those of us who juggle writing with a day job. Consider it your introduction before your resume. Your script is your resume, and the cover letter is your chance to explain why you've submitted your project to a particular festival. It's important to avoid sending generic letters and to showcase your knowledge and understanding of the festival's values and mission. For instance, if your script deals with LGBT issues and you're submitting it to an LGBT film festival, make sure to explain why it's a good fit for that specific festival. It's essential to avoid submitting to every contest out there and instead focus on those that align with your script's themes and values. So, take the time to craft a personalized and compelling cover letter that showcases your script and why it's a great fit for that particular festival.


Just a quick note for those submitting their scripts or films on FilmFreeway - when you check out to pay, there is an option to add a "cover letter." It's important to mention that platforms like World Film Communities Networks, Festhome, and MoviBeta are similar to Coverfly and FilmFreeway. However, I must admit that they're not my top choices.


If you follow these steps, you are ¼ of the way there.


Ready to get halfway there?


Good.

Let’s talk about SCRIPT APPEARANCE.


Most readers will skim through the script before reading. Here’s what they look for:


-- A reader has a lot of scripts to read. Make it short and simple. You can achieve this by incorporating plenty of WHITE SPACE (refer to my article on White Space). Most contests don’t require a reader to give them detailed coverage back. So a reader can quickly move to the next script without anyone knowing.

Reward their time and effort by giving them plenty of white space, making for an easier read. They will reward you by giving you high marks. Is it fair? Maybe not. But it is how it works!

-- Do not include SCENE NUMBERS. I hope by now you know that scene numbers are only for shooting scripts, not specs.


-- Do not have CONTINUED at the top and bottom of each page. This is for shooting scripts only. Plus, it adds to your “word” count (again, it's all about white space).


-- Fonts must be in COURIER. It’s not up for discussion.


-- Type “THE END” when your script is complete. I couldn’t tell you how many times someone has sent in a script, but a portion of it was missing. This tells the reader they have read the entire script.


-- When you upload or save your script in PDF format, be sure to give it a clear and proper title. This may sound like common sense, but trust me, there are always one or two submissions that end up with generic titles like "UNTITLED DRAFT." Additionally, it's essential to test your script before sending or uploading it to ensure that it opens correctly. There's nothing more frustrating for a reader than encountering an error message when trying to open a script.

By simply incorporating a detailed project file (summary of you and your script) and a properly-formatted script, you’re already halfway to the next round!

TIPS & TRICKS


While your story will be the ultimate judging factor on whether you win or lose, here are 5 “insider” tips that can improve your chances in the next round:


-- Submit your script early. You want readers to read your script when they are the most excited. If you catch them 2 months in, they are mentally drained. You will also be able to take advantage of “early bird” discount prices.


-- Your very first page must be exceptional and flawless. This sets the tone for the rest of the read.


-- As I alluded to above, contests and festivals love exposure. So after you submit, be sure to share the news on your Twitter. Tag the contest, and say something like, “Just submitted my screenplay, INSERT TITLE, to the wonderful and amazing INSERT FILM FESTIVAL.” Then add something interesting about their festival so your network can check them out. More often than not, festivals will either like or share your post if you tag them on social media. However, it's important to note that if you're submitting your work to a large number of contests each week and tag each one on social media, it can dilute the impact of your efforts.


-- If your script is a finalist and you happen to get a message from the contest's director asking if you will be able to attend, it means your script may be a winner. But, there’s a catch, and it's a hard truth to follow: if you don't attend, the award may go to a writer who will be there in person. It's not fair, but film festivals are businesses at the end of the day. They need to attract vendors, sponsors, sell tickets, and fill seats. They want you to attend just as much as you want to be there. They know that if you show up, you'll bring a plus one, maybe even your friends and family. And if it's a film you're submitting, they expect you to bring the ENTIRE cast and crew.


Still don’t think it’s fair?


Consider this:


Imagine a scenario where every year, when the Oscars are announced, none of the filmmakers show up to accept their awards. Pretty lame, huh? The same goes for indie festivals. They want to hand the prize to the writer, then have the writer talk in more depth about their project to the crowd. They will stream this online and share it on their page. They need this to stay in existence!


So if you see an email like this come through your inbox, be sure to answer carefully. If you know you are attending, tell them YES! If you can’t make it out, maybe because it’s 3,000 miles away, don’t lie, but don’t tell them NO. Tell them it’s tentative.


-- If a contest offers feedback, whether it's free or paid, it's worth considering taking advantage of the opportunity. This way, you can ensure that the reader is truly engaging with your script, and you may even receive some valuable notes that can improve your work. However, it's important to note that you should only opt for this if the contest has an exceptional track record.


Now that we know what a contest is looking for and the proper way of submitting, it’s now time to talk about which contests and fellowships to enter:

This top 13 list comes from personal dealings with the contest, positive reviews from past winners, and what they can do for your career if you win. None of the following contests have paid or asked for an endorsement in this article.

(in no specific order)


1) Academy Nicholl Fellowships

2) Austin Film Festival Script Competition

3) The Launch Pad Feature Competition

4) ScreenCraft Screenwriting & Writing Competitions

5) SYS’s Six-Figure Screenplay Contest

6) Big Break Screenwriting Contest

7) HBO Access Writing Fellowship

8) Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Competition

9) NBC Writers on the Verge

10) Shore Scripts Screenplay Contest

11) Inroads Screenwriting Fellowship

12) TrackingB Screenplay Contest

13) Script Pipeline Competition

14) Paramount's Writing Mentoring Program

15) Vail Film Festival Screenplay Competition.

Remember, at the end of the day, it’s not what you can do for them, but what they can do for you. You are paying them, not the other way around. So if the contest can’t propel your career, there’s no point in submitting.

Now, there are exceptions.


I’m a firm believer that winning a contest, big or small, is a significant accomplishment. It immediately validates your writing.


When submitting to paid screenwriting assignments, you can now pitch yourself as an award-winning screenwriter.


When you pitch your script to a producer, you can now say the script won at such-and-such contest.


All of this looks good on your resume.

Personally speaking, I wouldn't rule out small or mid-major contests and festivals as they can serve a valuable purpose in your career. In fact, I've personally taken advantage of these opportunities and found them to be incredibly helpful in advancing my career.

But, it’s okay to be suspect and picky. Choose wisely. Platforms that allow you to submit to festivals have USER REVIEWS. Check them out. Also, research their past winners. See where those projects are “now”.


If a contest or fellowship hosts a live event complete with panels, mixers, screenings, entertainment, and a red carpet award ceremony, it's worth considering submitting your work even if it's not on my initial list. Attending such an event can be a valuable opportunity to network and make connections in the industry.

Kat Steele, the executive director of both the Cincinnati Film Festival and Cincinnati 48 Hour Film Festival, had this to say about contests/festivals when I interviewed her on my site:

Story is crucial to a good film and script. We look at 3 values: creative/concept (which includes story), technical/production, and marketability, which can also include story if the subject matter has a potential audience outreach.” Read full article HERE.

There’s no festival director out there who doesn’t value and hold story in the highest esteem. Without a good story, your script will never win a contest.


But, if you incorporate some of my above suggestions when submitting, parlayed with an excellent story, you may find yourself advancing to the next round… and then some!


Take it or leave it.

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Article was written by Jacob N. Stuart.

Jacob N. Stuart is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, an online community that connects screenwriters and screenplays with film and television entertainment professionals. Since 2013, Jacob has helped facilitate over 250 success stories (sales, options, hires, and representation), most notably a Christmas movie produced by Hallmark in 2017. Here is a small list: www.imdb.com/search/title/?companies=co0524287

Jacob is also an award-winning and produced screenwriter, with over a decade of film experience. His films have been screened at theaters across the globe, as well as distributed traditionally through dvd/blu-ray. He currently has 3 films (2 features, 1 short) on VOD, including the award-winning film AN ADDICTING PICTURE. He holds a Bachelors in both Film and Entertainment Business from The Los Angeles Film School. He has also written for other top industry publications, including Final Draft, Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and MovieMaker Magazine.

For more on Jacob:

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