Updated: Sep 21
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.
Before we dive right in, I want to make it crystal clear that not all contests and festivals are what they appear to be. While opinion, personality, and even politics play a role, some are just out to take advantage of emerging writers. Just recently, the Sun Valley Film Festival gave Shia LaBeouf’s “Minor Modifications” the High Scribe Award. This means he gets 1-on-1 access to industry pros and a $1,000 check. Think this contest cares about up-and-coming writers? Additionally, he was a Semi-Finalist last year at the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards for another script. You can read more 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.
Before we begin, let me tell you why I believe my stance holds some merit.
I was previously the Screenplay Contest Director for the Cincinnati Film Festival. I was the Lead Screenplay Contest Judge for both Universe Multicultural Film Festival and San Diego International Kids’ Film Festival for many years.
I have also been a Lead Script/Pitch Judge at the Dayton Eichelberger Film Festival and Sierra Vista 48 Hour Film Festival.
Furthermore, I have been a Film and/or Screenplay Judge at Pepperdine ReelStories Film Festival, BlueCat Screenplay Competition, Cincinnati 48 Hour Film Festival, and Golden Lion High School Film Festival.
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, and Inroads Screenwriting Fellowship.
** My site is also in its 2nd season four query letter contest.
Outside of working directly with film festivals/screenplay contests, my films/scripts have been accepted into well-over 60+ festivals/contests, winning over 10 of them.
Conversely, my projects have been rejected by just as many festivals/contests.
You can accept or ignore the following points I'm about to make, but I urge you to at least “consider” my point-of-view before dismissing them.
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. -- Exposure and publicity will follow after winning a contest -- everything from publications to social media posting. This will elevate your SEO -- not just for you, but your script/movie. -- 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”. -- It doesn’t matter if the contest is large or small; winning a contest adds value to your resume. So, when you pitch yourself, you can now say “award-winning screenwriter.” 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.
Mickey Fisher, writer/creator of EXTANT, MARS, & REVERIE, spoke on our screenwriting panel during the 2014 Cincinnati Film Festival (where we also partnered with Comic-Con). I had the honor of interviewing him on my site shortly after the festival. Mickey’s story is especially special and inspiring for all of us writers. Why?
Because his career was changed overnight solely because of a screenplay contest -- and he didn’t even come in 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.
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.
Those judges will not read your script until your script is a finalist. It could be top 25, top 10, or even top 5.
So who reads the other hundreds, even thousands of scripts during the initial round?
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 most popular (and user-friendly) among writers and filmmakers. So I will be referring to their platform through this series.
Okay -- so we have an unpaid reader reading 10 scripts a week, up to 50 a month. Yes, this happens.
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.
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.
As a reader (or contest director), I am taken to your FilmFreeway's profile first. Most writers leave this blank. All I see is an attachment and your script’s TITLE in big, bold letters. Most writers fail to use their project’s profile page to add important information: full name, genre, summary of the story, writing background, and reason for choosing my 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, among others, allows you to “buff” up your script’s resume before reading the actual script. Why do writers ignore this?
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.
-- You will be asked to list your SPECIFICATIONS. This lists your page-length, language, and genre. Before clicking on your project, the reader needs to know that your script meets the contest's requirements. There is nothing more aggravating than getting halfway through the script and realizing that your script is a HORROR while you submitted it 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.
-- Project links. Most writers think this only applies to people submitting films. Wrong. It goes for screenwriters, too. Most likely, your script, since it’s a spec, doesn’t have an official website and/or Facebook. But I do hope by now, as a writer in the 21st century, that you have your own personal Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and/or Facebook account. Link them. If you don’t have a personal domain, put your IMDb, blog, anything you have that showcases your talents and who you are.
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. They are going to introduce you to their network -- they expect you to return the favor. Our Query Letter Contest connects you with over 3.5K industry buyers and employers.
-- 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. I can assure you, after probably covering over one thousand scripts over the last decade, if I see that a script has received positive coverage, it prepares me (in a positive way) for an easy and rewarding read,
-- 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. Festivals aren’t just looking for one and dons -- they are seeking writers/filmmakers for life. Festivals love alumni.
I did an interview with Brett Weiner and Emma Fletcher, which was published by Final Draft. Their screenplay, SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIOR, was selected into the Sundance Fellowship Lab in 2017. While their powerful and moving script ultimately got them accepted, they leveraged their previous relationship with Sundance to give them a leg up. Brett’s digital series, VERBATIM, was selected at Sundance a year before. Emma was a driver at the festival a decade earlier. Read full interview HERE.
-- The COVER LETTER is not dead. Just read articles on sites like BUSINESS INSIDER, FORBES, & NEW YORK POST. For the 99% of screenwriters who have day jobs, writing cover letters should be second nature. It’s your introduction before your resume. Your script is your resume. But before reading, they would like to hear why you submitted to their festival. They are hoping it’s not because the price was affordable or the first one that came up on Google They hope it’s because you believe in what their festival embodies. For example, if your script is about LGBT issues and you submit to an LGBT film festival, it would be wise to detail why your script fits into this category. You’d be surprised how many writers submit their script to every contest under the moon.
Note: If you have submitted a script or film on FilmFreeway, as you are checking out to pay, it will give you an option to add a “cover letter”.
If you follow these steps, you are ¼ of the way there.
Ready to get halfway there?
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/save your script in PDF (do not upload it in anything else), make sure to give it a proper title. Sounds simple, but I can assure you there are always 1 or 2 that say “UNTITLED DRAFT”. While we are on this subject, always test your script before sending/uploading it. Make sure it opens correctly. Nothing is more frustrating for a reader than trying to open a script, and an “ERROR” message comes back.
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. You will find, 9 times out of 10, the festival will either 1) like the post, or 2) share it. Note: if you are submitting to 20 contests a week, and do this for each one, it will defeat the purpose.
-- 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. If you don’t attend, the award may go to the writer who will be in attendance. Yes, it’s not fair. But film festivals are a business. They have to get vendors, sponsors, sell tickets, and fill seats. They want you there just as badly as you want to be there. They know you will bring a plus one. Maybe even your friends and family. If it’s a film, then you will be inviting the ENTIRE cast and crew.
Still don’t think it’s fair?
What if every year when the OSCARS are announced, none of the filmmakers showed up to accept the 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 the contest offers feedback -- either free or paid -- consider taking advantage of it. This way, you can assure the reader is “reading” your script; plus, you may get some good notes out of it! ONLY do this is the contest has an amazing 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
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.
So don’t rule out small or mid-major contests/festivals. They have their place and purpose. I’ve exploited their purpose in 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”.
Even if the contest/fellowship is not included in my list, if they have an actual live event, full of panels, mixers, screenings, entertainment, and a red carpet/award ceremony, it's worth submitting, solely to attend and network.
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.
Not sure if this will help, but here is my FilmFreeway profile for my short film FROM GRINGO TO GRAVE: https://filmfreeway.com/FromGringoToGrave
And, my feature script, based off the short, DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA (which we are currently raising capital): https://filmfreeway.com/DEGRINGOALATUMBA
Hopefully, these act as an example and starting place.
Submitting to foreign film festivals or buyers? We can help with translation: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/screenplay-translation
groups. Introduce yourself, share your story, and engage in friendly debate regarding industry-related topics! Be sure to also join our free membership: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/free-membership
Learn about investing, gaining credits, or joining our team on DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA [www.screenwritingstaffing.com/gringo].
Search screenwriting jobs and screenplay requests on our job/script search board: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/screenwriting-jobs-script-searches
If you are you an industry professional or buyer searching for your next screenwriter or screenplay, you can post here for free: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/industry-professionals
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.
He currently teaches film ethics/theory at Westinghouse Arts Academy online part-time.
For more on Jacob:
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