"The Best Film Festivals (Not in Austin) for Screenwriters: & the 3 Best Reasons for Entering Them" - Written by Giancarlo Fusi (Part 1 of 2)
For years I’ve been told there are only a handful of screenwriting competitions that can advance a budding screenwriter’s career. And only one of those possible career-making script contests is run as part of a major international film festival, that being the Austin Film Festival’s Screenplay & Teleplay Competition. But a couple of years ago, the festival dealt with a minor scandal because some of the screenplay feedback that contest submitters received went viral for its poor quality. It appeared that Austin righted the ship, avoiding a viral backlash to last year’s edition. But following their 30th annual festival this year, there are fast growing threads across Facebook, X, and Reddit that are again critical of the inferior quality of reader notes and there are even claims that some of those notes were generated by Ai.
The festival has issued a statement denying that any of its readers used Ai for their notes.
But many commenters on social media aren’t buying it and are posting their examples of script notes so laughably bad they appear to be Ai-assisted. With these new accusations dropping, will Austin be able to retain its status among the upper echelon of screenplay competitions? That remains to be seen.
While instances like this latest give film festival script contests a bad wrap, I’m here to tell you that almost all are indeed full of cr--. There’s over 1,000 screenplay competitions listed on the FilmFreeway website. Most are run in conjunction with no-name regional film festivals in the middle of nowhere. They will do absolutely nothing to advance your career or improve your writing craft. But they will happily take your entry fee. Heck, for a few or a fistful of dollars more someone who knows less about screenwriting than you do (maybe even a cool robot) will happily provide you with script notes. Don’t fall for this trap.
But if you do your research, you’ll find several film festival script contests that are worth entering. While they may or may not advance your screenwriting career, being selected to and attending a few of these lesser-known film festivals can help you improve your writing, boost your confidence as a writer, help you network with fellow filmmakers and possibly net you some prize money for your wallet along with some nice trophies for your shelf. The very best will even pay your travel and lodging to attend.
Here’s how to spot them and the reasons why you should enter.
In reading festival descriptions. look for those that appear to value the folks submitting scripts as highly as those entering films. Usually the entry fees for screenplays and movies are the same, but then writers are treated like second-class citizens while producers and directors are given the V.I.P. treatment at the festival.
The screenwriters typically don’t have a movie to screen so, at the very least, the film festival should hold well-publicized table readings from the selected screenplays.
If they hold table reads and you can’t make it to the festival, ask the organizers if they will be streaming them on their website or social media. If not, ask if they can email you a file of any recordings. I believe this is the top reason to enter a film festival screenplay contest.
The best way to improve your script is to hear the words spoken by real actors. But it’s a challenge to organize a table read, especially in parts of the country without a large pool of actors. So it’s great when a festival can gather capable local actors, usually from a community theater or college drama program, to read your words in front of an audience. If the contest entry fee isn’t too high, this is of enormous value.
The second best reason to enter a film festival script contest is if they offer cash awards for the winning scripts. I spent a couple hundred dollars on entry fees but won back a couple thousand dollars in award money. If the film festival offers a cash award for its top film but nothing for its top screenplay, skip it. That’s another sign the festival doesn’t value writers and caters to actors and directors because they think they’re more glamorous. But before you enter your script in any contest, make sure it’s in tip-top shape unless you like using money like T.P.
Sometimes it’s just fun to attend a film festival because it happens somewhere you already happen to want to visit. Several of these festivals are at popular vacation destinations, snowy or sunny, where you can get to meet fellow filmmakers in a more laid-back atmosphere.
I find festival attendees who treat it like a weekend getaway to be the most relaxed, making them the easiest to network with for us awkward writer-types.
Plus, there’s nothing like the feeling of going from a warm beach to a cool movie theater.
So I’d say those are the three best reasons to enter film festival script contests - table reads, prize money, and amazing locales. In my next episode, I’ll tell you about some of the best-kept secrets in film festival screenplay contests - the fests that’ll ply you with food, hotel suites, table readings, exotic scenery, industry connections and award money. Stay tuned.
Giancarlo Fusi was born in Santo Domingo and raised in New Jersey on a steady diet of sitcoms and horror flicks. He resides in L.A. while trying to traverse the Hollywood labyrinth for that cheddar.
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