On any given day, a screenwriting contest is probably being held somewhere in the world. Should you pay fees to enter them? Who are the judges? Will you get a critique whether you win or lose? Where do you go from here with your winning (or losing) script? Such are the questions which plague writers planning to put their screenplays up against total strangers in a competitive forum. The enticement to participate, of course, is the fact that these scripts are actually being asked for, as opposed to the customary pitching route of writing copious letters, making telephone calls, and knocking on doors to see if someone, anyone might like to read your material.
The even better news is that, with certain exceptions (usually tied to direct association with the sponsor or regional/membership restrictions), they are open to all and are extremely well publicized on the Internet and in trade magazines. The prizes awarded are as diverse as the material being sought and range in significance from a nice chunk of change and/or an option agreement (Hurrah!) to a cheap certificate and complimentary plastic comb (Oh). Somewhere in between are scriptwriting software packages, agent representation, expense-paid seminars, mantle-worthy awards, screenwriting books, and consultations in person or in print by industry experts. I think the delightful irony here is that although your lack of experience/credits could preclude you from getting a Disney exec to even read an unsolicited letter, your participation in a Disney-sponsored script contest will assure that your material is reviewed, judged, and maybe even selected!
There is also a lot of latitude in terms of entry fees, most of which go toward administrative processing costs, reimbursing the judges for readings/critiques, and paying for the prizes. While your personal budget picture is obviously the determining factor in how many contests you choose to enter, those which will yield some measure of professional feedback on your work are generally well worth the cost of admission. And don’t forget that you can deduct those fees on your income taxes as writing expenditures, along with membership dues, subscriptions, and supplies.
What can you do to increase your chances of winning?
1. Follow the instructions! This is no time to be a maverick and color outside the lines. They know exactly what they want and will quickly eliminate anyone who deviates.
2. Enter early as opposed to waiting until zero-hour. The same psychology of theatrical auditions curiously applies to the order in which scripts are read; those viewed first tend to set a precedent for those that follow. Toward the end, the judges are more rushed and impatient to get through the stacks. Suffice it to say, a lot of scripts begin to look exactly the same at that point.
3. Fill out the requisite releases and contest forms legibly and in black ink. If your handwriting is atrocious, bribe a friend to fill in the forms for you.
4. Don’t invent radical new genres that don’t exist. In the same vein, don’t submit a dark sci-fi adventure to a contest which is specifically looking for romantic comedies.
5. Include the appropriate contest fees in the same envelope with the entry forms and the script. (You’d be surprised how many people forget to do this.) Your check should be paper-clipped to the entry form, not submitted loose where it could accidentally be tossed out with the envelope.
6. In the event that you move or change your phone number during the competition period, it would be prudent to let the contest officials know that via mail. If their letter of congratulations comes back returned or they call only to hear the message that your number has been disconnected, do not count on them investing a lot of time to find out what happened to you.
7. Pay special attention to feedback. If one of the perks of entering a contest to begin with is a critical analysis of what you did right and what you did wrong, take a moment to at least consider what the judges had to say. It may not “fix” the entry that lost but it could go a long way in improving the chances of your next try.
8. You can’t win if you don’t enter. Yes, Captain Obvious, we already figured that out. But how many times have you had the best intentions to enter a competition, only to let the time accidentally slip away from you and miss it altogether? Invest in a good calendar and zealously mark the submission deadlines so that a golden opportunity doesn’t pass you by!
Excerpted from “ScreenTEENwriters” (available through Meriwether Publishing or Amazon.com)
Are you flummoxed by film format or stymied by a stage play? Please feel free to send your scriptwriting questions to Cinemaven1@cswebmail.com. Be sure to include your first name, age, and what city you’re from. The best questions (and answers) will appear in a future column!