As a screenwriter, I love this time of year. February is when I begin thinking about what screenplay competitions I might enter—and what new scripts I might have ready to submit.
One of the hardest things about screenwriting, I think, is that you are so often writing in a closet. Even if your friends know you write screenplays, most of them wouldn’t know how to read one, and their commentaries are not going to help you get produced. So, that’s the niche that festival competitions have learned to fill. Enter the right contest, and your script will at least be read by some key people in the film industry. For the top competitions, Hollywood power players may even be reading it.
These competitions have been around 20 years or so, much longer than American Idol, but the concept is the same. Show your stuff for free to people who are in the market, and you may get the one golden ticket to the big game! But for every winner, there are thousands who sent in their money and their scripts only to get a polite but disappointing letter. You can run up a big bill by entering too many, and yes, scripts can get over-exposed in competitions, making it very hard to market them on your own.
Is it worth it? I think yes, it is. At least a few times, for the following reasons:
1) The scoring will give you a very good idea of how your scripts stack up against the competition.
2) If you are lucky enough to move up, you can attend events that let you network with other writers, and more importantly, producers.
3) There are usually educational events attached to the festivals where you can learn the business side of your craft.
4) The competitions give you deadlines to force you to finish your screenplays! That alone, is worth the price of submission!
One final note, however. Pick your competitions carefully. It’s a lot of work to enter, and with submission fees of $30-$65 or more, it can quickly add up. You should budget how much you are willing to spend each year on competitions, and stick to it. Then pick the ones that will give you the best bang for your bucks—and that means not only picking ones that you can win, but ones that are worth winning, because the majority will do nothing for your career. Before you choose, read some of the winning scripts from each to see what their taste is like. It’s a waste of your time to send off something that doesn’t even come close to what they appreciate—but that doesn’t mean some other competition won’t.
If you only enter one screenwriting contest in your life, I think it should be one of the following:
Top Screenwriting Competitions
Deadline: May 1 ($45)
First Prize: $30,000
Hands down, the Nicholl Fellowship is simply the most elegant, respected screenwriting competition on the planet. This competition is affiliated with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscars), and has some top Hollywood talent judging the final rounds, if you get that far. Fourteen winning scripts have been produced, including Akeelah and the Bee, by Doug Atchison.
At some time in your screenwriting career, you should apply, if only to see how far you can make it. Nearly 7,000 scripts are entered each year, and often the reviewers are good enough to tell you what percentage yours fell in (e.g., top 15%). Placing high in the Nicholl Fellowship competition is something you can use in your pitch, but one of the most important features of the competition is the fact that your script will be read several times. By the semifinal rounds of competition, all scripts have been read by ten people, including at least four Academy members. The 100 or more with the highest compiled scores move on to the finals, where a committee of 14 top industry professionals chaired by screenwriter Susannah Grant will discuss each of the final entries before voting for the 10 or 11 winners.
And, should you make it all the way to win a fellowship, it’s $30,000!
Early Deadline: May 15 ($40)
Late Deadline: June 1 ($50)
Teleplay Deadline: June 1 ($30)
First prize: $5000 and a full pass to the festival.
Despite the significantly lower prize money, the AFF Screenwriting and Teleplay competition is my personal favorite, because, well, it’s at the Austin Film Festival! That’s 5 days of workshops and panels with top Hollywood screenwriters who are floating around Austin too. And you are very likely to run into them at the hotels and lunches, the films, and the local restaurants. The Festival coordinators have done a great job of organizing events so you have maximum “bump” potential, although the price is a pretty hefty $300 to $525 to attend all the events, including the films—and the airfare costs more than a trip from NY to LA.
Still, it’s truly one of the best festivals going, and if you can go, you should. The best way to get there is to place in the screenwriting or teleplay competition, where you win a free pass. I was lucky enough to hit the semifinals in the teleplay competition one year, which meant I was going. I was invited to the special Screenwriters luncheon, where coincidentally, I sat next to the Executive Director of the Nicholl Fellowships. Out of three scripts in the semis, mine came in second, so no cigar, alas.
Sundance Screenwriting Labs (for January 2011)
Postmark by May 1 ($35)
Killer opportunity. The application period has just opened for the Sundance Screenwriting Labs for 2011. It’s one of the hardest competitions to get anywhere in, but what a prize! Five days at the Sundance Institute working with a Creative Advisor, such as Scott Frank, Susannah Grant, or Frank Pierson.
Early Deadline: August 2, 2010
Late Deadline: September 7, 2010
Grand Prize: $5,000 and consideration for representation and production
This competition is cool! Part of Francis Ford Copolla’s virtual world, that includes American Zoetrope and the Zoetrope Virtual Studio, the contest gets a high profile with established names and can help get your script into the hands of someone with actual producing power. Last year they got 2,600 entries, from which they selected ten top finalists and the winner. Their slant is youngish, edgy. Since this competiton opens later in the year, you have more time to prepare. If you have something that meets their requirements, then put this one at the top of your list.
Deadline: March 5 ($50)
If you enter this competition, it’s mostly for the money, as first prize is $10,000. Not one of the more prestigious competitions, but winning will still be a good line in your bio. I do think it’s one of the better competitions to enter for TV scripts.
This is another great opportunity, up there with Sundance. The reason it’s not in the top five is that it demands much more of the writer than simply submitting a script.
This is actually a unique job application, where awarded Fellows become employees of Disney | ABC Television Group for one year at a salary of $50,000.00 (plus benefits). It’s an invaluable experience to be exposed to industry at the highest levels in Hollywood while developing your own scripts under the guidance of ABC executives. For the right writers, this can launch a career. But don’t bother to enter unless you’re prepared to move to L.A. for at least a year, should you win.
Early Deadline: April 9, 2010 ($50)
Late Deadline: June 11, 2010 ($60)
The Slamdance Film Festival takes place up the road from Sundance, in Park City, Utah, during the same week! That’s because the Sundance Festival has become an elite event, and Slamdance is still open to the true indies. Winning this comp does have some cache.
Passes cost $325, and then there’s transportation and lodging, which is cheaper than Sundance, but still ridiculous,…ah, but it is Utah!
Here are some sites to search for other contests:
(I don’t agree with all his choices, but you might like them.)
Database for screenwriting competitions: http://www.filmmakers.com/contests/
© 2010 Arts Enclave. All Rights Reserved.