Debunking the Myths: Screenwriting Contests

Here’s what I sometimes hear from writers contemplating the to-submit-or-not-to-submit question when it comes to screenwriting contests: If you submit your screenplay to a contest, you’re effectively giving the reader permission to steal your work. Screenwriting contests don’t mean anything these days. All screenwriting contests are exactly the same. There is so much noise out there, sometimes it’s hard to know what to make of everything you hear. I get that. So let me address those doubts, questions and assumptions directly, and set the record straight:

If you submit your screenplay to a contest, you are giving the readers on the other end the right to steal your work. 

Absolutely not. Nope. No way.

There is this ever present fear writers have about work being stolen from them. My friend Julie Gray wrote a fantastic Just Ask Julie column on addressing just that. The only situation in which material theft is a threat is when your work is getting to places and people you can’t track. You submitted your screenplay to a screenwriting contest in Nevada and the same movie, scene for scene, is suddenly coming out from a company in LA? This would never happen, but, for the sake of this column, If the material is registered with the WGA, the guild will do its diligence to connect the dots and follow the trail of how your screenplay got from this place to that.

The reality is that the stealing of completed, executed material DOES NOT happen these days, at least not in the professional movie-making, TV-making realm. True, titles, concepts or loglines can’t be registered. They are ideas, well-framed, and there is no real way to register or protect them. That said, if you give the same logline to one hundred writers they would execute it 100 different ways, so that is just not something with which you should be concerned. When it comes to completed material, every producer, development person and production exec knows that it is ALWAYS going to be cheaper to buy the material from you outright and re-develop it themselves than it will be to steal your work, then have a court put a stoppage on a film release when tens of millions of Dollars have already been invested not only in production, but also in promotional work. This is true for pitch events, listing services, and contests as well.

Screenwriting contests don’t mean anything these days. 

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my buddy Jake Wagner. I’ve known Jake for years. Way back when he started out, working for super-manager Brooklyn Weaver. In more recent memory, Jake made his name breaking Evan Daugherty, writer of Snow White and the Huntsman, which he found through… You guessed it… A screenwriting contest. And according to Jake, now as head of Lit over at BenderSpink, he still reads the winners from meaningful screenwriting contests, Script Pipeline, through which he discovered Daugherty, among them. And he’s not the only one. Most every manager and development exec I look to reads the scripts of the finalists from the major contests. Need more proof? Bethlehem, a screenplay now being fast-tracked in development over at Universal with Joe Roth attached to produced, was a 3rd Place winner at Final Draft’s Big Break Contest in 2010.


All screenwriting contests are more-or-less the same. 

Wouldn’t that be great? Over 50 screenwriting contests in the space, each one offering significant success. Regretfully, these days the contests that hold real meaning for the industry year over the years are the rare and few who manage to continuously identify winning scripts and stellar writers who get the attention of the marketplace. How can you know which ones are them? First, look to the awards package: Money and products shouldn’t matter in this case. It’s all about getting your material in front of industry execs. Who is reading the final round? What successes has the contests produced in the past? Is there exposure associated with the prize package? Industry meetings? Introductions? Connections to be made? While there are dozens of contests out there, only a handful offer guaranteed attention and success.

Have additional contest-related questions, or want to find out which contests are the ones that are effectively introducing new writers to the marketplace? E-mail me and I will send you my answer or short list of contests, no strings attached.