Screenwriting Competitions: The Good, the Bad, and THE TRUTH

Last year, I was sitting on a panel at a screenwriting conference with my friends and industry colleagues in management and development, when one of the audience members, eager to wrap his brain around this whole breaking-into-Hollywood business asked a question:

“So… how does it work? You enter a screenplay into one of those big screenwriting competitions you talked about, you win the competition, and then you sell your screenplay to Hollywood?”

We all looked at each other, not quite certain who should take this one and break his heart. 

This wasn’t the first time I was confronted by some of the huge misconceptions that exist out there about screenwriting competitions. A few months before that, a category winner from one of the big competitions lamented to me, after his big win netted him no industry interest, that his queries were not able to generate a ton of read requests.

“I don’t get it!” he exclaimed, “Why wouldn’t people in the industry, managers, agents, executives, want to read one of the best screenplays in the industry today?”

Oh boy.

These statements have stayed with me over time. So much so that when I finally decided I would sit down to write this blog post examining the value of screenwriting competitions, I knew that they would serve as a sort of guiding light.

With that in mind, let’s break it down:

Right off the bat, I want to dispel one of the statements made above: Screenwriting competitions, even those that are the most prestigious, do not seek to select the best screenplays in the industry. Screenwriting and TV writing competitions, along with their subsequent winners, represent the best of the amateur space, of writers working their way up, or writers who are already working, but seeking to give a little oomph to a screenplay or TV pilot that has thus far been overlooked by the industry or by their team.

If you want to read the best, or most liked, screenplays in the industry in any given year, turn to The Black List (that is, the list, rather than the website), The Hit List, The Blood List or The Young & Hungry List, which are voted on annually by executives and producers from within the industry. Screenwriting competitions offer an arena in which to highlight the best amateur screenplays and TV pilots from writers who are – more often than not – not yet working, and therefore spotlight those writers who may just be on the cusp of breaking into the industry.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with writers who have won, were finalists or semi-finalists in some of the biggest competitions out there: The Nicholl. Austin Film Festival, Final Draft’s Big Break competition, for which I mentor the winners and in which I was fortunate enough to have a couple of past and existing clients named Grand Prize winners. Tracking Board’s Launch Pad. Tracking B’s screenwriting competition. I’ve seen first-hand what winning or being named finalist in one of these competitions can do for the writer, which includes everything from the basic landing of representation to leading to general meetings, studio writing assignments, or even, on those rarest of occasions, a script sale.

But just because this can happen, doesn’t mean that this is a guaranteed outcome in any way.

Today, there are all too many screenwriting competitions out there to count. Big competitions (like the ones I mentioned above), small competitions, medium-sized competitions, competitions that specialize in a particular genre. Because they are all over the map, the writer’s objective has to be different when entering each type of competition.

So how do you decide which screenwriting competition to enter when?

Earlier in your writing journey, you might want to invest in entering a few (probably a handful) of the smaller/medium-sized competitions. Even though they won’t net you the same reward or exposure as the big competitions, it’s still incredibly validating to see your screenplay or TV pilot come in top 10 out of 500 or Top 10 out of 1,000, which is, technically, the top 1% and a very good place to be.

However, there is a note of caution here: Just because placing, or even winning, such a competition would be incredibly validating for the writer, and an indicator that the craft is getting stronger and landing well with the readers, it doesn’t mean that the industry at large would respond to such a placement in a smaller or mid-size competition the same way that the writer would. While the writer would – and should – see such a placement as an encouraging sign of progress, for industry folks, unless the competition is one of a handful of well-known ones that have generated writers who have turned professional, not only will this win hold no industry significance, but additionally boasting of such a win may in fact serve as a knock against the writer who, by doing so, doesn’t understand which industry competitions really count.

Not too long ago, a writer approached me boasting of (and I quote) “Being a finalist or winning all the big competitions.” However, further investigation revealed that the wins the writer had to his name were in small and mid-level competitions, and in the big ones he barely got any traction. This sort of statement tells me that 1) the writer is inflating his pedigree, which may work privately, but is ineffective for the purpose of career building, and 2) the writer may not know what the big screenplay competitions actually are, which would imply that he has not done the necessary research to understand the competition space and therefore make the most of it.

As my friend, manager Jewerl Ross, who reps Barry Jenkins and Matt Aldrich, told me when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:

“You win the Nicholl, a lot of people have read your script in order for you to win, so maybe your script is worthy… You win five competitions, maybe you’re worthy. You need something to talk about that’s more than just your opinion or your idea. The better the competition, the sexier it looks. I’m a snob. I didn’t go to Yale because it was in Connecticut. I went because it was the best school I got into. I’m going to pay attention to the person who wins the Nicholl more than I am the person who wins some random screenwriting competition.”

As your writing develops, as you get stronger and stronger in your craft, as responses to your writing get emphatically more enthusiastic, that’s when you should start submitting to the bigger screenwriting competitions. Placing in these competitions is not only validating, but also a great way to generate some industry-relevant pedigree for your TV pilot or screenplay.

In my experience, those big screenwriting competitions that should be able to open doors for you are:

The Nicholl Fellowship

Austin Film Festival

Final Draft’s Big Break Competition

Page International

Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Competition

Tracking B’s screenwriting Competition

There are additional competitions, such as those put on by  ScreenCraft, Script Pipeline, Cinestory and ISA that will provide both pedigree and exposure, and give you the oomph needed to make a push for reads on the strength of your finalist or winner placement, but go beyond those, and it’s really a stretch.

How do you know which competition is worth the price of submission? Circle of Confusion’s Josh Adler told me:

“If you have $100 in your pocket and that’s all you’ve got to play with, and there’s 2 competitions to choose from, one that has a $50,000 prize and one that has no prize but guarantees your script will get read by this list of people that work in the business, and both of them are $100 to enter, enter the one with the list of people because that’s worth way more.”

Indeed, one of the big things to gain from a high placement in a name competition is not the financial reward (even if it is substantial) but rather access, a direct line to those competition judges who would be reading the final round of scripts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of writers getting signed before winners were even announced, snatched up by managers who read and loved the work, and consequently got excited about the writer. The big screenwriting competitions serve the industry as something of a discovery mechanism. Five, six, seven or even eight thousand screenplays go in and are then narrowed down to the Top 150, Top 75, Top 10, Top 3 or Grand Prize winners, based on each competition’s unique structure. That is a great way to cull the overwhelming wave of material coming at the industry from new writers, and identify those screenplays, pilots and writers that might, in fact, be ready for the professional space.

Make no mistake about it: When I speak of competition placements, I am talking about being named finalist or above. The only screenwriting competition in which a semi-finalist placement can move the needle is The Nicholl Fellowship, the most prestigious screenwriting competition in the industry, for feature screenplays only, since its launch in the late ‘80s. While making Second Round in the Austin competition or being named Top 100 in Tracking Board’s Launch Pad screenwriting competition will – and should – feel good for the writer, it won’t be quite enough to garner significant industry interest. So here, too, be cautioned that just because it’s meaningful to you (and, for the record, should be celebrated) doesn’t mean that it will resonate with anyone else.

But winning does not necessarily mean that your career has been made, or that your script will sell. In fact, so few screenplays and TV pilots have sold out of screenwriting competitions, that many of us know them by name: MATRIARCH. MARIAN. EXTANT. BETHLEHEM. Selling a screenplay is akin to catching lightning in a bottle, and is therefore not an outcome that anyone should plan for.

Instead, look for a high placement or win in a big competition to garner potential interest from managers, to get you some meetings, and to provide you an all-important conversation starter when seeking to initiate communication with anyone you want to have reading you. “I just won…“ is generally considered to be a winning opening line. But the truth of the matter is that interest doesn’t always come your way automatically, so it’s up to you to use your competition win or placement to generate interest.

Much like the writer I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, who complained about winning his category but getting no love from the industry, others, too, may find that their win or placement fails to generate significant interest for them. This is directly due to the amateur/professional space disconnect: Competition readers read material for craft, for voice, for story. They, traditionally and in most cases, don’t necessarily read for market viability, for make-ability, for market relevance. If you write, for example, a winning screenplay that offers a logline all too close to that of a successful, existing franchise, or a period piece exploring a time or era already heavily visited on the big screen, the screenplay or TV pilot that won you the competition may not garner the same level of enthusiasm and interest as those that feel fresher in the professional space.

While not every writer will want to take on the investment of screenwriting competitions, they have become, for many, a no-frills path into the industry. Especially for those not living in Los Angeles, screenwriting competition can serve as one of the few bridges available to get their material (potentially) directly in front those more connected than them, with each notable competition selecting those worthy scripts year after year based on craft and story, regardless of the location or life stage of the writer who authored them. Screenwriting competitions are not only a barometer for success; if used correctly, they can also be a barometer for your own growth and creative development. While everyone out there is looking for great material, the entertainment industry, at times, can appear near impossible to penetrate. Therefore, consider which paths are available to you for building pedigree and introducing your work into the professional space, and make educated decisions about how to use those as you pursue your screenwriting career and build your road into the professional space.