Winning Big: An Insider Look at A Big Contest Win
If you have been writing screenplays for film or television and trying to break into the industry for any length of time, chances are you’ve entered a screenwriting competition or two in that time. Though many enter, only a few get to have the winning experience. That is, after all, the point of it all: To enter a high-visibility competition, and beat out thousands of screenplays for the top prize. Agents, managers, producers and development executives use this as a vetting mechanism, i.e., if a screenplay makes it all the way to the top, surely it must be worth reading. Therefore, contests provide an invaluable service to the industry: Identifying scripts and writers that industry folks should be reading. But industry executives don’t read winning screenplays from every contest out there, big and small. Instead, industry executives turn their focus to screenwriting contests that produced big winners before. Nicholl. PAGE. And Final Draft’s Big Break, which has amassed the sort of reputation that puts it right at the top.
While many may dream of winning, few actually know what the practical experience is actually like. What are the benefits of coming in on top of a big competition? What are the realities of winning vs. the misconceptions? And are there real, actual benefits to winning the big prize? To help illuminate all of this, I decided to share the experiences I gathered during the two days in early January that I spent tagging along with Final Draft’s Big Break 2013 Contest Winners.
Full disclosure: I am the career coach for the writers who win the Big Break contest. However I am not paid to write this blog post; I have no vested interest in any way, nor am I under any sort of contract to help market or get the word out about this contest. The reason I am writing this is simply to share with other writers what I’ve been fortunate enough to observe, and because, through spending time with the contest winners, I was reminded what a fantastic vehicle Final Draft’s Big Break Contest (along with a handful of other contests of this stature) is for emerging screenwriters looking for some much needed-recognition in the screenwriting space.
One of my clients once wrote to me: “I cannot envision myself achieving the goal. Meaning, I have no idea what it will be like, taste like, smell like to win a contest and get a manager and sell a script.” This is, to put it simply, to give all the writers out there who dream of winning a screenwriting contest something to envision.
The winners of 2013’s Big Break Screenwriting Contest were: Nicholas Horwood, who won the feature film category with his historical war screenplay, LANCELOT, and Kenny Kyle, who won the television category with his NEWSROOM spec. Guiding them through their winning experience was my good friend Shelly Mellott, VP of Events and Services for Final Draft, who champions the writers and their scripts to anyone she comes across, including Johnny Depp whom she tackled outside The Standard while he was shooting scenes for his latest movies, to announce (indicating Nicholas Horwood) “This is the guy who’s gonna write your next movie!”.
Before we dig into the winning experience, I asked Shelly about Final Draft’s Big Break contest.
How has the contest evolved over its 14 years?
Shelly: We’ve been able to expand our prize offerings from the cash amount to the long list of sponsor prizes as the company has grown and our relationships have broadened. We offer over $80,000 in cash and prizes and next year we’ll be adding some exciting new sponsorships and opportunities in 2014 – our 15th year. We’ve gone from not quite 1,000 entries to just shy of 7,000. We’ve added a TV category and an awards show. If you win Big Break, it is a game changer.
Tell me about some of the contest’s success stories.
Shelly: Our biggest success is Larry Brenner, our third-place winner in 2010 whose script Bethlehem is about to go into production this year. He has sold a pitch to Disney and been hired to do a rewrite for Will Smith. You can hear more about his experience here: https://soundcloud.com/final-draft-inc/interview-with-larry-brenner. Our 2010 winner is in the writers room of Newsroom. 2013 Big Break Contest Finalists Marco van Belle & Kat Wood signed with Zero Gravity Management. Many others have been repped and started careers. We’re waiting on some big news from another winner, fingers are crossed. You can find out more on our website http://www/finaldraft.com/bigbreak
So now that you have the Big Break basics down… On with the winner’s experience!
For the duration of the industry meetings Shelly put together for them, the winners were put up at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood. Nicholas, the feature film category winner, was flown in from the UK, while Kenny drove in from Silver Lake where he resides, and put up for the meeting days. As part of their winnings, each of the writers received an individual consult with me, which we conducted prior to the industry dinner that took place on Monday night and launched the writers into a series of encounters that were sure to make their impression and affect the course of their screenwriting endeavors.
At Wolfgang Puck’s Cut, located in the famous Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the writers were lucky enough to spend the evening talking with producer Palak Patel, whose titles include OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL and SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMEN (which incidentally was written by another writer discovered through a contest). This was followed by a Tuesday morning breakfast with the remarkable Pen Densham, all around good man and writer of ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES and MOLL FLANDERS (which he also directed) to name a few. From breakfast, it was on to lunch at BOA steakhouse (these guys sure do get fed!) which was attended by a slew of managers, including Jewerl Ross (Silent R), Mike De Trana (Anvil Entertainment), Lee Stoby (Caliber Media), Kailey Marsh (Kailey Marsh Management), Mitch Solomon (Magnet Management) and Tony Zequeria (Larchmont). Jewerl Ross was kind enough to suggest each the managers introduce themselves to the writers and tell them a little bit about who they are and how they work so that the writers could develop a better understanding of the managers present, and where there might (or might not) be a fit.
Fast forward to Tuesday night: The Final Draft Screenwriter’s Choice Awards at the Paramount Theater on the Paramount Lot. We’re talking red carpet, open bar, fancy dresses, catering and all. Before Nancy Meyers received her big screenwriting achievement award, Kenny and Nicholas were invited to the stage and honored with a prize as well as allowed the opportunity to give a speech before an audience that included John Ridley (12 YEARS A SLAVE) and Gennifer Hutchison (BREAKING BAD). Not too shabby! Following the awards, the writers mingled with other working professionals, as well as agents and managers, only to migrate to the after-party at the W-Hollywood and celebrate into the night.
Luckily, award night did not take too much of a toll. The writers were up bright and early on Wednesday morning for a writers breakfast, in which they met with other working writers, including Joey Aucion, Dwayne Smith and Bob Gebert, to discuss the realities of becoming a working writer in Hollywood. As each one of our pros has sold specs and/or pitches to studios and is represented by a prominent agent, manager, or both, lots of practical advice was given, and war stories were shared. By the time the breakfast was over, emails were exchanged, and plans were made by winners and writers for future communications and get-togethers. Without a doubt, our winners made some contacts during that breakfast that could prove helpful for years to come.
From breakfast it was on to – you guessed it – more food. Lunch! And an outrageously delicious one at that. At Spago in Beverly Hills, we dined with WME’s Christopher Lockhart who shared with our winners his experience on the agency side, as well as some entertaining stories about sourcing material for the various leading actors he works with, including Ben Affleck and Denzel Washington. We discussed the various ways to break into TV, and explored what most big agencies are looking for when seeking out work to which they want to attach talent.
The last meeting of the day was with my friend Daniel Vang over at Benderspink. It’s always interesting to sit down with a management company that has been a major player in the spec and talent space for a number of decades, and this meeting was no exception. Having read both winning scripts, Daniel was generous with his time and advice, inviting the writers to pitch to him material they had in the works. He discussed the selling appeal of feature specs, and enlighten the writers as to what it takes to garner the management company’s interest.
After 48 hours of whirlwind meetings, the writers went their separate ways. However, I did ask them to answer a few questions, which will hopefully illuminate the experience of winning a screenwriting contests even further:
Why did you decide to enter the Final Draft Big Break contest?
Nicholas: I had come second in Big Break in 2007 and reached the top 10 in 2008, so I already knew it was a great contest and the people running had great integrity. My 2007 win lead to a great experience but I wasn’t ready at that time to really start my career. This year I felt ready!
Kenny: I had just finished submitting my Newsroom spec to the Warner Brothers and NBCU fellowships when a friend suggested that I also submit it to the Final Draft Big Break contest. I shrugged off his initial suggestion because I was under the impression that they only took feature specs, but he quickly pointed out that they were actually taking TV specs this year so I went ahead and submitted.
What did you expect, should you win?
Kenny: To be honest, I didn’t think that far ahead. I’ve never met anyone who’s actually won a screenwriting contest so I didn’t really view the odds as being in my favor. I thought some of the prizes sounded interesting, but that was about it. I basically submitted my script and forgot about it.
Nicholas: I didn’t honestly expect to win again. My expectation was that I might reach the semi-finals or maybe the final 10 in my category. I know that Big Break is very well respected in the industry and I thought placing highly might help me get attention from managers, agents and producers… which it did!
When you did win, what was the experience like?
Nicholas: It was a shock! Having already come second I thought there was no chance I could take the grand prize! The difference this time with the trip to Hollywood was that everything seemed bigger: the hotel, the prize package, the award ceremony and the sheer number of managers and producers I met. It wasn’t the difference between second and first place, Big Break has become a much bigger contest.
Kenny: It was thrilling. It felt really good to have my work recognized by people who weren’t friends or family. I think I kind of expected the whole thing to be some hurried contest director begrudgingly toting the feature winner and I around LA, just sort of going through the motions. This was not the case at all. Shelley was warm, friendly and supportive. She genuinely wanted Nick and I to go into these meetings, do well and also have a good time while we were doing it.
Would you say that the contest was beneficial to your career? And, if so, how?
Nicholas: Even before my feet touched the ground back in the UK I had had several offers of representation. In fact people had shown an interest before I even got to LA, just as a result of making the final 10 in the features category. Solid representation is the main thing I was looking for. Also, the prize money means I can spend several months writing without worrying about mounting bills or debt. It is so rare to be able to do that. I know the quality of my writing is going to improve as a result.
Kenny: Absolutely. Third party validation is crucial in this industry. To be able to go into a meeting with a manager, agent or producer and point out a contest win, especially one the size of Big Break, gives you a major advantage. These people are professionals who have very busy schedules. Getting them to give up their time and attention is extraordinarily challenging so having a contest win is very helpful.
What was the highlight of the winning experience?
Kenny: The highlight for me was definitely the luncheon with the judges and literary managers. It’s extraordinarily hard to get your work read so being able to get in a room with people who have read it and actually want to talk to you about it is huge.
Nicholas: Being handed an award alongside great TV and film writers such as John Ridley, Gennifer Hutchison and Nancy Meyers at the award ceremony at Paramount Studios was an incredibly experience. Also, contest director Shelly Mellott telling Johnny Depp (who was filming at the hotel I was staying in) that I had just won a major writing award and was going to write his next film, comes a very close second!
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about screenwriting contests, as well as some pretty shady and irrelevant contests. What is the one thing you would want other emerging writers to know about your winning experience?
Kenny: You’re absolutely right. I can’t speak for other contests, but I can tell other writers with certainty that Final Draft does deliver on the their promises. They want you to succeed, but winning is only half the battle. Once you win, it’s up to you to actually leverage your win into something. Winning a contest like this is certainly enjoyable, but it’s not a passive experience. You can’t just sit back and coast off of it. Do the work, prep for the meetings, have other samples ready. Shelly and Final Draft will get you in the room, but the rest is up to you.
Nicholas: Final Draft wants to help writers. The company is founded on the creation of a product that helps writers write, and the Big Break contest was founded to help writers become professional writers. I’m lucky that I have witnessed the hard work and championing of those involved in the contest first hand, but take a look at the list of judges! WME, Gersh, Benderspink, Circle of Confusion. You don’t attract those kind of people unless you are the real deal. Not everybody who enters the contest can be a winner (I’ve failed to place in the majority of contests that I’ve entered), but it’s not a lottery. The odds are reflective of the odds of succeeding in an industry that is highly competitive. But success in Big Break can greatly reduce the odds of making it in the industry at large.