Contests - Why Enter?

Are they a waste of money or do you get a lot of bang for your buck?

We know that this month's article is going to sound like a shameless promotion for our own contest but...we honestly believe that entering contests is a proven tool for unproduced and/or unrepresented screenwriters. And that's why we're having one.

Can contests really help you achieve your writing goals?  In a word - YES.  Clearly winning a contest has its obvious benefits, but even placing highly can serve you well.  Contests are more than just a second tier alternative to every writer's ultimate goal - selling a script to Hollywood and becoming rich and famous.  Will you become rich and famous by just winning contests? Probably not.

But, if you understand what purpose contests serve in the industry and how to take advantage of them you'll find that they are an invaluable weapon in your development as a writer and as a means to achieving your screenwriting goals.

So how can contests help you?  Here are several ways:

They are an economical way to judge how your script compares to the work of your peers.  If you enter your screenplay into 10 different contests and you never even make the quarterfinal level, you will have been given a clear message that your screenplay is not competitive with the work of other writers.  This will let you know that there are significant flaws in your script that need to be addressed.  It may be time to get professional coverage or a full analysis to point out the flaws that are keeping your script out of rounds one and two in contest judging.  But if you routinely place in semifinals or better, you can be pretty certain that you clearly have talent as a writer and may be ready to start marketing your screenplay to Hollywood.

The cash and prizes that go along with becoming a finalist and/or winning a contest are great.  But what is the real benefit of placing or winning a contest - validation and prequalification to industry players.  Have you found that mailing out endless query letters get you few if any responses?  Does anyone take your cold calls at agencies and production companies?  Why is this happening? Because they don't know you and experience tells them that taking time to read your screenplay is probably a waste of time.  You haven't been prequalified.  Most screenplay buyers and agents will tell you that they only look at work by referral.  This is a form of prequalification.  They trust the judgment of the person who has already read and is referring the script to them.  So how do you get prequalified to Hollywood if you don't have connections?  Contests.  Winning or placing highly in a contest prequalifies your writing.  The contest acts as the first gatekeeper to Hollywood players and lets them know that they won't be wasting their time by reading your script.  We can tell you from personal experience that winning or placing highly in a contest, even a lesser known contest, will have people contacting you, instead of the other way around.  Even a quarterfinal or semifinal placement in the Nicholl Fellowship will get you read requests from well known companies.  Your future query letters and pitches will stand out from the crowd if you can list that your script recently placed highly in a contest.

Contests also give you a deadline, which helps you focus your efforts. Even if you're incredibly self-disciplined, a deadline can give you that extra motivation to finish, rewrite, and polish your script.

Another benefit to entering is the simple fact you're getting your script out there. You're sending it out on its first adventure, putting it out there for evaluation and judging. It really helps a novice writer to feel more a part of the screenwriting community by participating, and the benefits of winning or placing highly can and have launched careers.

Also, many contests are now offering feedback on your script either as part of your entry fee or as an optional add-on to the entry fee.  Sending a script in to 10 contests and never placing even at the quarterfinal level without ever finding out why, can be frustrating.  Getting feedback is a great way to get notes and clues as to why your screenplay isn't working.  Contests that offer free feedback usually give you 1-2 paragraphs of very general notes and maybe a checkbox listing of ratings, probably from an unpaid intern.  Contests that offer a paid feedback option, like our contest, give you 1-2 full pages of notes that more specifically point out strengths and weaknesses and some guidance as to how to fix your script.  Feedback of this type is usually performed by a working, paid story analyst.  So, for the cost of getting coverage from a story analyst, you not only get the feedback you want but an entry into the contest essentially for free.

The image of screenplay contests and the purpose they serve in Hollywood is changing rapidly.  With the rise of  shows like American Idol, Top Chef, The Apprentice, etc., careers are being made from entering competitions. Quietly this has been happening in the world of screenwriting competitions for a few years now.  Project Greenlight launched the careers of Marcus Dustan and Patrick Melton (the writer's of season three's FEAST) who have sold several screenplays since the show ended.  Steven Spielberg is launching in a few months, along with Mark Burnett of Survivor fame, a new show called "On the Lot."  You can bet that with Spielberg and Burnett involved, the Hollywood competition has come of age.  The myth that real agents and production companies don't pay attention to screenplay contests is fading fast.

Writers often travel down a lonely road.  We sit at our computers spinning fanciful yarns filled with heroes and villains, tragedy and comedy, enlightenment and despair. When we're done, we need to find out if our work is viable or not -- unless we want to sit in front of our computers forever! Enter a screenplay contest or six. After all, wouldn't it be great to have Hollywood cold-calling you?

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