10 Benefits to Entering Screenwriting Competitions
March 11, 2020
Spring just around the corner can mean different things to us writers. On top of opening the windows a little more often, it may mean reexamining how writing resolutions are holding up, selecting a show to spec for your WB Fellowship application, updating last year’s contest deadline spreadsheet, or jumping into the familiar debate: “Screenwriting Contests: Why bother at all?”
Despite the writers who’ve had their visibility greatly increased by competition placements, this question seems destined to reappear in writers’ groups and online discussions as reliably as spring lilac blooms. So, what are the advantages of entering competitions? It’s not like every reader has a degree in the field—plus isn’t writing subjective, anyway?
I can’t answer for everyone, but here are the top ten reasons why I love screenwriting competitions:
The cadence of writing life can feel open-ended. Why write this weekend, or even bother to finish at all? You haven’t looked at it in months… Unless you’ve been working with an external deadline, then you have a goal to reach for and motivation to finish. Competitions provide deadlines and often aren’t shy about emailing helpful reminders.
Unless you have a circle of fellow screenwriters in your life, the notes from your friends will only take you so far. Your novel-writing buddy’s notes are valuable, but they won’t see your script the way a professional reader will. Of course, not all readers will see the same thing when they read your work. Life’s like that, art doubly so. But reader notes will give you an idea of what pops out to the people who may read 40+ scripts a week.
Many less expensive competitions, like the industry itself, won’t stop what they’re doing to provide notes. They are still beneficial; that’s what placement levels are for. If you submit a draft to many competitions but never make quarterfinals, take that as your note: It’s time to do another draft or start something new. Ask more people for feedback or host a reading, if you can.
Los Angeles is a large city, but in many ways, the industry is a small town and small-town opinions are like concrete. Once they’re set, they’re set. Use competitions the way Broadway shows use out-of-town previews. See what works for them before you send your queries. This may help you avoid making a ‘not there yet’ first impression.
This is also an industry built on rejection, where even the pros have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Hearing rejection and thinking, ‘Thanks for the opportunity, I really appreciate it’ is a muscle, not a reflex. It takes development. Competitions offer us the chance to get used to hearing ‘no’ in the privacy of our home (instead of in your dream manager’s office) or surrounded by fellow writers who just got the same news. Speaking of…
It can seem like everyone you meet (online, at least) says they’re a screenwriter. Which folks will you connect with? How do you know who’s going through what you’re going through? Talking about competitions can be a great way for writers to build connections and have shared experiences. You’re sweating the same deadlines, parsing the same rules... This is one way a reliable circle of professional relationships can be formed. And that’s in addition to the competitions that offer actual networking opportunities (meetups and conferences) as part of their experience.
Like Dirty Deeds, They Can Be Done Dirt Cheap (Yes, Really!).
You may have to plan in advance for this one (many competitions are cheaper the earlier you submit), but competitions can be entered on the cheap. I entered only a few pay competitions last year, the rest were free, and I’ve done another two free entries this year, already. So don’t let anyone tell you competitions are for ‘comfortable’ aspiring writers. I made the finals twice last year on two free entries and would enter again in a heartbeat.
They Increase Industry Knowledge.
We’ve all been there. We scan the competition’s list of judges and most—if not all—are names we don’t know. With so many names and companies to keep track of, it’s hard to know where to start when it comes to increasing your knowledge base. But if you want to know who’s with what company and which people are interested in spotting new talent, keeping an eye on reputable competition judges is a great jumping-off point. Nothing helps you learn a name faster than knowing they may soon learn yours.
A Shot in the Arm.
It’s tough when you learn you didn’t make the next round. Some competitions don’t advance your work when you think it’s right in their wheelhouse, while others may advance you out of nowhere, taking you by surprise. But in an industry where people often work years or even decades before they’re an ‘overnight’ success, any placement (quarters, semis, etc.) can remind you that you’ve got great things to say.
Yes, Virginia, Competitions Do Help Your Career.
Not every competition is honest or right for you, that’s where doing your homework comes in. A friend of mine broke through after placing in the Nicholl top ten of Nicholl. Launch Pad brags they’ve had over 60 writers staffed and 6 bidding wars. An Ohio screenwriter’s script that won the Tracking B competition wound up airing on CBS, starring Halle Barry. Vince Gilligan won the Virginia Governor's Screenwriting Award in 1989, which brought him to the attention of the producer of Rain Man, and Final Draft’s own Big Break Competition winner Ty Freer signed with The Gersh Agency and Echo Lake Entertainment after his script was optioned.
There is no guaranteed path to success, but people who claim competitions are guaranteed to not lead to success may not know the industry as well as they claim.
It’s not enough that they give me deadlines, make me better, help me form connections, and offer occasional bragging rights. Competitions are also fun. If you like playing football with family, yelling Jeopardy answers, or picking your March Madness bracket and Oscar® bets, you may just like competitions. And combining something you like with something you love usually leads to a few highs amidst the lows.
This is a tough industry. Whenever possible, it helps to have fun.
Written by: Kathleen CromieKathleen Cromie is a professional script analyst and playwright. Her plays have been produced in America, the UK, and France (in translation).