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5 Screenwriting Contest Tips from Professional Readers

October 2, 2019
5 min read time

Ah the dream of being discovered through a screenplay contest; plucked from obscurity and showered with accolades and praise. Maybe some cash for your troubles. But the truth is, most scripts don’t even make it past that first round of cuts, never to be seen by taste-making producers or discriminating judges. Where did your script go wrong?   

Contest readers, judges, former winners and industry insiders weigh in on why writers fail in screenplay competitions—and how you can increase your chances of rising above the competition.

1. Understand the Contest

You wouldn’t wear flip flops to go mountain climbing or a wool sweater to the beach, right?  Same goes for screenplay competitions. You have to know where you’re sending your script.

“I've learned that there are specific competitions, contests and festivals that I should focus on,” says Jay Scott Goldberg, a prolific horror screenwriter who knows a thing or two about what competitions look for. He’s been on The Hit List and The Young & Hungry List, as well as placing in the upper echelons of Script Pipeline, Screencraft and Final Draft’s Big Break competitions.

“While top tier writing competitions are incredible, a lot of times they are looking for prestige pieces, not horror stories,” Goldberg says. “You need to know your audience, specifically those reading your project. I wouldn't expect a romantic comedy judge to salivate over one of my gruesome stories and at $50 a pop, you should be cognizant about who is reading and the types of stories that have won in the past. Make sure the competition accepts your genre of choice. However, if your project transcends genres, like a drama with horrific elements (for example, Hereditary), then you have a better chance placing in a top competition. Just do your research before you hit submit.”

While writers occupy one end of the competition spectrum, script readers occupy the other. They’re the folks who actually read your script and rank it, which determines whether or not a script moves on in a competition. As such, they need to understand the demands of the film and TV industry, and that comes into play when judging. 

“For a script competition, it’s important to consider your pitch’s universal appeal,” says Ryan DeNardo, a script reader for the Imagine Impact competition. “International box office is where Hollywood studios make their money. So, if you have a tidy script with a great story that you want to tell, the next thing to think about is if it can transcend cultural and language barriers to sell abroad. “

2. The Lasting Impact of Your Introductions

A time-tested cliché is “you get one chance to make a first impression.” This goes for screenplays, too.  Your introduction is your chance to stand out from the pack.

"Don't open your script with FADE IN,” says Edwin Cannistraci, a reader for Final Draft’s Big Break contest and a successful screenwriter. “Despite being a popular screenwriting colloquialism, FADE IN is an antiquated technique that hasn't been used in most movies since, like, the 1940s. Whenever I read a script that begins with FADE IN, they have an instant mark against them. Unless you're envisioning a retro movie with title cards, nix FADE IN and just describe your opening shot."

Cannistraci takes that a step further, calling out cliché character introductions and even opening scenes. "Don't open your script with a character waking up, hitting an alarm clock and getting into their morning routine,” he says. “Like five out of ten scripts do this. It tells me the writer is unimaginative and can't come up with an interesting opening. It's a big mark against them. Don't just describe how your characters look, either.  Especially your protagonist. What's their vibe and demeanor? This is infinitely more important than their hair color or whether they've got dimples or not."

3. Little Things Count

The truth is that grammar shouldn’t matter. Spelling should be unimportant. Everyone should see your genius in spite of a few typos. But it does matter. More than we often realize.

“Spelling and grammar mistakes, improper formatting, and lazy writing makes most readers cringe,” says Goldberg. “You should be masterful with your writing and reading your script should be fun, not a chore. Also, put the shoe on the other foot: Would you want to read a screenplay that wasn't proofread?”

The truth is, grammar can be the difference between moving on in a competition or being passed over. “You’d be surprised how many pitches have spelling, grammar and punctuation errors,” says DeNardo. “Your writing is being scored in several categories and this is one of them. Unless there is quickly and evidently something special in the content, scripts that look amateurish go by the wayside. Proofread your script or pay a friend to do it, there is no excuse.”

4. Take Stock After Those First Rejections

You’ve entered a contest, maybe you’ve entered a lot of contests, and you’ve lost.  It’s time to ask yourself: Is your script even ready? Are you even ready? This self-reflection is tough, but it’s what separates the good from the bad.

“A good script will make it past the first round of most screenplay competitions,” says Zack Zucker, literary manager at Bellevue Productions and a former script reader. “If a script is consistently not making the cut, the writer and/or the script are not ready to be judged. I suspect many writers enter their first or second screenplay into a contest. Like all other disciplines, screenwriting takes a lot of practice to master. The hard truth is that your first or even second script likely isn't very good. Or, even if a writer has developed a level of proficiency, a lot of scripts are half-baked. Maybe the writer was rushing to meet a deadline, or maybe the script just wasn't properly developed. Either way, the solution is to keep working.”

5. A Final Thought

Don’t let all of the above discourage you. All writers—from the award winners on down—have made these same mistakes (and usually multiple times).  Just remember, there’s one surefire solution to the above.

"A writer does one thing,” Goldberg says. “Write! I work full-time, have a family, maintain a social life, and still churn out stories. If you write 1 page a day—that's 365 pages a year—that's a lot of words! And they can be anything: features, pilots, specs, web series, podcasts, tweets... you name it.”

They say you can fix a bad page, but you can’t fix a blank page. Remember, problems within a screenplay can be solved—but it takes time, an open mind, and a willingness to put in the work. 

Still, it’s important to not lose sight of why you entered that screenplay contest in the first place. Because somewhere, deep down inside, you believe your idea is worth sharing with the world. “If you're applying to competitions like Final Draft's Big Break, you aren't writing as a hobby—you're doing it to make noise,” Goldberg says. “Shoot your shot. You won't know if you have a winner unless you apply.”

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