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Panning for Gold in Screenwriting Contests

June 2, 2022
5 min read time

When I first started writing screenplays, I wrote small. I came from a background of writing plays and sketches that I could produce and perform by myself or with a few friends. D.I. friggin Y... My sister (and screenwriting Mentor) Pilar Alessandra, creator of On the Page, encouraged me to go BIG, not to worry about what’s practical, and to write as though the thing will actually get made by some big studio.


But that seemed impossible. In my view, I could see a path where I write something I can make, I make the thing and somebody likes that thing and then they hire me to make other, bigger things. Some people do manage to follow that path. If you're as talented and hard-working as Issa Rae, it’s a distinct possibility. I, however, am not.

So what then, is the first step on the path to becoming an actual working screenwriter and/or getting your movie or show sold and/or made? Camp out on the doorstep of your favorite movie’s producer and stalk them like a psychopath? Bribes? Blackmail? Be the child of someone famous? While all of these are fun things to do, they still may not guarantee a shot at success and you may wind up in jail, especially the “be the child of someone famous” thing.

So what do I do with a script?

Pilar said: “You enter it in contests.”

Me: “Oh. Ok. So I enter the contest and win money? Or they produce my screenplay?”

Pilar: “Probably not.”


What's the point of screenwriting contests?? 

While at first glance contests look like a pay-to-play lottery system exploiting hopeful artists for what few dollars they have and should be using to pay for food & rent, it’s only like that if you let it be. Contests can be a fantastically egalitarian tool for gaining entry into one of the most exclusive industries on the planet. You can be from anywhere, writing about anything, in any form of a screenplay and you, yes you, can have your script read by someone who can get your script sold or made (well, more likely it’s someone who works for someone who might know someone who can do that, but it’s a start). Like a 12-step, contests work if you work them (and don’t let them work you).

It’s not a lottery and luck has very little to do with it. You have to be GOOD. Not even the best, because who the hell knows what “best” is? A sweeping WWII epic can’t be judged by the same criteria as a Christmas rom-com or an animated robot detective art-house thriller. If your format is correct, the rest of what you're being judged on is story and style.


Instead of a lottery, I like to use the "panning for gold" analogy. You don’t just set off for them thar hills with only a pan and the clothes on your back. You’re going to need to invest in equipment: a donkey, a sifter, shovels, food, camping supplies, etc. In this case: a computer, software, books, classes, and/or coaching. You’ll spend some time finding the right riverbed (your preferred genre) and perfecting your panning technique (writing). When you find a little gold dust (contest placement) you know you’ve got something. Over time, you learn to follow that vein, perfecting your technique, honing in on the source (finalist) until you hit the motherlode (WIN! Or representation, or production, or a job).

So that’s why contests. It’s the beginning of the path to doing something BIG.


How exactly?

Enter the contests that MATTER. If you have all the money in the world and have an addiction to receiving affirmation in the form of .png laurels, then by all means enter whatever the hell tiny local no-name contest ya want. But for those of us who need money to buy food and pay rent, there’s only a handful of contests that have a track record of success. Final Draft’s Big Break® is one of them.

I watched as they personally introduced their winners to dozens of managers, agents and assorted execs. Real, actionable, job-getting results. Academy Nicholl is the prestigious elder statesman of contests and blood related to Oscar himself. Austin Film Festival is a personal favorite because when you place, you can get a discounted ticket to the greatest of all networking events for any aspiring screenwriter (more on that in another article). As for the rest, make like a QAnon Karen and “do your own research.” I don’t want to single anyone out, good, bad, or otherwise, but the internet and #ScreenwriterTwitter can narrow it down for you.


When you’re starting out, get the feedback. Having complete strangers read your work and tell you what they think is worth the money. If you disagree with a reader’s assessment, fine. Your low score could very well be a reflection of mismatched tastes. But usually, if the scores are consistently low and there are recurring notes, there is probably a problem that needs fixing. On the other hand, I firmly believe there comes a time when you outgrow reader feedback -- when your work gets to the point where you’re “placing” on a regular basis, notes from strangers who aren’t familiar with your work can get contradictory, nitpicky and subjective.


Never leave empty-handed

You don't have to actually “win” contests to gain some success from them as a result. I never won a contest. Jakob Pollack of Vertigo Entertainment requested my script after he saw it made the Top 10 in Big Break. He liked the script (and my short) and we had a General Meeting that led to a First Look Agreement. He told me in our meeting that he and other scouts aren’t necessarily looking for the #1 Winners. If you become a Finalist in one of the major contests, producers will see your logline (get those loglines right, people!). While that meeting with Vertigo didn’t directly lead to getting representation and my screenplay getting optioned, the strength of my aggregated contest scores and the consistency of their high level was evidence that my work is worth making.

Finally, remember that you didn’t get into screenwriting to enter contests. You’re entering contests in order to have an objective measure of how good of a writer you are that you can show the world. You’re not just in it for the endorphin rush of receiving emails that say “Congratulations!” and seeing your Red List score climb on Coverfly and racking up laurels on your ISA Profile (although that is real, encouraging and rewarding in and of itself). You’re in this to get your art made and get that GOOOLLLDDD!!!

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