Selecting Your Script Genre for the Big Break® Screenwriting Contest
June 15, 2022
The Big Break Screenwriting Contest is an annual competition that has helped launch the careers of numerous film and television writers. Their scripts have been optioned, sold, and some writers have even secured high-profile representation.
If you have an idea for a film or TV series, entering Big Break is a good first step for an aspiring screenwriter. Scripts entered into the contest are scored to potentially move on and be recommended by a team of experienced readers. The category-winning scripts are subsequently judged by a group of top industry executives to determine the grand prize winners for Television and Feature.
The contest is divided into Feature and Television formats and those are divided into different categories or genres. Back in the day, when you walked into a video store, you’d see movies divided into different sections depending on genre. These days the same (evolved) system is used by your favorite streaming platforms. As viewers, we discover what we’re looking for by looking in the appropriate genre category.
What does this all have to do with a contest? Big Break readers are assigned to the genres of which they’re most knowledgeable. Oftentimes the reader will base their scoring on how well the script worked within the framework of its selected genre. In other words, if a script is submitted as a Thriller/Horror and it’s well-written but not particularly thrilling or scary, there’s a good chance it won’t be a finalist. Selecting the genre for your script might be one of the most important decisions you make when entering the contest. It could very well decide the fate of your script, so definitely take the time to select the most appropriate genre.
Let's dive into the various genres:
Typically in an action film, a protagonist is thrown into a situation that involves a lot of violence or physical feats. Examples of action films include Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, The Northman, and the Fast & Furious series. Also, films that involve martial arts and a lot of hand-to-hand combat. An adventure film usually follows a protagonist on a journey or quest that takes them to various locations. Examples include The Lost City and older series such as National Treasure. Sometimes there is confusion when elements from various genres are combined. For example, the Matrix series includes both Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Action/Adventure elements. Many superhero films likewise are a combination of these two genres. If you’ve written a script in this vein, try to ascertain which elements are most prevalent and select the genre accordingly. You can also enter your script multiple times into different genres if you wish to. Think you’ve written the next Matrix? Why not submit it into Action/Adventure and Sci-Fi/Fantasy to increase your chances?
Comedies are films that emphasize humor (whether it be satirical, situational, or slapstick). Examples of comedies include Caddyshack, the Coming to America series, Bridesmaids, and Sorry to Bother You. There are also spoofs, which are films that take a comedic approach to an otherwise serious genre (e.g., the Austin Powers films spoofing James Bond-style spy films). A romantic comedy or rom-com is likewise humorous but involves a romantic pursuit or situation that is the primary focus of the story. Examples of rom-coms are Pretty Woman, Marry Me, and When We First Met. Comedic writing often leads to genre-combining and can also be a source of confusion. Many classic films have mixed comedy with another prominent genre: An American Werewolf in London, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, etc. Again the best tactic would be to ascertain the most prevalent elements and select accordingly. Also, be mindful of the marketplace. For example, there aren’t an excessive amount of Horror-Comedies that are sold and made into films. Therefore if you’ve written a script in which the comedy elements are equal to the horror elements, it’s probably a safer bet to enter the script as a Comedy/Rom-Com. There will be less competition and the readers will be more receptive to the comedic tone of your script.
If the story’s emphasis is on character, relationships and/or an emotional journey (as opposed to a geographic journey), there’s a good chance you’ve written a drama. Confusion can derive from dramas because they often include elements associated with other genres. For example, Rocky is a sports drama whereas Bloodsport is considered a martial arts action film. Why is this? Both films feature a physical contest and a protagonist training and struggling to win the climactic competition. The difference is in the focus. Whereas Bloodsport places much of its focus on the fighting, Rocky has very little fighting up until the climax; the primary focus being on Rocky Balboa, the supporting characters and the world they inhabit.
Crime dramas are probably the subgenre that is most perplexing to novice writers. From The Godfather to Heat to Mystic River, there have been numerous classic dramas that told the story of criminals and police officers that inhabit a dangerous world. But why is Heat considered a crime drama and Lethal Weapon an action film? Why is Mystic River a crime drama and Silence of the Lambs a Thriller/Horror? Again, it comes down to focus. If the primary focus is on a character’s emotional journey —whether they’re the villain or a police detective — then you should consider it a drama. If the focus is on over-the-top situations and action set-pieces, then go with Action/Adventure.
A murder investigation alone does not make something a Thriller/Horror, which is why a film like Mystic River is considered a crime drama. It often comes down to how strong and pervasive the threat is to our protagonist. Although Silence of the Lambs is highly psychological and not without nuanced characters and dramatic scenes, there’s a propulsive sense of dread and menace in the film, which culminates with a showdown between Clarice Sterling and the serial killer Buffalo Bill. Generally speaking, if your focus is more on character than plot, it’s a drama.
Usually one and the same, a family/animated film is geared towards children, but the most successful ones tend to have enough wit and emotional resonance to also connect with adults. Pixar films such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Coco being the best examples and benchmarks of this genre. Although not as prominent in the marketplace as they were decades ago, there are still some live-action family films produced, oftentimes they’re a niche or faith-based feature, but the Harry Potter franchise can fall under this category (but it could also fall under Fantasy as well).
Another category that can be perplexing for writers. Westerns usually fall under this category as well as numerous war stories (whether it be Vietnam, World War I & II, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, etc.). Just because a story takes place in the past doesn’t automatically mean it should be considered Period/Historical. For example, The Godfather doesn’t take place in the present, but it’s generally thought of as a crime drama.
Many Martin Scorsese films take place in the past but are likewise considered crime dramas (Goodfellas, Casino, etc.). As always, it’s the script’s focus that should determine its categorization. Because the above films focus on a small group of characters and their insulated worlds, the historical aspects are relegated to the background. A film like The Aviator, however, can be considered Period/Historical because the focus is on a historically famous figure involved in numerous historical events. The flip side would be a film like Revolutionary Road, which is considered a drama. The story takes place in the past, but it’s focused on a fictionalized married couple who aren’t famous and aren’t involved in any major historical event. The time period informs the characters and the choices they make, but it’s not the primary focus of the film.
A popular genre that can include various sub-genres. Examples of Sci-Fi/Fantasy films include Star Wars, Star Trek and the Lord of the Rings series. If the story involves a fictionalized scientific advancement or magical element, it’s likely to fall into this category. As with many of the other genres, there are popular films that have combined elements of this genre with others (e.g., the Alien films are Sci-Fi/Horror; the Terminator films are Sci-Fi/Action). And many of the films belonging to the DC and Marvel Cinematic Universe umbrellas fall under this category (as well as Action/Adventure).
Once again, it’s about what’s the focus of your script, but also think about who’ll be reading it. Both readers of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Thriller/Horror categories might be receptive to a script in the vein of Alien, so entering it into both categories might increase your chances of being a finalist.
Another popular genre and highly marketable. Examples of Thriller/Horror films include The Exorcist, The Shining, The Sixth Sense, Get Out, and the Halloween series. Stories centering on “a slasher killer” or a mysterious supernatural force (e.g., a haunted house) would most likely fall into this category. As mentioned earlier, the “Thriller” in Thriller/Horror is a bit trickier to define than “Horror". Once again, it comes down to mortal threat and menace. If the script’s focus is on a protagonist being stalked or hunted by someone or something dangerous, then you should consider it a Thriller/Horror.
Television pilots are divided into two categories: Half-Hour and Hour-Long. Most network television series are still using the traditional framework of dramatic programming being Hour-Long (e.g., hospital and police procedurals, family dramas, etc.). Sitcoms and more comedic content are usually Half-Hour. In recent years, however, the rise of cable series and streaming platforms has introduced a lot of television programming that’s harder to label (e.g., Succession and Better Call Saul are just as funny as they are dramatic), and in some cases, even the running times are becoming less rigid.
For example, episodes of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones can range anywhere from 29 to 60 minutes. In regards to selecting the best category for a television pilot, it’s important to research the marketplace before submitting. If you’re writing something aimed at the networks, be mindful of the traditional formats. If you’re writing something aimed for cable or a streaming platform, just go for the category that’s tonally closest to your pilot. Generally speaking, if it’s more dramatic, think longer (Hour-Long) and if it’s more comedic, think shorter (Half-Hour).
Finally, Diversity is for both feature and television categories and can be applied to any genre. This is for scripts written by underrepresented writers. Under-represented writers include American Indian, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, Latinx, LGBTQIA, Middle Eastern, Women, Non-Binary, Differently-abled, and other voices that have been historically ignored by Hollywood. The story itself does not have to be about inclusion or issues of equality. When submitting, you will be asked to select the Diversity category and the actual genre of your script, for example, Diversity – Horror. If you are a writer who qualifies for this category you are welcome to submit in both the Diversity and non-Diversity categories of the competition. All entries are charged separately.
Written by: Final Draft
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