As they say, there are many roads that lead to Rome, and there are many paths that can lead to a successful screenwriting career. Undoubtedly, one of the most popular ways to get your foot in the door is to advance in a well-known and well-respected screenwriting contest. However, with thousands of entries per contest, a writer can often find it challenging to rise to the top, particularly when so many factors are out of the writer’s control. Luckily, there are ways to increase your luck in screenwriting contests that are under your control, and can help give your script the best possible chance of success.
Follow the Guidelines of the Contest
This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at the number of entries that can get disqualified simply by not following the guidelines of the contest. Is there a page limit for the contest? If so, stick to it. Some contests give a little leeway when it comes to page count, but others don’t. Don’t risk wasting your money and time by not adhering to the page limit.
Also, if you’re entering a particular genre category (Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi, Family, etc.), make sure your script is actually in that genre. I read for a Family-Friendly contest once, and the majority of the scripts I read were dark, apocalyptic stories and horror stories. Yet they had been entered in the Family category, which is supposed to be for films that are uplifting and appropriate for young audiences.
Furthermore, make sure that your script is appropriate for the contest as a whole. Research each contest on its website to find out about its mission. If you’re entering say, a comedy festival, that’s likely not the best place to submit your period drama. Don’t waste money and time shotgunning your script out to every festival and contest under the sun. Be choosy about submitting to contests that are specifically looking for your type of material.
Proofread and Properly Format Your Script
Many screenwriting contests work on a point system. For instance, a contest may have its readers enter a score from 1-10 in a variety of categories, likely including concept, plot, structure, characterization, and so forth. Then the total points are added up, and a script that has earned above a certain threshold of points may advance to the next stage of judging.
Most contests I’ve read for include a category for the presentation of the script. They may call it Spelling/Grammar, Presentation, Format, or the like. This is an easy area to lose points in if a script hasn’t been proofread or properly formatted. You’d be surprised how many scripts are submitted that are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. After months or years of working on a script, would you want to not advance in a contest because of typos? Or improper formatting? These are completely under the writer’s control.
It’s a smart investment to hire a professional proofreader and/or a formatting expert who can make sure your script is polished and in proper screenplay format. If finances don’t allow for that, ask a trusted friend to read over the script with an eye for typos, and consult a screenplay formatting book (such as The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier) to learn how to properly handle formatting situations. Reading professional spec scripts (not shooting scripts), which can be found online and in places like the WGA library, is another great way to become familiar with screenplay formatting.
Write, Rewrite, and then Rewrite Some More.
At anywhere from about $25-$100 a pop, screenwriting contests can be a substantial financial investment. It’s important to submit the absolute best draft possible of your script to make it worth your while. As tempting as it may be to submit your script around town as soon as you’ve written FADE OUT on your first draft, hold off.
Have trusted friends read your script and give you their honest thoughts. Hire a professional reader for unbiased coverage. Then rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. Until it’s as tight as it can be and as many kinks have been worked out as possible. This process can often take many months, but it’s worth it, in the end, to have truly given it your all, and to have provided yourself the best possible chance to break into this very competitive industry.
Best of luck with this upcoming contest season!