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By Christopher Osterndorf · May 11, 2018
Before you enter a screenplay contest, you should research it carefully. Yes, screenwriting contests can be a great way to gain industry exposure, give yourself a deadline, and potentially get great feedback on your work. And placing in a screenplay competition can actually advance your career, helping up-and-coming writers secure representation or option their screenplay to a producer. But don’t fall prey to many prevalent scams out there!
Winning is competitive, and even if you aren’t the Grand Prize winner, things could still work out for you. Many contest semi-finalists go on to find representation, especially from reputable contests, many of which you can find on our service Coverfly, the industry’s most popular platform for reputable screenwriting competitions, fellowships, labs and workshops.
Not all screenwriting competitions are created equal, however. While most require you to submit with some kind of entry fee to cover the cost of hiring professional screenplay readers, paying top dollar does not necessarily indicate that you’re entering a top quality competition. Sadly, the reality is that there are a lot of lesser contests that are willing to take advantage of or outright exploit inexperienced writers for financial gain. New competitions are launched all the time, and while some of them have the best of intentions, the more opaque or minimal the details regarding who they are or what they offer, the bigger chance you’re getting ripped off.
Also, don’t be fooled by screenplay contests that use the name of a famous city, such as Cannes, Toronto, or New York, as these can simply be guises to provide the appearance of legitimacy. Look more closely at who is judging. And be sure you can find what track record the contest winners actually have had.
Discerning the good competitions from the bad doesn’t have to be hard work. Just search the name of the contest in Google to see if there is any news about the winners or any information about who actually owns and administers the contest. If you can’t find this information, chances are, the contest is a scam that’s simply out to take your money.
The first question you should ask yourself whenever you enter a screenwriting competition is “Who’s in charge here?” That’s not to say you need to research the administration behind every contest inside and out, but you should be familiar enough with the organization you’re submitting to, to know what they’re all about. The less transparent an organization is, the more they’re probably trying to hide their true intentions.
Knowing who owns and is in charge of the competition you’re entering is also important because it lets you know what they can do for you. A contest that is backed by an organization with some standing in the industry or run by an established group of professionals is generally a good bet. But some random website which asks for an exorbitant fee to read your screenplay, while offering little information about what they offer in return, is a huge red flag.
Look to an organization like the Austin Film Festival as a guide. Not only is this contest run by an excellent festival, in an excellent town for film lovers, they also offer free “reader comments” and semifinalists and finalists have the opportunity to meet agents, managers, and executives who participate in the festival’s script reading workshops every year.
Again, it’s all about doing that simple little bit of research to figure out which contests are trustworthy and right for you. If a competition isn’t being forthcoming about what they can do for you or who they are, don’t waste your time.
Speaking of being forthcoming, the next thing to watch out for is…
Not every competition is going to be able to get Academy Award winners to judge your work. But if a competition isn’t run by an established organization and doesn’t name the judges who’ll be reading your work at all, you’re better off submitting somewhere else.
There is value in having anybody read your work and give feedback, from your fellow writers to your mother. Yet submitting to competitions should be all about getting your screenplay in front of people who have some kind of industry experience. The idea that you should have to pay a fee to have some shadowy, unnamed figure you’ve never heard of rate your script when for all you know they’ve never worked a day in Hollywood themselves, is ridiculous. Always look for names when submitting to a competition, and always make sure those names have a reason to be judging a competition in the first place.
Take the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards, for instance. PAGE was founded by producer Kristin Overn, And the track record of the PAGE Awards has been consistently demonstrated for many years which they clearly share on their website.
If you’re not submitting your work to a well-known organization, with writers, executives, agents, managers, producers, and other industry experts serving as judges, you’re better off saving your time and just getting notes from a friend. It’s certainly better than paying a bunch of money then never hearing anything back.
The final point which competitions need to be forthcoming and enthusiastic about is what they’ve done for writers in the past. Entering a competition isn’t a guaranteed to route to success, in fact, the odds are always stacked against you. That said, any given contest should be able to point to past success stories as templates for what future participants should strive towards.
A competition which advertises industry professionals on the other end is ideal, and as we’ve established, should factor into your decision as well. But on your checklist of what to look for, who’s benefited from a given competition should be right below who’s running it. The website you’re submitting to should clearly list past winners, what they’re up to now, and examples of what entering this competition has done for them. If you search a winner’s name and can’t find anything on them, that’s not a good sign. Put your energy towards entering competitions which writers got representation, signed deals, or were able to parlay their win into future work off of.
Take a look at the ScreenCraft, if you want to see a great version of this. Not only do they highlight notable success stories, but they list full names and provide links.
Remember, finding the right competitions needn’t be hard. Basically, you should know what, who, and where; what organization runs this competition, who’s behind it, and where can it take you. You can find comprehensive lists of the best screenwriting competitions and contests to enter in 2018 on our site. There’s a lot more than just the Nicholl Fellowship out there, and while smaller competitions may seem less glamorous, they often have a lot to offer – and you may even have a better chance of winning because there will be less people entering.
Chris Osterndorf is a freelance writer from Milwaukee who studied cinema at DePaul University in Chicago. When he’s not watching movies, he’s writing them or writing about them. He’s especially partial to romantic comedies and crime films. He currently lives in Los Angeles.