Screenplay competitions have long served as a means for fledgling screenwriters to call attention to their talent, especially if they have little else to draw from in the way of Hollywood relationships. As a former literary manager and screenplay competition judge, I can confidently say that the most skilled storytellers will ultimately get noticed in such settings. However, there are a few thing screenwriters should know before submitting.
First, not all competitions are created equal. In fact, only a small handful will truly mean anything when it comes to advancing your career, and even then, only if you place in at least the top 10 percent. So, what competitions are worth your hard-earned 50 bucks? Below is a list of what I believe are the top 10 screenplay competitions today based on credibility and access they provide to the industry:
1. Academy Nicholl Fellowship http://www.oscars.org/nicholl
2. Sundance Screenwriters Lab http://www.sundance.org/programs/feature-film#labs
3. Final Draft Big Break Contest https://store.finaldraft.com/big-break-contest.html
4. TrackingB http://www.trackingb.com/contests/?contest_id=36
5. Launch Pad https://www.tblaunchpad.com/
6. Slamdance http://showcase.slamdance.com/Screenplay-Competition
7. Scriptapalooza http://www.scriptapalooza.com/home.php
8. PAGE International https://pageawards.com/
9. BlueCat http://www.bluecatscreenplay.com/
10. Austin Film Festival https://austinfilmfestival.com/submit/screenplay-and-teleplay-submissions-2/
What makes these competitions so widely trusted compared to others in the marketplace is their long history of rewarding quality writing and the high caliber of judges they hire – many of whom are respectable producers or managers. This translates to greater industry access for top finishers in addition to generous cash and other prizes. Several of these competitions, such as Slamdance and BlueCat, also provide written feedback to all entrants; so even if you don’t place, you get some constructive criticism that can be used to better your material for the next one.
Another key takeaway: it means more to do well in one or two highly respected competitions like the Nicholl or Sundance than to do well in dozens of lesser-known competitions. Industry types are more apt to trust the informed opinion of a few accredited peers than a bevy of unknowns. Furthermore, entry fees for preeminent competitions aren’t higher on average than less notable ones, meaning you’re spending less and getting more value for your dollar by simply picking quality over quantity.
So then, what scripts typically do best in competition? Readability is key. Proper formatting, spelling and grammar alone will elevate your material above half the submissions. After that, the focus is on craftsmanship. A coherent three-act story structure coupled with compelling characters, clever plotlines and crisp dialogue will catapult you to the quarter- or even semi-finalist stage. Reaching this level is all but guaranteed to generate reader requests and perhaps even some phone calls from interested parties.
However, the screenplays that advance to the finalist level and beyond – the ones that get you in-person meetings – often have one very special, very ironic ingredient: they boast unfamiliar ideas and storylines that may not be marketable enough to get the film made. Numerous colleagues of mine, from Nicholl judges to professional script consultants, have confirmed as much. Essentially, there’s a disconnect between scripts that place highly in competitions and those that get produced because competitions look at creative writing skill over marketability and reward highly original ideas that eschew the very market trends and genre conventions production companies seek.
Bottom line, screenplays that win competitions are less likely to get made than they are to serve as calling cards for agents, managers and producers who want talented writers-for-hire. While it may not be the path you planned, it’s still a step toward becoming a professional screenwriter. And a very viable one for those with real talent.
BIO: Mark Heidelberger co-founded Beverly Hills-based Treasure Entertainment in 2000, serving as a film executive, producer and literary manager until 2011 before going freelance. He has produced music videos for artists Janelle Monae, Snoop Dogg, Nicki Minaj and John Michael Montgomery as well as commercials for Lamborghini, Con Air and Cox Media, to name a few. Film and TV credits include Harsh Times, Comfort, Ninja Apocalypse, It’s Not You It’s Me, Pray for Rain and Hallmark Channel’s You’ve Got a Friend. Often times, he also performs ghostwriting services on screenplays in addition to his producing duties. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America. He holds a BA in Film Studies from UCSB and a MFA in Producing from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television.