How to Win at Screenwriting Contests
Which contests are worth your time, what do readers want, and how can you jump-start your career.
We're going to answer all those questions!
There are a lot of aspiring screenwriters out there, which means there are a lot of scripts. One estimate from the WGA claims that about 50,000 new scripts are registered with the guild every year. So how do you stand out from the crowd? A lot of writers have turned to screenwriting contests.
Screenwriting contests can be an effective way to differentiate yourself from your peers. Being able to say something like “I won the Super Cool Screenwriting Competition in 2017” is kind of a big deal -- and it’ll definitely get the attention of agents and managers.
But when you’re planning to enter a screenwriting contest, there are a few things you should know.
In this post, you're going to learn the in's out's and what have you's when it comes to screenwriting contests. I can't guarantee you will win any, but I can guarantee you'll have a much better shot than you do if you DON'T read this!
I’ve read thousands of scripts through my job as an acquisitions executive in the independent film market, where I help international distributors buy movies. I’ve also covered tons of scripts for various production companies around town, like Covert Media, Red Granite, and Amazon Studios.
My job is to evaluate film projects and packages for presales (meaning before the movie is made). That means I’m reading stuff from A-list writers all the way down to fresh new voices, trying to figure out if a script is good -- and if it’s good, will it turn into a good movie?
I also consult with writers, directors, and producers who want to improve their scripts.
Now on to the hard truths about screenwriting contests.
Which Screenwriting Contests Matter?
Wait, That’s It?
Pretty much, yeah.
Here’s the thing: anyone can run a screenwriting contest. There is no real qualification required, very little barrier to entry, and zero accountability. Most contests lack even the appearance of transparency, so you might never know who read your script or what they really thought. The only things you can 100% know for sure about a contest are: how much it costs to enter, and how many of its past winners have gone on to have a career.
The Nicholl Fellowship is the obvious standout here, and it’s not close.
Why Is The Nicholl Fellowship the Best Screenwriting Contest?
The Nicholl Fellowship is held every year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (the people who give out the Oscars and Emmys). It awards real cash prizes of $35,000 to each of up to five writers per year. The writers have to be amateurs, meaning their lifetime earnings from screenwriting must be less than $25,000.
The Nicholl has plenty of notable alumni, and I’ve even recognized semifinalist scripts when they cross my desk. No other screenwriting contest has the amount of industry cache, name recognition, and quality assurance. Take a look at our interview with Nicholl winner Sam Baron.
You can learn more about the Nicholl Fellowship at the AMPAS website.
Come on, there have to be other worthwhile screenwriting contests!
The problem with most other screenwriting contests is that they don’t always care about the quality of their readers. I reached out to a friend of mine who is a longtime screenwriting contest reader, and they told me, “it pays basically nothing, so you’re just doing it to get it over with. I saw someone pass on a script that later turned out to be a Nicholl Finalist.” Buyer beware.
Don’t just take my word for it. John August and Craig Mazin, of the excellent ScriptNotes podcast, discussed screenwriting contests back in June of 2018.
First, John August asked this Twitter question.
Then Craig Mazin followed it up on the ScriptNotes podcast here.
Consensus: there may be a screenwriting contest here or there that gets you a little traction, but at the end of the day, only Austin or the Nicholl are really launching careers. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to an agent, manager, or producer who paid serious attention to a screenwriting contest outside of those two.
So let’s talk about Austin.
The Austin Film Festival has what is widely considered the second-best screenwriting contest, but it’s not quite up to the standard of the Nicholl Fellowship. AFF’s big advantage is the festival itself -- not just the films, but the screenwriting panels and workshops with real pros. It’s the most writer-centric festival around. Contest winners get free badges and semifinalists get a discounted badge. It’s also a genuinely great experience, and everyone always has a blast.
The bottom line is, if you’re going to enter the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting contest, you should plan on attending the actual festival to network, experience panels and workshops, and ask questions to industry pros. You’ll come away educated and inspired.
What Screenwriting Contest Readers Want
If you’re submitting your script to an agency, production company, or studio, they’ll probably have someone like me read it and write up script coverage on it. We’ve talked about what those readers want in this article, but screenwriting contest readers are different.
Scott Myers from the Black List’s Go Into The Story blog has a great post about Nicholl Fellowship judging criteria. In the article, he talks about the key elements that every screenwriting contest reader is looking for. Some of these are more subjective than others, but let’s dive into Scott’s blog post:
Readers are looking for a forward start, originality, a beginning/middle/end, a journey, and an emotional connection.
Scott elaborates, specifically citing how important a digestible concept is for any screenplay. If the story “starts forward,” meaning it immediately conveys its main idea to the reader, then it’s probably a strong story. Although this is harder to pull off with more complex dramas, your story’s core should still be simple and powerful. It also serves as a North Star to guide you when you’re writing your script.
Readers are looking for a distinctive voice that they haven’t heard before, a fresh feeling to the elements in the script, and the potential for the writer to turn this script into a career.
This is a big one because you’re more than just one script. You’re YOU. And YOU want to have a career. Does the reader think you’d be good in a room? Could the reader assume, based on this script, that you have great ideas and can execute them in awesome and unexpected ways? They’ll probably be able to answer this question within the first five pages. If it’s a yes, you’re in great shape.
Readers want characters who have their own voices, characters who we care about, the main character who is proactive and changes over the course of the story, and consistency between how the characters talk/act and the tone of the story.
“Make me care.” That’s a quote from Andrew Stanton, director of FINDING NEMO and WALL-E. He’s talking about his goal when writing any story, which is to get the audience emotionally invested in the characters. Viewers should be able to relate to characters through some kind of universal experience or emotion.
Stanton, as a director, has all sorts of tricks at his disposal to elicit that kind of response. As a writer, you only get words on the page. If you can pull that off anyway, congratulations -- you’re probably moving on to the next round.
Readers expect to see a writer who uses words on the page and their structure to create suspense, comedy, or conflict. They also expect the story to be propulsive, meaning that the characters’ motivations cause actions, which cause reactions, and so forth.
Scott highlights the need to see the conflict that moves the story forward, but he wants that conflict to be specific to your particular characters. What is it about them that is unique to this person, this situation, this story? And does one character’s goal stand in opposition to another’s? Bounce them off each other to keep the story moving forward.
Meaning & Magic
Readers are looking for a story that is timely and thematically interesting, and they want to come away from the script with some kind of feeling that it’s a special piece of work.
Sometimes when you’re reading a script, you just feel like you’re in great storytelling hands. I had one Black List writer describe this feeling to me as “swimming in holy water.” Scott describes it as “wrangling magic.”
Whatever you want to call it, the fact is that your script can’t just be a jumble of black letters on a white page. It has to live, breathe, and imbue the reader with some kind of lingering sensation. Your script needs to be more than the sum of its parts.
Sure, that can be a subjective quality. How do we get there? Scott recommends focusing on characters, since that’s most readers’ way into the story. If you write deep enough characters, the reader will feel them come to life. Instead of reading your script, the reader will be watching your movie in your mind.
Use What You’ve Got
Screenwriting contests are a tool, not an end goal. You can use them to gauge your screenwriting ability and (hopefully) to launch your career, but it’s important to be smart about it.
If you’ve submitted to Austin and the Nicholl already and you’re considering three more contests, really ask yourself what you expect to get out of those extra contests if you win. Is there prize money? Are there real industry connections? A guaranteed meeting with a name you recognize? Feedback from professionals?
Many professional screenwriters never submitted a script to a contest, never bought coverage or story notes, never hired a script consultant, never entered a pitchfest, and never attended a film festival. As Craig Mazin points out, you don’t need to. You have everything you need already.
You Can Do This
No matter what avenue you choose to pursue, building a screenwriting career is incredibly difficult. The good news is that it’s possible -- and there’s nothing holding you back from starting right now. All you need is a pen, paper, and a great idea.
Submissions for the Nicholl Fellowship open in early March for 2020, and you can even get a discount if you’re a college student. The full rules for Nicholl entries can be found here.
Submissions for Austin Film Festival open in late March for 2020. Full rules for AFF can be found here.
Now go write something great!