by Mike Kuciak
As you may have heard, winning a screenplay contest is one of the best ways for you as an aspiring screenwriter to get your work in front of people who sell scripts and make movies for a living. If you win one of the top screenwriting contests, you can pick up a sweet chunk of cash. Even better, a big win can mean photo ops and snazzy awards. Meetings. Representation. Production.
But do a little research and you’ll find that there are a lot of screenwriting contests out there… No, a ton of contests. There are contests for specific genres. Contests hosted by film festivals, agencies and/or production companies. Contests for certain regions. Contests big and small.
Which ones should you enter?
The answer is not: “All of them!” Some contests are only for certain kinds of scripts, and no script is all things to all people. (You wouldn’t submit a feature script to a TV writing contest, for example.)
Okay, then the runner-up answer is: “As many as possible!”
Better. But then you notice that almost all contests charge entry fees. This is not because all contests are “get-rich-quick” scams. Though there are certainly some questionable entities out there, and some contests are definitely more reputable and more prestigious than others, no one is getting rich by running a screenplay contest. Most are break-even operations, at best. With any reputable contest, the entry fees simply cover basic operating expenses and ensure that the contest is being judged by experienced industry readers.
If you have the coin and you’re willing to throw it at multitudes of contests to promote your script, then go for it… Coat the world with your viscous talent, you maniac! Like Wall Street, Vegas, and dating, screenwriting is often a numbers game – a combination of quality and quantity. The more eyes glued to your brilliant words, the greater the chance those eyes will be connected to an entertainment industry type who will recognize your brilliance and be able to do something about it.
But most writers are in a position to take only a limited number of shots at the contest bulls-eye. And in this case, you want to make sure you enter a few key contests — the ones that industry professionals actually pay attention to and the ones that offer you the best chance of launching your screenwriting career.
So, which are the most prestigious screenplay contests from an industry point of view?
The Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting
This is the big’un, administered by the Oscar committee. Thousands of writers enter this cage match each year. Only five emerge, sweaty and bloody. There is big prize money for each winner, the idea being that the writers have something to live on while they devote their lives to their craft for the next year of their lives. Plus, it is almost a prerequisite that every creative and development executive in town reads at least the top five winning scripts. Typically, winning a Nicholl Fellowship means taking a lot of meetings and, hopefully, getting the script set up somewhere. But even just advancing to the quarter-finals or semi-finals looks great on a query and can draw a lot of requests to read the script. This contest is for feature film scripts only.
The PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
Following a very close second, the PAGE Awards screenwriting competition also offers a sweet prize purse. As an added benefit, this contest offers script feedback from the judges and breaks down its winners by genre. (For example, action scripts aren’t judged against dramas, and so on.) The contest accepts both film and television scripts, and there are a total of 31 winners each year, giving contestants great odds at a win. And more than other contests, the PAGE Awards works to make sure its judges not only have a solid film and writing education, but also extensive experience in the real-world industry. The distinction is a contest that views scripts based not only on the “show” but also the “business” aspect of the industry. Each year, many PAGE Award winners land representation and sign options on their winning scripts.
The Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest
The Big Break contest is administered by the biggest screenwriting software company in town, Final Draft. It offers cash and prizes like the other significant contests, and the top three winners often secure representation. Plus, as a nice bonus, Big Break is sponsored by Script Magazine, which provides you with a cool article to stick in your press kit if you win, and a fun industry party for the winners in Beverly Hills. This competition is for feature film scripts only.
Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship
This contest offers one of the most amazing prizes out there: the winners get hired to work for ABC. While other contests can bring your script to the attention of managers and agents who might offer representation and hustle your work to the buyers, this fellowship eliminates the middleman. Above and beyond meetings and reads, winning the Disney/ABC Fellowship opens the door to a working education in the industry and creates opportunities to write and network from the inside. This competition is for television scripts only.
Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab
This is another contest devoted less to handing out prizes than fostering new writing talent. Each year a total of twelve winners are invited to participate in the week-long Lab held in Park City, Utah, just prior to the Sundance Film Festival. Above and beyond the prestige of being associated with the Sundance festival and community, participating in the Lab is a great way to learn from and develop contacts with industry professionals. The Lab accepts feature film scripts only.
A few other notable contests:
Formerly Script P.I.M.P., the Script Pipeline contest has helped to launch several screenwriters’ careers. Besides cash prizes, its finalists get a lot of development and marketing attention, and many assistants and execs read the winning scripts.
All submissions to the BlueCat Screenplay Competition are reviewed by multiple judges and receive a short analysis. Plus, the dude who runs the contest is related to Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Founded by Francis Ford Coppola, who reads the top ten finalists and selects the Grand Prize winner each year, the American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest has a strong track record and is widely recognized within the industry.
The relatively new TrackingB screenplay contest offers no cash prizes, but its top three finalists are reviewed by a panel of working professionals and the winning writers almost always secure representation as a result. TrackingB recently launched a separate TV writing contest, as well.
The Austin Screenplay and Teleplay Competition, affiliated with the Austin Film Festival, is also highly respected within the industry. The contest accepts both film and television scripts, and the winners receive cash prizes, promotion, and a free trip to one of the top film festivals and screenwriting conferences in the U.S.
In addition to the contests listed above, there are some others that may be worth entering, depending upon your genre and focus. MovieBytes.com offers an excellent overview of all the various options, along with scorecards and evaluations of each contest from screenwriters who have previously entered. It’s a great way to help you evaluate which contests might be right for you.
Mike Kuciak worked for seven years as Senior Vice President of Development for an L.A. management/production company, where he found, developed and marketed projects for publishing, film and television. He has helped to discover successful novelists and screenwriters, and has set up feature films with Fox 2000 and Universal. He recently started his own management/production company, Samurai MK, where he represents writers and develops and produces projects for film and television.