I get the feeling many novice screenwriters think if they could just win a screenwriting competition—just one!—their career would be on a fast track to success.
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, or if you’ve perused my Working Screenwriter 2 blog, you’ll know I’m fairly dubious of the whole screenwriting competition route. I just feel budding scribes spend waaaaay too much time and effort trying to win those things.
What’s even more puzzling is why a writer would enter a no-name competition that offers little more than a few hundred bucks and a magazine subscription as a grand prize. It’s as if these writers are still in grade school and all they really want is to get that little gold star.
Personally, the only contest I want to win is getting Mr. Joe Producer to purchase my script, or perhaps having him hire me to write something on assignment. My trophy will be a produced movie with my name on it...or at least a nice paycheck. As far as I’m concerned, those are the only true prizes in the ol’ screenwriting game. Pats on the back and my name on some roster are fine, but they don’t pay the rent. But hey, that’s just my opinion. I mean, if little gold stars and magazine subscriptions are your thing, go for it.
Do I think there are competitions that are actually worthwhile? Sure, but only a very few. Nicholl would be one. But even winning top honors in Nicholl don’t guarantee anything.
OK, I know you’re saying, “C’mon, Jim, are you telling us not to enter script comps?” No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m merely asking you not to focus so heavily on winning a screenwriting competition. Yes, submit to one or two of the big gun comps, but don’t forget your other avenues to success: sending query letters, making the all-important “face time” with industry insiders by attending industry events such as film festivals, or if possible, getting a low-tier job at a production company.
Remember: this is a business that’s pretty much run by connections...so go make ‘em!
I recently did a brief Q&A with Lorelei Armstrong, a novelist and screenwriter hailing from the beautiful state of Hawaii. Ms. Armstrong has participated in numerous screenwriting competitions over the last several years and her experiences are rather eye-opening. If you’re thinking about entering one of the many screenwriting comps (and there are many), then you’ll want to give a thorough read to Lorelei’s interview.
Q&A WITH LORELEI ARMSTRONG
Q: So, Lorelei, when did you start writing screenplays?
A: 1998. I wrote three that first year.
Q: Since 1998, approximately how many screenplays have you written?
Q: How many screenwriting competitions have you entered?
A: Around thirty.
Q: Of those (competitions entered), how many have you won outright?
Q: Name the specific competitions you’ve won.
A: The Screenwriting Expo Screenwriting Contest, The Contest of Contest Winners, The Filmmakers.com/The Radmin Company Contest, The Scr(i)pt Magazine/Open Door Contest, The Acclaim Film and Television Contest, The A Penny Short Contest.
Q: What is the largest prize you’ve ever won from one of these competitions?
A: $10,000 from the Screenwriting Expo.
Q: What other types of prizes (non-monetary) have you won from these competitions?
A: It still is a monetary issue, but reduced-price admission to the Austin Film Festival is my favorite non-monetary award. I’ve been a finalist or semi-finalist there three times, and had a great time. Beyond that, I’d advise caution to writers considering contests with non-monetary prizes. Story notes are often a paragraph long and written by a harried reader, and any contest that claims they will provide “exposure” is blowing smoke.
Q: Other than any material rewards, what have been the most satisfying aspects of winning a screenwriting competition?
A: It’s always nice to win. It’s tremendously encouraging. It is also nice to be able to pay the rent for a while from a contest win.
Q: Overall, do you feel it’s worth the time, effort and money to enter a screenwriting competition?
A: So long as you are clear on your goals. If you want to start your career, I would advise winning the Nicholl. Accept other contests for what they have to offer. Understand that Hollywood watches the Nicholl and only the Nicholl.
Q: Based on your experiences, what is the most POSITIVE aspect of entering a screenwriting competition?
A: Paying my rent for a year by winning contests. Note that I do not advise this as a sound business decision. But then, neither is trying to become a screenwriter!
Q: Based on your experiences, what is the most NEGATIVE aspect of entering a screenwriting competition?
A: My least favorite part of the world of screenwriting competitions is how many there are. There are hundreds. Many are a total waste of time and money. The sponsors take in thousands of dollars and the winner gets a nice certificate and maybe some story notes. Don’t give these folks your money.
Q: OK, let’s say you’ve just won one of the big screenwriting competitions. What can a writer expect to happen?
A: A nice phone call from your mother, if you’re lucky. Seriously, if you win the Nicholl, you will receive many, many script requests. If you win any contest other than the Nicholl, you will be lucky to get a half-dozen requests. Make your own calls and write your own letters, but don’t expect anyone to have heard of any other contest.
Q: Of all the competitions you’ve entered which do you feel was the most worthwhile?
A: Either the [Screenwriting] Expo or Austin, because the prizes were good. I’d like to say that one started my career, but I have had no success there.
Q: True or false (and please explain why): Entering a no-name competition is a waste of time.
A: True. You may feel good, you may value your prize, but it won’t move you forward in the business. Worse, you may be convinced that the script and the writing that won a small contest is good enough to make it in Hollywood, when in reality you have a great deal of learning to do.
Q: Explain what happened to you after winning the Screenwriting Expo.
A: Well, I was very, very happy for a while! I did get four requests for the script, two of which were part of “send all the finalists” group requests. One of those led to the worst rejection letter I think I’ve ever received. Thank you, Gersh! Within about forty-eight hours of winning, everyone I’d ever met knew I’d won. All my contacts, everybody. Everyone I’d gone to film school with at UCLA. The disinterest was extreme. Part of the problem is that the script is a large historical drama. Not exactly in high demand. I was only able to generate a handful of requests on my own. I went on to win four more contests that year, and someone at Scr(i)pt Magazine recommended me to a new agent. I signed with him. After a couple of years of his best efforts, he quit to go back to film school, and I have now quit to write novels. The only lasting effect of the Expo was that the check was large enough to attract the special attention of the business taxation people in my home state of Hawaii. I now have to pay 4% General Excise Tax (gross) on any future screenplay contest winnings. They have decided that winning contests is a business.
Q: If you had to enter just one or two screenwriting competitions, which would you enter?
A: I’ll name three: the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, the Austin Screenwriting Contest, and the Screenwriting Expo Contest.
Q: While you were actively submitting screenplays to competitions, were you also querying agents, managers and/or production companies?
A: Yes, I was actively querying, for what that's worth. And I was getting some requests based on the contests. I would say I had at least one script out there at all times for seven or eight years. And then I signed with my then-agent in early 2005, and he always had something out. I had the usual meet-and-greets, everywhere from funky office buildings in the Valley to on-the-lot prodcos. Plenty of the phony action to which Hollywood is addicted.
Q: If so, what type of responses were you getting, if any?
A: The most common reaction was that, whatever the person had read, they "loved it," but it wasn't quite right. My most winning script, Michelangelo, was too big for everyone. One agent I spoke to last year advised me never to mention the script to anyone, ever. Some folks wanted an adult to star in my kid comedy. Some wanted one comedy set in Los Angeles, so I rewrote it, and then nobody wanted a movie set in Los Angeles. A couple of places read my male-lead action/adventures and wanted to know if I'd written a romantic comedy (no). I've heard "too smart" and "too dumb." Someone read my thriller Ghostcatcher and asked "does she have to catch ghosts?" The usual noise.
Q: Do you feel adding "I won the Screenwriting Expo/Script magazine competition" to your query letters and/or telephone pitches engendered any additional interest from the agents, managers and/or production companies you queried?
A: The only folks who might have responded to "I won the Expo" were prodcos who were somehow involved in the Expo. Nobody else had heard of it. I won the third year of the contest; it might have gotten better since then.
Q: What is your current status as a screenwriter?
A: I quit screenwriting last fall, a month before the strike. I went out and picketed every day, but didn’t have to worry about what would happen to me afterward. I have a novel coming out in the fall, and after my book tour I will be leaving Los Angeles and moving home to Hawaii.
Q: Any parting comments/thoughts?
A: I’d like people to take a look at my screenwriting website (link is below). There is more information about contests there, as well as a lot of information about screenwriting and the business. My general advice is to go into screenwriting, and into screenplay contests, with your eyes open. This is a hard, hard business and the odds are overwhelmingly against all of us. Don’t let your hopes and dreams hurt you. Know the facts.
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Well, there you have it—an interesting point of view from someone who’s actually been there. I’d like to thank Lorelei for participating in this interview, and I wish her the best of luck with her upcoming book! If you’d like to visit Lorelei’s website, just click here.
APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.con and Kindle e-book! You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!
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