CONFESSIONS OF A COMPETITION WINNER...

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?

A: Twenty-two.

Q: How many screenwriting competitions have you entered?

A: Around thirty.

Q: Of those (competitions entered), how many have you won outright?

A: Six.

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.

* * *

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!

Come visit me on Facebook at Jim Vines Presents!

Now you can follow me on Twitter!

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Q:Where do I find a list of competitions to enter?

Jim said...

You can find a listing of some top contest on the "Questions & Answers" section of my website (TheWorkingScreenwriter.com). But do yourself a favor and stick to the bigger comps such as Nicholl, Dinsey, Austin, Sundance and Screenwriters Expo. You're pretty much just throwing away good money (and time) on the lesser-known comps.

Benjamin Ray said...

Hey Jim,

This is by far an eye-opener.
I will read this over and over.
The truth is finally here.
You have given us a slice of Hollywood reality for screenwriters.

Your questions are above the pack.
This interview is immortal and will be remembered long in the future.

Bravo.

Best Regards,
Benjamin Ray
Screenwriter
www.hollywoodtoronto.com

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Most scripts coming from contests are just okay. They are not good or excellent.

The best scripts are written in a team -- it involves the director and producer.

The problem with screenwriting contests is that they are selling you false dreams.

I talked to over 50 contest winners. They're still waiting.

It's sad, some of these guys will turn 80 years old and will never see their scripts on screen.

Get professional coverages and development notes and re-write until you have a winner.

A good script will be made into a movie but you must involve the director and producers. It's a team work.

Forget about contest providers! They're just talking your money and laughing to the bank.

Sincerely.

Anonymous said...

Hello Writers...

Just heard that most screenplay contest providers are only interested in making quick cash.
Most of them come from a business background. And most of them are writers-wannabes who never got anywhere in Hollywood.
So writers, do you want to make these contest providers and their sponsors rich?

Be careful out there.

Tons of "mickey mouse businessmen" are in debt and screenwriting contest is now the latest fad on how to get money from aspiring writers.

Be careful out there.

Laura Reyna said...

I've read a lot about what pro writers-- working writers, some very famous-- have to say about contests. And they all say pretty much what Jim says here: Only a handful of contests (Nicholl, Austin, Slamdance)will help your career-- & those are long shots. Stay away from the small no-name contests; They're a waste of time, money & energy.

Instead of putting all your resources into entering a bunch of contests, put them into getting attention from industry pros-- Managers, agents or prod co.

Use your time & money wisely.

ps Nice interview.Very informative.

"Ace Underwood" said...

Hmm...lots of sour grapes here from people who've lost contests, became bitter, and are now happy to latch on to claims that contests are useless.

I won a number of contests in quick succession, which led to representation, a sale, and a career.

Yeah, they do work. They're not the only route in, nor are they a "guarantee" (there are NO guarantees that any script will sell, ever, no matter how good it is, no matter which agency is repping it, and no matter how big a name the writer is) but contests DO work.

If you entered a contest and didn't win, consider that to be valuable feedback: your script still needs work. Blaming the contest is a form of denial.

123 123 said...

Cool story you got here. I'd like to read more about that topic. Thank you for posting this material.
Sexy Lady
Escort in London

Anonymous said...

Sour grapes? Wow. Someone who really believes a contest really says whether a script needs work or not? What an ego! First of all, all scripts need work. They're never done. Second of all, contests mean nothing on the quality of a script. Lousy scripts win, great scripts win and great scripts get passed up as well as lousy scripts. Happens all the time. Total crapshoot. I know people who have terrific scripts who didn't even place and then optioned the piece or sold it. Some moron didn't get it that read it and passed on it. Means nothing. Has a lot to do also with the concept... TREE OF LIFE, brilliant movie, would never win a screenplay contest. LIAR LIAR would. Not to say that independent SMART pieces don't win, just that it's such a crapshoot and has everything to do with the reader you have. I've read excerpts from Nicholls winners that were terrible... too much dialogue, typos etc. Why did they win? Who knows. Spoke to someone somewhere, and good for them. But you're kidding yourself if you believe contest winning or not winning is a say of how good the script is. Contests are good for two things - EGO AND MONEY. If you get some work out of it GREAT. But guaranteed you probably could've done that without the contest. Enter them for the money and ego boost. Not to judge whether it needs work or not. Get in a class for that.

Best Screenplay Contests said...

nice post. Simple and very effective. this type of post really create interest to read. Thank you

Anonymous said...

This was great reading. I read online last year that winning anything in any Film Fest/ Contest is like winning lotto. I believed that and entered my adapted script in 20 FFs/Comps on both coasts this year, hoping I'd be lucky to get 1 Honorable Mention or Finalist position. I won 4 and received nominations, official selections and Finalist positions in 13. I lost 3 because being a clueless newbie I failed to notice I submitted to 3 "Film Only " FFs. The ONE FF that awarded me nothing absolutely hated my script. Hated it with such a passionate (unsolicited) review i felt a bit powerful having evoked such emotion from the man. I was asked by 6 FFs to attend and was made to understand if I don't show, an award is a NO. I decided to get on a plane to go to 1 Film Fest in Hollywood. I was aggressively invited by the Director of this FF and took it as a networking opportunity. It took me about 5 minutes to see that nobody cared about a screenwriter there to accept an award. Actors, Directors, Producers all vying for attention, pushing each other on the red carpet trying desperately to get a click from the photographers. Nobody knew me or wanted to know me. I realized I was most likely invited to the FF to bus tables, vacuum or maybe serve drinks to the "important" people. I ran back to my hotel room to lick my wounds and grabbed my laptop. I'd just won Best Screenplay in a NYC FF 1/2 hr. from my house. I flew back home. I called my local FF to ask if I could accept my award in person rather than have it mailed to me. No answer-and I wrote the only screenplay awarded. Snubbed again even with a win. I didn't get it at all and after complaining to Gina Leone, a NY writer, she sent me Leslie Dixon's "A Dish Served Cold". I laughed like hell-for days. It's Dec. now and it looks like I'm closing the year with 17 or 18 successes. For sure, I got my agent's attention as every week for 3 months I'd gotten some notice or award from somewhere but I'm not holding any paycheck yet from all that. Too soon? Maybe. Strike while the iron's hot? I thought so. So far no offer my agent would consider, his shock at my successes aside. Hell, we were both surprised. Bottom line for me is I was voted in, well-reviewed and then awarded all over the place yet not one prodco. offered me or my agent more than fifty cents for my true story/script. What did I learn from this entire experience? I should've called Leslie Dixon first, stayed home and waited for my agent to call when a prodco looking for my specific genre showed interest. Film Fests do get you some welcomed attention (maybe a little credibility) but if no one wants your script's genre you won't be getting immediate calls and offers just on the basis of a win.

heartbreakwreckingball said...

I recently won an award in the LA screenplay contest and after reading this blog my ego has deflated back to normal. Much thanks ! Xo