SCREENWRITER'S POV: SCRIPT COMPETITIONS

I’d like to express my thanks to Breanne Mattson, Glenn Forbes, and Shawn Davis for sharing their script competition experiences. Now, without further ado…

Q: When did you start writing screenplays?

BREANNE: I wrote my first one almost ten years ago. It was terrible and I didn’t write another one for years. Six or seven years ago was really the beginning for me.


GLENN: I got serious about it in 2000.


SHAWN: Two years ago [in 2010].


Q: Approximately how many screenplays have you written?

BREANNE: I’m a very prolific writer. I’ve written around twenty features and probably more than twenty shorts. I guess some people would take that as a sign I should have succeeded by now, but seriously, I’m just prolific. I have a lot to say.

GLENN: I’ve written nine features. Not enough. I should have written at least twenty in that time. I run a small production company, and also had three kids in the last decade. I don’t get as much time for writing as I used to.

SHAWN: Fifteen.

Q: Which screenwriting competitions(s) have you entered?


BREANNE: The Nicholl Fellowships, TrackingB, Bluecat, Final Draft, Big Break. I really only recently started entering contests. I entered a few others early on, but quit bothering for years. Ordinarily, I just do my own thing.

GLENN: Between 2002 (my first year of actively pursuing a career) and 2011 I’ve entered various screenplays in almost all the major screenwriting contests. This includes: Austin, PAGE, The Nicholl Fellowships, Bluecat, Scriptapalooza, TrackingB, Final Draft, and a whole bunch of the smaller competitions as well. In the early days I used to enter between five and ten contests per year. So I guess I’ve probably entered nearly one hundred competitions.

SHAWN: I’ve entered my scripts in the PAGE Awards and the KAIROS Prize competition.

Q: How many screenplays had you written prior to entering your first competition?

BREANNE: I’m not sure. I can’t remember the first competition I entered. I quickly realized it was too early and stopped. If I had to guess, I’d say two or three.

GLENN: I began entering feature screenplay competitions after finishing my third screenplay in 2002. But I entered a short script in several short script competitions the previous year and had won a few awards for it. So, it was then I though I'd up my game and see how well I would compete at the feature level.

SHAWN: Just one. It was a terrible script, but I did learn a lot from it.

Q: If you sent one of your first script attempts to a competition, is it something you regret?

BREANNE: Yes. It was a waste of everyone’s time. Not just mine, but the readers. I wasn’t ready and I was too na├»ve to know it.

GLENN: I never sent my first script out to competitions. And I'm very glad I didn't.

SHAWN: I think there is always something you regret after hitting the “send” button. My first competition, I sent the wrong draft but they were kind enough to allow me to resend the copy I intended on sending.

Q: Did you receive any type of feedback on the script(s) you entered?

GLENN: Some contests came with feedback. For the most part, the feedback was simple and not very helpful.

SHAWN: No, but the contest I entered only offered feedback if I paid an additional fee.

Q: Did the competition(s) try to hit you up for any pay-based services, such as script consulting, proofing, representation, etc.?

BREANNE: I only remember one that offered feedback with a special rate. Other than that one instance, I’ve never paid for anything other than the entry fee. And I wouldn’t say they hit me up. It was just something they offered at a time I wanted some feedback.

GLENN: Some of them charge extra money to provide feedback. It’s an option when you enter. But I wouldn’t say I was ever “hit up” to purchase a service.

SHAWN: PAGE Awards does, but The KAIROS Prize did not.

Q: If yes to my previous question, did you take advantage of any of these services? Or do you feel like you were the one being taken advantage of?

BREANNE: I paid extra for feedback that one time. It was cheap and I thought it was pretty good, actually.

GLENN: One time I requested feedback from a screenplay competition that was held concurrently with a major film festival. The reader hated the script. He vilified it and me. That same script, with not one word changed, won the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition. From that point on, I was pretty well soured to getting any decent feedback through a festival. Not that they’re all bad…but some of them have readers who are not qualified to give insightful feedback. I’d rather pay a little money to a professional with credentials, to get proper feedback.

Q: If you won, or even placed high in a competition, did it have any positive effect on your budding career?

BREANNE: Well, I’ve never landed a rep or sold a script. If that’s the bar, then no. It led to people contacting me about my work. Mostly, it was validating.

GLENN: Winning at Austin nudged me in the right direction and opened many doors. It got me lots of meetings and an open door policy with a few of the majors.

SHAWN: I placed in the top 10% in the KAIROS Prize, which was a great shot to my writing arm. I wrote that script specifically for that competition. I’ve quarter-finaled in The PAGE Awards both times I entered. So far as getting a bump in my career, I can’t say I have, but it gives me a feeling that if I continue to improve and work hard, I should see myself work further up the winnings ladder and possibly into a top slot where your script is truly at a level for producers to want to look at.

Q: Whether or not you won, what are some of the positive aspects of the competition(s) you entered?

BREANNE: If you don’t place in some way, I’m not sure there are any. I mean, it’s exciting to anticipate the possibilities. You enter because you think you’ve got something. You can imagine winning, getting attention, selling a script, getting a movie made. Success! But that’s all really just in the writer’s mind. It’s fun to think of where it could all lead. I’ve been fortunate enough to place in some big ones. If you place, it’s validating. It gives you something else to promote yourself with. And it may help make some new contacts. If you don’t place, the only positive thing I can see about it is whatever you may have learned from the experience.

GLENN: The prizes are always great…but the real value is having your work validated against your peers. If you know how well you fare against other budding screenwriters you get a better feel for how much harder you have to work, to break in as a working screenwriter.

SHAWN: It first of all, gives you something to look forward to. You know, the first round cuts? It’s exciting to see your name on the list of writers moving to the next tier. It also gives you a deadline for the completion of a script. When I write a script for a contest, I know in the back of my mind there is a time limit. Being able to write a script based on the parameters of the contest, along with the challenge of pushing yourself to write something from scratch, for a specific genre. It’s very satisfying.

Q: What do you feel are the negative aspects, if any, of entering a competition?

BREANNE: They cost money. That’s probably the worst thing. That’s why I stick to major competitions like Nicholl. They charge less and offer more. You could say competitions give false hope or whatever, but I really think that’s up to the individual. I don’t have any illusions. For me, it’s a matter of seeing if my writing stands out. If there’s some way I can use the distinction to further my career, I will. I look for competitions I think may help me make contacts. I don’t need new software. Those kinds of prizes don’t attract me. If you don’t place, then it was really just a game. It might have been fun, but it didn’t really serve your aspirations.

GLENN: The unreliability of them to judge your script on an equal playing field. You can win one major competition and not even advance at all in another major competition. The script doesn’t change, just the readers. So, not all readers respond to the same material. The crapshoot aspect is the worst part of entering contests.

SHAWN: Separating a good one from a bad one. There are hundreds of competitions out there now and many are not worth a dime, much less an entry fee. I think that’s why the really good ones are separating from the pack and bringing in record numbers of entrants.

Q: Based on your experiences, would you recommend screenwriting competitions as a way for budding screenwriters to further their career?

BREANNE: I don’t know how much they improve your chances of scoring a sale, but I think they could help. For me, placing in a respectable competition is just a way to show that someone read my work and thought it was good. If you’re looking at two writers and the only difference you see is that one has placed in the Nicholl Fellowships, I’m inclined to think that one will be taken more seriously. But then, I think it depends on more factors than that. A great writer doesn’t always write a great script. Or a commercial one. A novice may lack execution, but may have an amazing idea. Generally, I think it helps to stand out in any way you can.

GLENN: They are one avenue to building a career. For a very select few, a win might jumpstart a career. For most people, winning or placing highly is simply something you can mention in your query letter that elevates you from the next writer. Competitions, networking, querying, working in the business, etc….most people need to do all of them simultaneously, to nudge their career forward. And I do mean nudge. Very few people skyrocket to success on one script, or one contest win. It’s the cumulative effect of working every possible angle to get your name out there, while constantly writing better and better material.

SHAWN: Yes! But you need to be a bit thick-skinned about rejection and realize there are many really good writers out there intent on winning that money.

Q: What is the largest prize—monetary or otherwise—you've ever won from one of these competitions?

BREANNE: I’ve never won any prize.

GLENN: At Austin, I won $5000 and a killer bronze typewriter trophy. The CFC gave me about $14,000 in donated services, to get the movie made. Which we did.

SHAWN: None, to date.

Q: What other types of prizes (non-monetary) have you won from these competitions?

BREANNE: Nothing other than the distinction of placing, which I like. I find it somewhat valuable. It does attract some people to my work who might otherwise have overlooked me.

GLENN: Things like free listings on Inktip, or Sell-a-Script. Free Final Draft Software. Magazine subscriptions.

SHAWN: None, to date

Q: Other than any material rewards, what have been the most satisfying aspects of winning a screenwriting competition?

BREANNE: The best thing I’ve ever gotten through a contest is contacts, which I actually consider more valuable than any prize. And I learned a lot, as a result. Maybe I’m crazy, but I really do just want to be a great writer.

GLENN: Walking around Austin carrying a twenty-pound Bronze Typewriter trophy and having execs from places like CAA, Gersh, and Ivan Reitman’s company run over to talk to me was pretty cool. Really, getting calls after the festival is awesome. When someone recognizes that you won and they want to talk to you, they want you to come out to LA and meet you to talk about what’s next…that’s the best feeling.

Q: Overall, do you feel it’s worth the time, effort and money to enter a screenwriting competition?

BREANNE: I think it can really help if you win or place highly in a major one like Nicholl. It certainly isn’t something you should depend on. The statistics make it clear that most writers will fail, whether they enter a competition, or not. I really can’t say it was worth it, unless it leads to a movie.

GLENN: Yes. But really only the top few…which I consider to be The Nicholl Fellowships, Austin, PAGE, and TrackingB. The career goal should be to become a working screenwriter that sees their movie made…not a contest junkie who is just out to pad their resume, or their query letter. Usually only the top contests help to nudge your career forward in any meaningful way. There are always exceptions…but you should always strive to measure yourself against the best. And those competitions are the best, attracting the best writers.

SHAWN: I do feel it is worth the time, effort and money. Contests offer a unique opportunity for a writer to be thrown in with other writers and (in most cases) during the process, the cream rises to the top. If you do final, or even win, then you know that your work blindly beat out other writers, due to the anonymity of the judging and with the removal of the writers name from the script. For the most part, the best script wins based on its merits. And if you don't place, it's not so much a letdown, because you know many others went down with you.

Q: OK, let’s say you’ve just won one of the big screenwriting competitions. What can a writer expect to happen?

BREANNE: Well, I haven’t won a big one so I don’t know. I can tell you what I would do, though. I would focus on the contacts. I would take advantage of any open doors while they were open.

GLENN: I can only speak about what happened to me. When I won Austin I had a few big name producers, [Directors of Development] and agencies approach me at the awards ceremony. They all wanted to know about my script and requested a copy. I had an extra copy or two with me and was able to hand them over immediately. The others were sent copies as soon as I got back from the festival. I had a few more inquiries by email and phone within the next few weeks as well. I also sent out a ton of queries which generated a lot more reads. About six weeks after the festival, I went to LA and had follow-up meetings with the companies that read the script. And beyond that initial six week blitz….I really felt like I could milk that win for the next six months or so. People were far more willing to talk to me than they ever were before that win.

SHAWN: It depends on the competition. Some only offer cash prizes; others combine money and product such as writing software, while yet other contests will guarantee your script will make its way into a certain group’s hands.

Q: Of the competitions you’ve entered, which do you feel was the most worthwhile?

BREANNE: The Nicholl Fellowships. TrackingB was a good experience, but the Nicholl carries with it the prestige of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Inside and out of the industry, everyone knows about the Academy.

GLENN: Austin…obviously. It opened doors to high level companies and agencies. But by placing highly at both PAGE and Nicholl, I can also say that they generate a lot of script read requests as well.

SHAWN: The KAIRO PRIZE for sure. It’s a contest for spiritually uplifting scripts. It’s also a very difficult genre to write. In an age where the “F” bomb is almost a foregone conclusion in a script, the KAIROS Prize has to be clean, wholesome and uplifting. That type of writing is harder than you think. You place there and you feel like you’ve done something.

Q: True or false (and please explain why): “Entering a no-name competition is a waste of time.”

BREANNE: I hate to call something a waste of time, especially if there’s something valuable to be learned from it, but yeah, I would have to say that’s essentially true. I mean, is placing in a no-name competition going to impress anyone? Probably not. But I also think it’s important to try and stay on the cutting edge. If a no-name contest looks like it might go somewhere in the future, that may be something to consider. I wish I could have entered the Nicholl when there were around two thousand entries, you know.

GLENN: True. Nobody cares about them except you, the writer. But if you can place highly, or win at one of the top competitions…that’s a feather in your cap. It means you are among the best in the minor leagues.

SHAWN: False, they are all no-name contests at first. The cream does rise (or fall) fast though. Word gets around quick, if all you’re doing is working the numbers for profit alone. It’s the contest that posts results on the deadline stated, that responds to emails from entrants, that keeps their website updated, that rises. Many of them don’t and fall by the side quickly.

Q: If you had to enter just one or two screenwriting competitions, which would you enter?

BREANNE: The Nicholl Fellowships and TrackingB.

GLENN: Always enter the Nicholl Fellowships. It’s the most prestigious. I’d follow it up with Austin…especially because the screenwriter’s conference at Austin is amazing. What a great learning and networking experience.

SHAWN: Right now, these are the only two I enterPAGE and KAIROS.

Q: While you were actively submitting screenplays to competitions, were you also querying agents, managers and/or production companies?

BREANNE: I’m not big into querying. I seldom do it. I’m sure it’s hurt me. They say you have to be “good in a room.” I’ve always been a misfit. That’s probably the main reason I haven’t succeeded. I’m reclusive and socially awkward. I used to query more often. I had a script optioned in Hollywood for a year and a half, as a direct result of querying. The script languished in development until the rights reverted back to me. Since that time, I’ve gotten into producing and directing independently. Since I started making my own films, I almost never query. In the last few years, almost all of my correspondences with people in Hollywood have been initiated by them. And that has been the direct result of doing well in the Nicholl Fellowships and TrackingB. I’m a pretty good writer and filmmaker, but terrible “in the room.” If I’m in a crew meeting or a rehearsal, as long as I’m working on how we’re going to make a film, I’m into that. I’m focused. I’m right there. If I have to schmooze, or whatever, I’m out of my element. Besides, the great thing about writing is that you don’t just have your whole life to succeed at it, you’ve got the whole time you’re dead, too.

GLENN: Yes. But as I realized that my script was moving up in the competition, I stopped querying. I was waiting to see how far I would get and then would use that in my query letter, to hopefully generate more reads. And it worked.

SHAWN: No, but that is something I intend to get more involved with this year. The last two years have been more devoted to working on my writing so that someday, I might have something to offer. I have a script or two right now nicely polished and (I think) ready to be seen.

Q: If so, what type of responses were you getting, if any?

GLENN: I find I’m lucky if I get a one in ten response for any script I’ve written, via a cold query. I figure 50% of my queries were probably never opened. Another 25% were probably opened by some intern who was instructed to delete 95% of those. So, when you think about it….One in ten is a fair response rate. But when I began mentioning the Austin win in my query letter, my request rate was much higher. Probably close to 40%.

Q: Do you feel that adding "I won the [whichever script comp you won or placed high in]" to your query letters and/or telephone pitches engendered any additional interest from the agents, managers and/or production companies you queried?

BREANNE: Yes. If the logline had been crap, I guess it wouldn’t have mattered. If you’ve got a compelling logline, I think a contest placement or win will excite people a little more. I think people naturally want to check out a script that’s won a competition. I also think it depends on what people are looking for. If someone wants a contained thriller and your script has an earthquake causing a metropolitan city to crumble into the sea, it probably won’t matter if you won a competition.

GLENN: Absolutely. As long as it’s one of the few competitions that the industry is aware of, and respects.

SHAWN: I don’t think it would hurt. Winning or even placing does show that you may have some talent and that the script which you are pitching has been rated (at least in a competition) as one of the better scripts around.

Q: What is your current status as a screenwriter?

BREANNE: Unsold. Well, I’ve sold some stuff independently, but I haven’t earned enough to disqualify me from the Nicholl Fellowships. I also direct now. Just shorts so far, but I’m planning my first feature.

GLENN: I’ve written nine features. Three of them are under option, currently. I’ve had a couple of assignments…page one rewrites, polishes, etc. All in all, I’ve optioned my Austin winner four times, to different producers who were not able to get it set up. I’m still writing, primarily low-budget thrillers and the occasional comedy. Next up, a low-budget thriller, that I’ll direct myself.

SHAWN: Active! I write seven days a week. Even if I sit at my computer for two hours and punch out one sentence, I force myself to set there until I do.

Q: Any parting comments, thoughts, or words of advice?

BREANNE: I’m hesitant to give advice to other writers, because I don’t want to steer anyone in the wrong direction. Screenwriters have been advised again and again to write regularly and read lots of scripts. I think that’s about the best advice you can get. The best advice I can personally offer is to be yourself. Your uniqueness is the only thing you really have to separate yourself. No matter how much you may hide it in your everyday life, you shouldn’t hold back in your writing. You shouldn’t be afraid to be vulnerable. No one ever achieved greatness by being exactly like everyone else.

GLENN: Contests are a means to an end. Use them to gauge how much harder you have to work to break through to the next level…that of a working screenwriter. The prizes and the glory of winning will always fade over time. Keep your eye on the real prize…working hard, improving your abilities, and writing great material that people will want to turn into a movie.

SHAWN: Although not having won the top prize yet in a competition, placing also has a thrill to it that helps to solidify a script that managed to beat out most in its genre. I do hope someday to take top spot, but what placing tells me is that I’m a good enough writer to be considered, but I also still have a ways to go.

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For more interviews with screenwriters who have entered screenwriting competitions, check out:



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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jim,

Thanks for this interview, which cheered me up today after I saw the list for the American Zoetrope winers and runners-up. A list without my name on it!

I thought I'd contribute to the conversation. I am a female screenplay with an independent feature produced, and the script i have currently out in competition has just been validated by a Hollywood insider (who "loved it!!!!") as a potentially "go" project for a Brit/Indian production team. This all should let the reader know that I write Euro type movies, I am successful, and I am bombing out in this contest game. (I still qualify to submit because my income from writing the indie feature was well below the threshold.)

It is disheartening, but there you have it. This should be proof for us all that winning is no measure of talent, and that creative value cannot always be measured by the units we desire.

Just as one of your panelists described, the exact same issues "flagged" by readers for one contest (who provided feedback) were the ones cited by the producer as reasons why he loved my script and predicted that it will get made.

Hang in there, everyone. Just do the day to day. I'm off on a mini break after six weeks of 6,000 word days as a paid writer. Writers write, and sometimes we get discouraged, and sometimes we need breaks to clear our heads.

Thanks again for your interview. Good luck everyone.