SCREENWRITING COMPETITIONS: A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE (JEFFREY FIELD)



SCREENWRITER: Jeffrey Field (Overland Park, Kansas)

Q: When did you write your first screenplay?

A: My first real screenplay was Mourning People, written in 2005. That script has had quite a journey. Early drafts made the finals of some big contests and was actually optioned three years later by someone who had judged it. The option expired and then another movie that was vaguely similar opened and bombed, so I decided to do a salvage job with it. It now has a new title, a slightly different concept and is back doing well in contests again. Of all my scripts, it’s still the one I’d most like to see made.

Q: To date, approximately how many screenplays have you written?

A: I’ve finished 16 features and one short, plus a couple of vomit drafts that don’t count until I’ve had time to clean them up. In a typical year, I’ll write two new specs and do a new pass on two or three of my old ones. Two of those 16 scripts were co-written with my friend and occasional writing partner Michelle Davidson.

Q: Which screenwriting competitions have you entered and seen through to a final result?

A: I’ve entered and advanced in a wide range of contests over the years, including most of the big ones. Nicholl Fellowship, Screencraft, PAGE, Bluecat, Final Draft Big Break, Scriptapalooza, Script Pipeline, Stage 32 Happy Writers and some of the contests associated with festivals, such as Austin, Nantucket, Nashville, Atlanta, Kansas City, Destiny City and OmahaI had three separate scripts make the Nicholl Fellowship semi-finals in consecutive years, including a Top 50 overall finisher in 2014. I won the 2015 Screencraft Fellowship, was a top 3 finalist at Final Draft Big Break in 2014, won the Bronze Prize in drama at PAGE in 2012 and had a lot of finalist and semifinalist placements.

Q: Approximately how many screenplays did you write prior to entering your first competition?

A: I can’t remember where I first heard about screenwriting competitions, but I entered the first script I ever wrote in one. As I mentioned earlier, that script did pretty well that first year, so I’ve been entering them ever since.

Q: Did the competition(s) offer feedback—notes, critique, etc.—on the script(s) you entered? If so, what was the quality of the feedback?

A: A lot of competitions now give some feedback, even if it’s just a couple of lines. I’ve had very insightful notes on some of my scripts and I’ve had a few comments that make you wonder how closely they read the script. And just because notes come from one of the more prestigious contests doesn’t make them more or less helpful. I’ve had good notes from small contests and crazy notes from some of the big ones. And the lesson is, you can’t use contest feedback, whether it’s positive or negative, as the final word on your script. You don’t know the source. You don’t know if you got a judge that just didn’t connect with your script. And you don’t know if the judge that didn’t connect with the script stretched to find a reason to justify a lower score. So I recommend using contest feedback, especially from a script that didn’t do as well as you expected, as a springboard for brainstorming ideas for a revision and not necessarily a mandate to overhaul things. The best contest feedback I ever got was one that simply said “Don’t be afraid to take this script in a bigger direction.”

Q: Did any of the competitions you entered try to hit you up for pay-based services, such as script consulting, proofing, etc.?

A: I’ve never felt “hit up” for those services. Some of the competitions offer them, but I’ve never done it.

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

A: Winning or placing high in a competition has never been a negative, I’ll say that much. Good contest placements helped me get an agent and (briefly) a manager. I’ve had scripts optioned by people who judged them and liked them. Contests got my scripts read by people who wouldn’t otherwise give me the time of day. The Screencraft Fellowship brought me to Los Angeles for a week and put me offices with producers, agents, managers and other people in positions to help my career. A second-round script at Austin a few years ago got me the opportunity to have lunch with Kelly Marcel, Craig Mazin and Rian Johnson. But every contest is different and every script is different. One contest where I finished very high recently didn’t open any doors at all. It’s all a matter of what your work offers the market and what the market is looking for.

Q: What types of prizes (monetary and non-monetary) have you won from the screenplay competitions you’ve entered?

A: I’ve won cash prizes in a few contests, but the amounts were never giant. The amount I’ve won in contests over the past decade could barely cover the cost of one house payment. The Screencraft Fellowship came with the biggest cash prize I’ve won in a contest, but the trip to Los Angeles and having Screencraft work on my behalf was so much more valuable than that. The Austin Film Festival gives everyone with a second-round script access to special opportunities, including seats in panels with more personalized attention. Getting to watch Lindsey Doran break down the first 10 pages of a handful of second-round scripts was more helpful than a small check would have been. A script that didn’t even make the semifinals of PAGE last year still won me the fellowship to the Stowe Story Labs, where I got a notebook full of ideas, great contacts and motivation. While I’d like to win cash anytime someone is willing to award me some, my primary reason for entering contests is to get read. I’ve had enough luck over the years from people who see potential in my projects and passed those scripts on to someone else, that I think it’s worth the time and expense. It’s hard to get any sort of attention when you don’t live in Los Angeles, and contests have been a way to do it. I had someone with a production company read one of my contest scripts and fall in love with it. She recognizes it will be a hard project to finance in this climate, but she said to keep in touch and she’d love to find a project for us to do together someday. That relationship alone, in my mind, was worth the entry.

Q: Other than any material rewards and/or valuable feedback, what have been the most satisfying aspects of winning a competition?

A: Not going to lie. It’s great to see your name on the finalist lists and it’s even more fun to get emails from industry people who want to read the winning script or find out more about you. It validates and motivates you.

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

A: If it’s the Nicholl Fellowship and you’re a finalist, you’re going to be busy. Everyone will want your script and they’ll want to know who you are. Semifinalists and even quarterfinalists will get requests also, but realize that they might be from someone in a manager’s office who has been tasked with getting all the high-placing Nicholl scripts. If it’s any of the other competitions, you may get some requests and you may not. A lot of it will depend on how commercial they think your project is. A manager might reach out to you to see what else you’ve written. But what a writer should expect, whether any requests come in or not, is to be ready to use whatever juice that contest offers to get exposure for themselves and their scripts. You can’t rely on someone coming to you, because outside of Nicholl, you might never get a single call or email after winning or placing in a contest. Someone with experience in the business once told me, flat out, “Nicholl is the only important contest. Anything else, no one gives a shit.”  While I don’t think the latter part of the comment is necessarily true, from my experience, it’s certainly the consensus one you want to win.

Q: Have you ever submitted one of your early screenplays into competition? If so, is it something you now regret—and why?

A: Like I said, I had good luck with a script out of the box, so I don’t regret a thing about that. If you mean an early draft, I usually don’t even let my wife see drafts that I haven’t been through a few times, so I generally don’t put premature scripts. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea, especially if it’s a contest that gives feedback, because you might at least get someone’s opinion whether you’re on the right track. Most contests have blind judging, so even a bad script is probably not likely to hurt your reputation. At the worst, it’s a waste of money.

Q: Do you feel that adding “I won/placed high in the [name of script comp]” to query letters and pitches prompted any additional interest from agents, managers and/or production companies you queried?

A: I don’t think it hurts. It at least separates you from the pack of those scripts that didn’t place high in something. But it’s probably not going to help as much you think it will unless it’s a win in a big contest or a finalist placement in a really big contest. Saying you were a quarterfinalist at the Hickory County, Missouri, Film Festival probably isn’t going to do you any good. That said, your logline and pitch will do much more to make or break your query letter than whether it’s a competition winner or not.

Q: Overall, what do you feel were the positive aspects of entering a screenplay competition?

A: Getting read, getting exposure for your scripts, making contacts, getting some of the ancillary prizes that come with a competition win, and a little bit of cash. Plus, it’s great encouragement when your scripts do well.

Q: Overall, what do you feel were the negative aspects of entering a screenplay competition?

A: They’re expensive. Sometimes even winning first place won’t do much for you. And when a script you think will do well in a contest doesn’t do well, that’s a gut punch. That’s when you have to remember how arbitrary and subjective contest judging can be.

Q: What is your current status as a screenwriter?

A: I’ve had five script options, but funding issues have kept them all from getting produced. I’ve got an agent and I’m on the lookout for a young and hungry manager. If anyone knows someone like that, have them give me a shout.

Q: Any parting comments, thoughts, or words of advice for screenwriters considering entering a competition?

A: Do it! You’ll be miles ahead of the people who’ve never had the guts to try; enter early because it costs less and you can use the savings to enter other competitions later; if you do well, don’t wait for fortune to come to you, grab the keys and drive your own success; and whether you win or not, get back to writing.

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