SCREENWRITING COMPETITIONS: A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE (HOWARD CASNER)


SCREENWRITER: Howard Casner (Los Angeles, California)


Q: Howard...when did you write your first screenplay?

A: In 2001, when I first moved to Los Angeles. Before this, I only wrote for the stage. However, I had been toying with an idea for a screenplay for some time and when I moved here, it seemed the time to write it.

Q: To date, approximately how many screenplays have you written?
 
A: I have written six screenplays, a TV pilot and one short on my own. I have co-written three screenplays and one TV pilot.
 
Q: Which screenwriting competitions have you entered and seen through to a final result?

A: I suppose the easiest way to answer this question is as follows:

Q: My screenplay Revelation made finalist in the 2007 Screenplay Festival Competition. 

My screenplay Rough Trade made semifinalist in the 2007 Extreme Screenplay Competition; quarterfinalist in the 2007 ScreenwritingExpo Competition; quarterfinalist in the 2009 Champion Screenwriting Competition; and semifinalist in the Outfest Writer’s Lab. 

My screenplays Rough Trade and Welcome to L.A. both made the top twelve in the 2011 Great Gay Screenplay Competition and Welcome to L.A. made the top five.

My screenplay Mel and the Adventures of Sad Man made the second round of the 2013 Outfest Screenwriting Lab. 

My screenplay, The Last Tree Standing Motel, made finalist in the 2014 London Film Awards Screenplay Competition; finalist in the 2015 Glendale Film Festival Screenplay Competition; semifinalist in the 2015 All Access Screenplay Competition; semifinalist in the 2015 Page Screenplay Competition; semifinalist in the 2015 Austin Film Festival Competition. 

My pilot The Dead Letter Office is a quarter-finalist in the most recent PAGE Screenplay Competition.
 
Q: Approximately how many screenplays did you write prior to entering your first competition?

A: I began entering contests with Revelation, my first screenplay .  
 
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: Very rarely. When they did, the quality was fine, but the closer you get to the final rounds, the more conventional I sometimes think the judges are. For example, the most interesting feedback I ever received was for the same screenplay but in two different contests. One was official feedback, sent to me by the contest. The other was unofficial and off the record, which I got through someone I just happened to meet. My screenplays often tend to follow a certain pattern: I introduce a question, usually an absurd one (like Waiting for Godot), and then don’t answer it because it’s a question that can’t be answered; instead the story is about how people react to the question and to the realization that there is no answer (when I’m asked what my brand is, I say European existentialism). For the unofficial response, the reader said that he so wanted my screenplay to make finals, but it didn’t quite and I immediately asked, “It’s the ending, isn’t it?” and he responded, “Well, it’s about the only ending you can have, isn’t it?”, to me confirming some suspicions I have about how my screenplays are received. For the official one, I got back notes by the first two readers who both really got the screenplay and loved it, but both also commented on the ending: one said that is was a brave ending and the other also said it was about the only ending one could have. Then I got the third piece of feedback from the one who determined whether I would make finals and he said he didn’t understand the point of the screenplay at all. 

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

A: Oh, sure. But there were never any hard sales. It was almost always in mass e-mails as a general advertisement of services normally provided if one wanted to use them. The big one was Austin Film Festival who really wanted the quarter-finalists to come to the writer’s weekend.
 
Q: If “yes” to the previous question, did you take advantage of any of these services? Was this a negative or positive experience?
 
A: Not when it comes to feedback. If it doesn’t come with the entry, then I don’t bother. Very few actually offer anything like that in the first place. Others do, but it costs extra and then the money starts adding up, and it’s already expensive enough to enter. It’s tempting, because you might find out why you didn’t do as well as you might like. But the money is the main reason I haven’t. I did take the bait for Austin Film Festival and I had a good time and met some people. It wasn’t negative, but I can’t say I got anything out of it either.   
Q: If you won or placed high in a competition, did it have any effect, positive or negative, on your career?

A: No effect whatsoever as far as I can tell. I may have gotten three requests for my screenplays from various productions companies or managers over the years, but I have yet to hear back from any of them. Fellow writers and people in social media get excited for awhile and it can be an ego boost for a bit, but they soon forget. And since I’m a script consultant, I’m sure it helps there as well.

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

A: I received some money from the Great Gay Screenplay Competition (I don’t remember how much, but it paid for my airplane ticket there). They also did a staged reading of the screenplay, which was great. Glendale did a reading of the opening scenes of the screenplay, which was also great. And Austin Film Festival gave me a discount to the writer’s weekend.

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

A: Just the ego boost.   
 
Q: OK, let’s say you’ve just won one of the big screenwriting competitions. What can a writer expect to happen?
 
A: It depends on the contest, of course. Based on what other writers have told me, you can expect some attention from agents and such. But more than once I’ve been told what happens is that you may get a manager or agent who will finally return your calls when they wouldn’t before. Then after a few months, if they haven’t made any money off of you, they’ll once again stop returning your calls. Of course, some writers have gone on to get other work even if their particular movie didn’t get made. And there are others who have used the attention from the competition to make their movie themselves. So in the end, doing well in a competition can get you attention, but that attention is short lived and may not help at all without other factors weighing in or your ability to take advantage of it in some way, which not everyone is able to do.

Q: Have you ever submitted one of your early screenplays into a competition? If so, is it something you now regret—and why?
 
A: I entered my first screenplay (Revelation) into a competition and it did well. No, I don’t regret it. I have worked on it since then and improved it, but it had a lot of strong aspects to it from the get go. Of course, I had been writing for the stage for a number of years, so I may have had a leg up on others who have written their first screenplay.

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: No, but I actually think that the problem is not what is in your query letter but that I’m more and more convinced that the vast majority of producers, agents, managers, etc. just don’t read them anymore. Every once in awhile I hear from a writer friend that someone responded to their query letter, but at the same time, it happens so infrequently, I feel like it’s more of an urban myth. There are always exceptions, but often if an agent, et al., is going to respond to your placing in a competition, they will probably more often contact you before you can contact them.

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

A: The ego boost, and if you do rather well over a series of contests with the same screenplay, a confirmation that there is something about the screenplay that is connecting to the reader.
 
Q: Overall, what do you feel were the negative aspects of entering a screenplay competition?

A: Loss of money without any getting any real forward momentum on one’s career.
 
Q: What is your current status as a screenwriter?

A: Still struggling and waiting for that break, something to happen that I have the ability of taking advantage of. I’ve been paid for one work for hire by Here [TV] Network, but the movie was never made. I rewrote a screenplay The Compass and have writing credit on it; it’s in post-production. And I have started shooting a web series. Other than that, I make my living doing screenplay consultation and reading for competitions.

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

A: My first thought comes from my being a reader for many competitions. I read so many screenplays that, to be honest, don’t have a shot at doing well because they are unreadable, hard to understand or follow, or just so formulaic that they are bland and dull. Entering contests is expensive, so I think writers should do whatever they can to make sure that their screenplay at least is at a level to make quarterfinals. I would at least suggest that beginning writers enter contests that give feedback, whether they have to pay for it or not, in order to have some idea as to how their screenplays are being received. More experienced writers probably have other avenues or better insight into that and may not want to get feedback and have no need for it. I also think it’s important to realize that the world of movie making is changing. I sometimes get the feeling that my fellow writers think that screenplays are bought and sold as in the 1980’s with the studios being the major game in town. But they’re not any longer and studios make a minority of films that hit the theaters every year. Most writers have to, in some way, produce their first one or two projects first, whether a feature, short, webisode, etc., before they can reach a level where they can make a decent living or get into the studio world. And so contests should be looked at in the same way: not as a way to get your screenplay bought and sold, but as something that one can use to somehow get their product made through their own efforts.From that perspective, contests can play a role in that they can help one get interest in a production of a screenplay that does well. I think I would like to interject one last thought, but this is aimed at contests. Sometimes I get the idea that they also think the way screenplays get made is still the way they are when studios were king and that screenplays are still bought and sold as they were twenty years ago. I wish they would recognize that times are changing and if they really want to help new screenwriters, they need to focus on helping writers getting their work produced in other ways. All I can think is how amazing that would be for the future of film in the U.S. which, as of the last few years, has really gone down in quality.

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