SCREENWRITING COMPETITIONS: A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE (RONSON PAGE)



SCREENWRITER: Ronson Page (Texas)

Q: Ronson…when did you write your first screenplay?

A: I wrote my first original feature length screenplay, a mystery-drama called The Bone Orchard, in March-April 2003. I’d just been laid off my straight gig of more than eight years, running a corporate television network…creatively soul-sucking, but a nice source of income. My wife and I were expecting our first child in a few months, and we’d just closed on our first house, a week earlier…so the timing of the layoff was pretty lousy. Since I had severance, my wife encouraged me to take a month off and just recharge, then get to writing.  I spent about a month outlining a story I’d had rattling around my noggin for quite some time, and I spent the next month (April 2003) writing the first draft of The Bone Orchard.  I had a couple days to get a quick read from a couple of writer buddies of mine and do a very quick polish, before I sent The Bone Orchard in to the Nicholl Fellowship competition, with one day to spare.  Over the next couple of months, I also sent The Bone Orchard off to Scriptapolooza, the Austin, and either the Disney or the Chesterfield, I forget which.

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

A: Four.  Of those four, I’ve either sold or optioned (multiple times) three of ‘em…the most recent one, I have not really shown around.  I’m not a slow writer, but if I’m not inspired or motivated, I can be lazy.  Add to that, there have been periods of time, measured in years, when I could not do any writing, due to this or that.  But, I will add that I spend a great deal of time, just thinking about story.  That’s pretty much non-stop, and I think many or most writers will tell you the same thing:  lot of writing goes on, in the noggin.

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

A: The Nicholl, Scriptapolooza, Austin, and Disney (or Chesterfield).

Q: Approximately how many screenplays did you write prior to entering your first competition?
 
A: Zero original feature screenplays; The Bone Orchard was my first.  But there were many short film screenplays—I thought it would be less painful, to learn to write short films, first— plus I’ve been doing one form of creative writing or another since I was about 9 years old.  I won my first contest at the age of 12.  I was a journalism major, in college.  So when I tell you that I’d written zero original feature scripts, before The Bone Orchard, I don’t want to give the impression that me being able to string words together to form a pleasing phrase just sorta sprung from my noggin, fully-formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.  I’ve always been a writer; I’ve always enjoyed telling stories.  The trick was learning how to tell a story for viewers to watch on a screen, within a certain number of pages.

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: No feedback was offered in the competitions I entered, at that time.

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

A: No.

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

A: Oh yes. In 2003, I entered four or five writing contests, the ones I determined were some of the best, if not the very best, at that time:  the Nicholl, Scriptapolooza, AFF, and either Disney or Chesterfield, I forget which. Of those contests, I crapped out in all, but one.  I mean, I didn’t even get past the first round, and in a moment, you’ll understand the importance of that first reader. The one contest I advanced in, and kept advancing in, was the Nicholl.  Even as I was getting first round rejection letters from AFF, from Scriptapolooza, etc., I was advancing in the Nicholl (which was kinda amusing and kinda baffling). Quarterfinals, then Semifinals, then a phone call from Greg to tell me I was a Finalist…top ten scripts, out of 6,000+ entries.  I was stunned. I did not win a Fellowship, but like all Finalists, was flown out to Beverly Hills for a week, all expenses paid, meetings out the yang…really, the only difference between a Finalist and a Fellow is the $30K.  Which is a nice chunk of change, but in terms of how you are treated by the Nicholl Committee and the rest of the industry, it’s the same. When the Finalists are announced and the trades print the list, your phone and email goes nuts for a few days…you become extremely popular, white hot, at least for a few weeks.  Being a Finalist (or a Fellow) is a temporary golden ticket into the Chocolate Factory.  Everyone wants to take a meeting with you.  Everyone wants to read you (or have their assistant read you). If you can take advantage of the momentary attention, you can parlay that into new relationships, folks who will want to read you, again and again.  And, eventually, you might sell something or land a gig.  I did both.

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

A: Zero! Well, okay…as a Nicholl Finalist, again, the trip to Beverly Hills is paid for…airline, hotel (the Beverly Hilton, not as fancy as you might think), per diem (very handy, if you don’t eat expensively and end up with your rental car towed and you gotta get it out of hock, which I did)…but in terms of actual prizes, things with ribbons attached or enormous checks, nada.

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

A: I’d offer that the most satisfying aspect for me—and I only recognized this a year or two later—was learning how much I still had to learn.  I went out there with the one script.  Truthfully, part of me was in too much shock to even begin to write anything else.  The other part of me was naive enough to believe that this one script, The Bone Orchard, was going to land me an agent and then we’d be off to the races. Nope.  Didn’t happen like that. Not for me, anyway.

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

A: You’re going to become popular, very fast.  Everyone is going to want to read your script.  Or their assistant is going to want to read your script, which is how it frequently shakes down.  You’re going to get a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls.  I made the mistake (I think) in only letting potential agents read me…I had this idea about keeping the material “fresh” so when the theoretical agent sent it out, it would be new stuff to everyone.  Guess what—I did not land an agent.  And I didn’t land an agent for two reasons:  my script The Bone Orchard was a “hard sell” and I did not have anything else to show.  That script would still be my calling card, but it would be three years later, and only after a producer asked me about it, out of the blue.  The lesson here is let everyone who is interested read your script.  Your goal should not be selling that script (unlikely) or even landing an agent or other rep (they will find you, eventually).  Your goal should be to get as many industry people as possible familiar with your writing, your style, your awesomeness…because most of ‘em, they already have projects in the wings. And they need writers. And there’s always a shortage of great writers.  So let ‘em read you!  Because in a few weeks, the shine will be off, the next hot whatever will step off the bus, and you will be a memory.  You have a limited amount of time to do something.  Let ‘em read you.

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

A: Well, I had a lot of success with my first screenplay (see above), but I’m probably an unusual example.

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’ve never queried an agent, manager or prodco…all of the interaction I had with those folks, came from the Nicholl, and they all contacted me, as they do with every Nicholl Finalist.  For me, my scripts have always made their way to the right people…someone asks to read me, I pass along my script, they end up passing it up the ladder, and a few weeks later, someone is emailing me, asking about options and such.  I should add that I’m in Texas, so I don’t have the luxury of running into folks at Trader Joe’s or meeting for drinks or whatever folks do, out there.  I write, and on the strength of that writing, I get read.  Aside from occasional trips to LA to meet with this person or that person—I have a couple of stories—what I do is write and keep learning, keep trying to writer better than I did, the week or month, before…interruptions be damned.

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

A: Meeting industry folks is a biggie, even if just to see how the industry animal moves and talks and breathes and looks over your shoulder for the next convo, if you start to bore them.  Seeing how you measure up to other writers…I think that’s important, when you’re starting out, when you’re learning the craft and learning to know when you’ve done good work.  And it introduces you to writing deadlines…those never go away.

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

A: For me, once I started advancing, it was excitement-induced writing paralysis. And this one is not exactly a negative, more a fact of the industry, but it can be negative:  That first reader.  The first reader is a killer, because if that reader doesn’t get the material—you can be a certified genius-savant-Scott Frank-esque writer—if that first reader does not respond to the material, for whatever reason, you’re done.  You can always submit again, the next year, but boy oh boy…that first read is a killer. As I mentioned earlier, The Bone Orchard was dinked in every other competition, first round, except the Nicholl.  Part of the reason for that is the Nicholl always has at least two readers, in the first round.  And if those two readers don’t agree, the script is read a third time.  That’s unheard of, but makes so much more sense, and this is how they better cull the scripts. Of course, I’m biased…but to get to the Nicholl Finals, over three rounds, my script was read by eight different industry pros. The odds of that happening are lessened, I think, by a single first reader.  Unfortunately, the single first reader really a more accurate representation of the industry:  one assistant reads for someone at a prodco, and if the assistant says “nope” then your script never lands on the higher-up’s desk.  You’re done…and you’re not only done, but you’re now in their system on a hard drive, somewhere, with your name, script title and a big PASS next to your script.  So you’ll not get that one read at that prodco, ever again, even if it’s ten drafts later and it’s brilliant, unless fate or an act of God intervenes.

Q: What is your current status as a screenwriter?

A: Let’s call me part-time professional; I'm still balancing my creative stuff with my daddy-ing stuff.  I just ended one option on a script—terrible experience, catch me sometime in person and I’ll drop names and offer more cautions than you can count—and am now working with another prodco that I really like.  I’m also giving thought to getting back to shooting, again… something I have not done, since my last short film.  I’d like to shoot that fourth script I currently hold…it can be done locally, and fairly easily, in terms of logistics.  So I’m playing with that, too. And there's always more ideas.  The trick for me is finding/making the time.

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

A: Like the Knight Templar says to Indy:  Choose wisely. Not all competitions are created equal.  Winning a medium or smaller competition may do exactly squat for your writing career.  The Nicholl is still, I think, the king of the competitions, for all the right reasons: judging, exposure, prize money.  Austin is probably in the top five, still.  Disney is (I have been told by two who’ve won) a sweatshop, even by industry standards, but the exposure there is fantastic.  Sundance, I think, you gotta be great and know the secret handshake, so good luck with that one.  All of those will open doors for you, if you place or win.  And, again:  the end goal of winning a competition should not be getting sold, or even getting repped; the end goal is getting read. You win or place, and that first reader is a lot easier to get past.  Don’t squander the opportunity, like I did. There [are] lots of roads into Hollywood, but it’s dumb to ignore a nice paved one. Get the read. Everything else follows that first reader. Reps, sales, your film being made…everything.

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