Are Screenplay Competitions Worth the Money?
Are Screenwriting Competitions Worth the Money?
I would say that Screenwriting Competitions are absolutely not worth the money, yet I will continue to enter everyone that I can afford to enter.
Writing sensibilities versus business sensibilities: You need to develop both.
Why are Screenwriting Competitions not worth the cost? Here is the long answer from my personal experience:
Writing being a form of art (craft? depending…,) the act of writing and reading and deconstructing takes a massive amount time to do well. As a result, many writers don’t know how to make that transition – how to turn that skill into money, while not sacrificing the writing as a form of art. As a result, many will default to a competition where they can be “found.”
For me the transition feels like walking around in a maze blindfolded, hoping that one of these turns leads somewhere, and trying to memorize the layout of the maze as you pass through.
I turned to screenwriting from fiction writing. After a few screenplays I started to feel confident, but at the same time I had no idea what to do with these files saved in my computer. After some quick research I found that all my source texts concurred, agents are the answer. It seemed simple. I would just look through the names and pick the one I wanted.
Simple. Just pick an agent.
I wrote letters to every literary agent listed on the WGA site. Hundreds of letters. I eagerly waited by the mail box for a few weeks, but there was not a single reply.
I went back to the research, and again all the texts concurred. I must have written a poor letter. I spent as much time drafting the next letter as I would have spent writing a script. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I spent a long time. After a lot of money was spent on postage (money that I didn’t have to spare) there were again no replies.
I then read that agents receive a lot of query letters. You have to make it easy for them. I then sent SASE. Still no replies. Not easy enough? Finally I sent postcards where they simply had to check ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and I also included the most absurd letter I could conjure. To this most of my postcards were actually returned, many of them with little notes on them like, “ha ha, great sense of humor.” Unfortunately, they all ended with “no thanks,” or “we’re not taking on new clients right now, but try back in October.”
I tried back in October, and November, and December, etc. with no luck. I did receive a rejection e-mail from one of the agents, however, and I took the opportunity to extract as much information out of him as possible.
The e-mails went back and forth, and basically what I learned was this:
1.) As the smallest literary agent in Los Angeles, he received approximately 5,000 query letters a year. (How many is that per business day?)
2.) He does not take any clients through query letters.
3.) He doesn’t care about resumes, unless they include a produced movie with named talent. Even in this case, the writer must be referred to him.
4.) He does not take any screenwriting competitions seriously as they, in his opinion, do not have qualified readers.
5.) He ONLY accepts new clients through referrals.
It gets rather frustrating when you can’t even get anyone to read your script so that they can honestly tell you that they are not interested. Again, the allure of Screenplay Competitions.
As far as the literary agent in question’s opinion on number four, Screenwriting Competitions, I unfortunately have a similar opinion.
Over the past five years I’ve met three people who have won some of the bigger screenwriting competitions. As a result, nothing has happened for any of them. I personally have never won a screenwriting competition. When I enter the same script in multiple competitions, however, they are never similar in how they place. Sometimes they place high, and sometimes they don’t place at all.
I’ve met script readers for screenplay competitions (just as I’ve met people who screen movies for film festivals – that’s another story all together) and I will say, if there was a good script, it would be well over their heads anyway. It is almost a complement not to do well.
Who judges which scripts are the good scripts?
As far as a screenwriting competition is concerned, what is a good script? Something that is within the script readers’ level of comprehension. Chances are that the readers are not reading Shakespeare and James Joyce in their spare time. Something that is well written might take several reads for a more complete level of comprehension. For someone that does not think critically, or have more developed comprehension skills, or the desire to read something multiple times, the script might as well be in a foreign language.
There is a reason why pop is more popular than jazz or Classical music. There is a reason why Romance novels sell more than poetry.
With some of the bigger competitions typically having several thousand entries, there are often multiple readers. As the more notable readers will require a larger fee for their services, they will not be the people reading through the first few rounds. The competitions will hire readers to thin out the thousands of entries, and those readers who are doing the thinning are often students.
How qualified are they?
Every time I’ve taken a screenwriting class or workshop, including MFA programs, they approach screenwriting like there is a ten step program to becoming a competent screenwriter. Screenwriting is a relatively new art form, but most programs do not require material beyond the medium in question – solely relying on reading the works of other students and produced scripts.
There are simply not enough good scripts to use as the foundation of study, where there are thousands of years of literature that have produced a hand full of masterpieces. Instead of deconstructing something solid, students sit through, “There are three acts. Act one should end on page 28. If you watch Thelma and Louise, which is a perfect example of solid structure…”
Of all the classes I took, I had only one teacher who suggested Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, and that was a very soft suggestion. When I took the peripheral required literature classes, they were not geared toward writers. Instead of deconstructing literature, the student would learn what the cultural significance of that author was, or why they were a part of Southern Literature versus Post Modern Literature. As part of the fiction writing program, on the other hand, there were absolutely required classes in deconstructing literature (in one school anyway.)
Are these readers really qualified?
There are guidelines for the readers to follow. Some, for example, will have different categories by which they will grade a script. For example, they may grade them on character development, development of surface level story, consistency of theme, dialogue, etc, with each section being graded between a one and five. Even with the defined categories, however, it is not math where there is a defined answer. The grading is subject to the ability and tastes of the readers, and this is entirely subjective.
On a side note, presentation is a key factor in many competitions. If you are submitting a hard copy, you need to bind it with two brass tabs, not three. You will be penalized for poor spelling, incorrect format, font, etc.
…and if you win?
Like me, you enter regardless… but instead you win. Congratulations! You will make some money, talk to a few agents who are paid to sit and smile at you in five minute increments. In some of the better competitions there are valuable panels, which will probably make all the efforts worth it. You will have your picture on the competitions’ website for years to come. But… you still have no movie.
This does not mean that the experience was not valuable, but it does question Screenplay Competitions as the road to a career. Consider that there several thousand entries, and after a certain point the fact is that quality is simply not playing a factor. You have to be realistic and ask, “Is this is a road with a defined direction, or is it more like playing the lottery?” If you continue to enter screenwriting competitions, you cannot rely on them as the be all end all of your screenwriting career.
Forge your own career.
I probably spent the most time thinking about number five on his list: He ONLY takes on new clients through referrals. Who do I know that will refer me to a literary agent? Nobody, and nobody’s uncle, second cousin, or brother in-law. One alternative is to move to Los Angeles with the other thousands of writers and try to meet someone who can refer me to somebody. That is not necessarily a bad idea, but I’m not going to.
I later learned that this knowing somebody was one of the biggest benefits to studying at UCLA or USC. Make friends with upperclassman, and by the time you graduate, one of their upperclassman friends already got them a job where they can now help you. I am also not going to start school over, although that’s not necessarily a bad idea either. Four years no longer seems like that long of a time when you’ve spent ten years trying to do something.
Again, looking at number five…
I rethought the question. You can’t get an agent until you’ve had something produced, and you can’t get produced without having an agent. (Although you can do either if you are friends with somebody who knows somebody…)
Basically then, the literary agent and the producer are the lifeblood of the screenwriter. So I can then become a literary agent or a producer and skip the step that’s been holding me back. To be a literary agent I have to have relationships with producers to be of any value, and that’s simply not the case.
That leaves me with PRODUCER. Sounds simple enough… just like picking the agent I want and sending them a little note… Again, four years later, and I feel like I am at the starting line.
Become the PRODUCER that hires the writer.
Here’s what I learned that I needed to do to get to what I hope I can now consider the starting line.
1.) Check the local listings and volunteer to work on all the low budget movies that you can. (Volunteering means that you work for free - but of course that doesn’t mean that you need to turn down money… and low budget because that is most likely what your first movie will be.)
2.) Maintain a list of all favors that are owed to you, both from the past and from the movies you are volunteering on. Learn as much as you can and be prepared to get over the awkwardness of having to ask people for things (including large chunks of money.)
3.) Read as many books as you can on producing while you are working on these movies, so you can compare the knowledge to what it is you are doing on set. Read them all again after you have some experience. Take lots of notes.
4.) Meanwhile, work a real job as you will need money for initial equipment to learn on, for the development of a movie, for websites, LLC’s, bank accounts, etc. You will spend a lot of money during development (which many lump in with preproduction. I do not. I consider preproduction starting once you are spending the movie’s budget, not your own… even if it is ultimately your money that is transferred to the movies business account.)
5.) Spend some of that money you saved to direct and edit short films. Even if you do not plan on directing and editing, you need to do so or you will never really understand what is required to make a movie. It will also give you a more informed opinion of the people you are hiring.
6.) Study lighting books and practice lighting. Know the difference between just bringing up the light levels and artistically lighting something.
7.) Study painting, especially painters known for using light to define characters and space, i.e., Vermeer, Caravaggio.
8.) Study color theory and how it applies to tone and depth. Understand how this will help raise the production value of your movie, especially since you will not be able to afford a truly qualified Production Designer or Wardrobe Department.
9.) Learn to write a solid business plan. Study budgets and film financing. Spend some of that money you saved for development by buying the sales records of movies that are comparable to the one you intend to make.
10.) Make sure your budget includes money for an entertainment lawyer, a publicist, marketing materials, film festivals, and the many other variables required to sell a film. It cost money to sell a film, and unfortunately many people spend their budgets from beginning to end – preproduction, production, post production… marketing? IT COST MONEY TO SELL A MOVIE.
11.) Start raising money. Make sure that it is very low budget, as it will most likely be a failure. (It’s okay if it is. The trade off will be the sheer amount that you will learn.)
12.) I assume that this came before step number one, but in case it didn’t… read and deconstruct classical literature. Everything starts with the script. Eventually – ideally – quality will be the bottom denominator.
This may seem like a lot to do, but once you start and move through the steps, you will find that learning more about the world you hope to enter is fulfilling… AND, maybe less importantly, the competition will still be waiting for someone to discover them (some of them who may even be better writers,) while you are moving forward.
So the question is, “Are screenwriting competitions worth the money?”
My answer is ‘no’ in the sense that they are not IF you default to competitions as your road to a career or if the lack of money caused by entry fees gets in the way of creating a career for yourself. The only way that you can ensure that you have the career you want is to create it for yourself.
The other reason it is a bad idea, is because like people who play the lottery, it gives you the false sense of hope that allows you to not make the changes that would move you forward.
Here are some other articles on Screenwriting:
More by this Author
Inception: In 1978 Martin Scorsese was finishing New York, New York. During the post production of New York, New York, circumstances had lead Scorsese to shoot The Last Waltz, “The Band’s”...