In the media arts, we are competing the whole time. The first stages of this incessant competition happen within you and your closest circle. Your ideas compete against each other as you decide which one to pursue next. Your project competes for time with everything else in your life. Your completed draft competes for resources from your personal assets, family’s support, grants from your region and country, in-kind backing from friends, sympathizers and colleagues, etc. When you apply for a grant, you’re competing against numerous artists and producers (even in other art forms) as there’s never enough money for all worthy artistic projects.
If you manage to produce your work, then you have to compete for inclusion in festivals, ticket sales, views, distribution deals, etc. If you then become one of the lucky few, in the end you can compete for awards for produced work and perhaps continue to reap rewards and grow your audience for years to come.
Thus, competitions are part of the natural landscape for a script since its conception. Inescapably, your script will be compared to other scripts (both produced and not). A big deal of this comparison and confrontation is entirely subjective. Two scripts of similar craft will be judged differently by readers, and the decision of which one is worthier, better or with brighter possibilities is a matter of opinion and random variables. However, your script does need to achieve a degree of mastery and quality in order to even have a chance against the other projects it’ll face. Behind each script there’s an author with big dreams that invested a good deal of time, effort and even money to get it there.
Besides going for grants (aimed at either writing or production), a sensible course of action is to submit the script to writing competitions. It is a way to gauge the impact of your script by itself and compared to dozens (or hundreds or thousands) of other people’s efforts. Winning or even placing is an enormous motivation as it can possibly bring traction and notoriety to your project from managers, agents, producers or financiers. It could be the opportunity that opens a door not only for your project, but for you as a writer or creator. Particularly fellowships, labs and workshops present a real door in the industry that opens to several winners at a time.
As time and budget are usually limited, the challenge is deciding which competitions to enter. The vast majority require an entry fee, rarely cheap. And there are thousands of contests, including an ever-growing number of film festivals that offer screenplay categories. You need to be able to discern the better destinations for your script from countless sketchy or irrelevant options. Too many script competitions seem afterthoughts for making money off struggling writers. You’ll have to meditate and decide where to place not just your script, but also your money and hopes. Aim for the early bird deadline when the entry fee is the cheapest, but do not rush in sending out unrevised first drafts as most probably you’ll waste the opportunity. Continue to work on your script while you wait for results.
Screenwriters at their highest level of craft (and those who see themselves as such) consider only three competitions in the USA (and possibly the World) to be worthy: the Academy Nicholl Fellowships, the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards and the Austin Film Festival. As much as these three are the crown jewels of screenwriting contests, there are several more that can be worthy. The final list depends on your needs, style, genre, place of residence and other factors. Aim for at least 10 contests, including the aforementioned big three, labs and grants (if you qualify). The most important thing is to do a bit of research and find out their reputation before sending anything. Even some small competitions are reputable and can make a difference in your motivation and growth as a writer. They are also necessary to get a feeling of your project and current draft’s potential. The top competitions are incredibly hard to advance to the second round, let alone win.
The most adequate course of action is to begin with a solid draft, the best version you can write (more feasible with the assistance from a professional writer or script consultant) and send it to the major competitions, but also to a few middle-sized ones and perhaps a couple of small ones. Prepare a budget and come up with your personalized list of contests, submit and keep track of everything. Rejection letters are unavoidable. Some might come with a little feedback (usually for an extra fee) that will help you get an idea of how much the readers / judges liked or hated your entry and some guidance for future edits. Be ready to receive comments that you won’t like or agree with at least until you have time to digest the rejection and possible negativity. Then let the world and your CV know of any success.
There isn’t a formula for winning as just a tiny percentage can win. The industry is extremely competitive, so if you want to have a chance, you need to present your best possible draft. That’s what your top competitors do.
Eduardo Falcon – Film Writer