It is seemingly impossible to break into the world of screenwriting. As Big Fish screenwriter John August once said on his podcast, Scriptnotes, “It is easier to be drafted into the NFL.” And so, because the odds are stacked against anyone who wants to write for the big (or small) screen, any assistance into this particularly challenging arena is crucial. And one such assist can come in the form of screenwriting contests. Winning or placing in a contest is a way to set yourself apart in the overcrowded space, but are these competitions really worth the price of admission?
Let’s break it down. There are several things screenwriting contests are good for.
Many people who enter screenplay contests are not yet represented by agents or managers. If you place in a contest, there’s a chance that representation will contact you for a meeting or further writing samples. That’s why if you do enter a contest (and certainly if you place), it’s essential to have other polished samples ready to send off. Contests can open the door to industry exposure, but it’s up to you to be ready if Hollywood does indeed come calling.
Winning or placing in a contest proves that you have been vetted.
It shows that you not only know how to write screenplays, but you know how to write great screenplays. If you do query managers or agents about representation, being able to say you’ve won a contest will set you apart from the massive amount of potentially bad scripts eating up space in their inbox. This works in real life, too. Being able to name drop a contest at a party or mixer will make any agent or exec more comfortable asking for your material. If you can demonstrate that a reputable third party (like a well-known contest) has given you their stamp of approval, you’re not just some rando — you’re a rando who can write.
Contests are a great excuse to meet deadlines.
It can be easy to put off finishing a script if no one is forcing you to. But knowing there is an upcoming contest deadline can be an excellent motivator to finally fade out on draft one or finish that rewrite.
Many screenwriting contests offer more than cash prizes.
Yes, money — as every struggling screenwriter knows — is important, but so are meetings with seasoned writers, execs, managers or agents. If the contest boasts more than a cash prize, like a face-to-face meeting with a Hollywood gatekeeper, there’s even more incentive to enter. Anything that can aid you getting into the room, which is so often a huge hurdle, is paramount.
Some contests offer feedback with the price of admission, with or without an additional fee.
Personally, I usually opt for the feedback. That way, even if I don’t place, I’m given an explanation as to why, and that reader (or readers’) feedback can aid in my next draft. It helps me feel like I’m getting something out of the exchange even if I don’t win. Feedback is also a good way to see how the industry is responding to your material as a whole. Do they understand your voice and your ideas? Are you getting the same note over and over?
For me, when examining whether or not contests are worth it, the answer is simple: Yes. Absolutely. Contests are an incredibly valid way to get recognition, exposure, and maybe even some cash for a script well-crafted. But this isn’t to say all contests are worth entering. There are plenty of contests that are just not worth your time. Though it’s easy to know which contests are the most prestigious (The Nicholl Fellowship, Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, WeScreenplay, BlueCat, PAGE International Screenwriting Awards, etc.), it’s often hard to determine which smaller, lesser-known contests might be worth your hard-earned Benjamins.
There are a few guidelines I like to follow when considering entering any contest: To start, I take a close look at who is judging the scripts. Are they seasoned industry pros or unpaid interns? It’s also helpful to look at the careers of past winners post-winning. Have they signed with managers or agents? Have they sold a script? Do they have a project in development? And lastly, read the fine print. Like any transaction, you want to ensure you’re getting what is advertised. Be wary of contests that claim to “own” your material.
In 2017, I won the ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship. The prize included cash as well as meetings with industry execs and Oscar-winning screenwriters. It was a week of meetings that launched my career. Because of this positive experience, it’s hard for me to deter anyone from entering contests (especially ones as stacked with perks as the Fellowship). But I will advise you to be cautious. Do your homework before entering, and make sure your script is ready to be read — revise, revise, revise.
Anna is an editor and screenwriter. She previously worked at Bustle as an Entertainment Editor, as well as Newsweek, The Daily Beast, and BuzzFeed.