It’s well known how hard it can be to break in as a screenwriter. One way to give yourself a leg up is by entering screenwriting contests to build credibility for your work and get it read by industry pros. At the 2018 ScreenCraft Writers Summit in Atlanta, four contest directors—John Rhodes from ScreenCraft, Matt Dy from the Austin Film Festival, Mark Stasenko from WeScreenplay and Coverfly, and Anna Vecellio from the Atlanta Film Festival—gave fantastic advice on how to impress the reader and advance in contests that can help launch your career.
John mentioned that while many screenplay competitions choose highbrow scripts as winners, ScreenCraft also celebrates “genre” films with commercial potential. ScreenCraft specializes in competitions by genre, and tailors the prize package and the jury to each genre.
John recommended new writers read screenplay books to learn basics like proper formatting, but also stressed not getting overly caught up in it. “While it’s important to learn the conventions, it’s more important to develop a unique voice and perspective.”
Matt Dy—Austin Film Festival
For Matt, “story comes first.” Although AFF does have guidelines, Matt mentioned not to over-stress about them. The page length for Austin’s contests is recommended, so going a bit above or below the recommended page count (within reason) won’t automatically disqualify you, especially if you have an amazing story. “We’re very flexible.”
Matt also advised writers to branch out into different forms of media. Although the screenplay and teleplay competitions have many thousands of entries every year, categories such as the new Fiction Podcast Script Competition have far fewer, increasing a writer’s chance of advancing in the contest.
As far as how to launch a professional writing career after contest wins or placements, Matt stressed the idea of writing as much as possible so that you have multiple projects ready to sell when taking meetings. “Write a lot. Whatever you think is a lot, write more.” He also advised, “Write for yourself. This is the time to write for you. Only you can give your unique spin.”
Mark Stasenko—WeScreenplay and Coverfly
Mark emphasized the importance of contest entrants making their scripts as reader friendly as possible. “You’re doing yourself a favor by thinking about the reader.”
He advised writers to consider two audiences in order to be successful: first, the script reader, and then the viewing audience. As far as pleasing the reader, keeping the script tight with “nice sparse action lines” can definitely help. Also, keeping the page count manageable can increase your chances of success. “Sub-100 is the new 110. Readers love 98-page scripts.”
As far as what Mark’s readers look for, he tells them to judge “only what is on the page” and to look for a “unique perspective on something….the “X” Factor…does this person tell a story in a way I haven’t seen before?”
As far as becoming successful, Mark stressed that writers should keep at it and never give up. “Always be knocking on every door that you see.”
Anna Vecellio—Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Competition
For Anna and her team at the Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Competition, it’s all about one-on-one mentoring. They’re looking for quality material and also quality people behind the work. The competition is specifically interested in the writer:
Why did the writer create this work? Why is the writer uniquely qualified to write the piece? Why did the writer specifically choose to submit to the Atlanta Film Festival? How will this writer benefit from mentoring?
Because it always helps give context to a script and a personal touch to the submission, Anna encourages writers to send a cover letter with their material, if given the opportunity to do so. She also advised keeping the letter in the same tone as the script. For instance, if the script is a comedy, write the letter in a lighter, more humorous tone.
As far as how she directs her readers, Anna asks them to set aside their own personal biases and preferred genres. “Just because something doesn’t fit your personal style, it doesn’t mean it’s not good.”
Finally, Anna stressed that in order to become better at the craft, writers must be avid readers. “Read. Read. Read. Not just amazing screenplays. Find an avenue to read good screenplays. Bad screenplays.”
Rebecca Norris is a producer, writer, and filmmaker with her production company, Freebird Entertainment. Her recent award-winning feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, has been distributed on Amazon Streaming and DVD. Rebecca is also a script analyst and consultant who has read for many companies, including Sundance, ScreenCraft, Bluecat, and the International Emmys, as well as her own script consultancy, Script Authority. Rebecca blogs for Screencraft, The Script Lab, WeScreenplay and Script Magazine, exploring the film writing and production process and encouraging writers to produce their own work. Follow Rebecca’s posts on Twitter at @beckaroohoo!