What are the biggest mistakes screenwriters should avoid when submitting their scripts to screenwriting contests?
It’s hard to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter. It takes a lot of writing, networking, and luck — being with the right person in the right place at the right time with the right script.
While the screenwriting boom of the 1990s gave birth to the secondary industry of screenwriting contests, competitions, and fellowships, in these contemporary times, many of these events have allowed screenwriters to make connections, build a network, and make a little bit of there own luck.
Industry insiders use particular screenwriting contests, competitions, and fellowships as filtration services to find promising scripts and talented writers.
With that in mind, we offer ten mistakes that screenwriters should avoid when submitting their screenplays. Hopefully, these ten points can help you maneuver through your screenwriting journey and turn future high contest placements and wins into potential screenwriting careers and dreams come true.
1. Don’t Ignore the Contest Rules
Before you submit your script to a contest, be sure to read through all of the rules, regulations, and eligibility requirements. The last thing that you want the contest administrators and readers to see with your submission is a red flag.
If you and your script don’t meet the specific requirements, it’s an instant rejection. So make sure that your page counts, genre, and title page content are in line with the contest rules, regulations, and eligibility requirements.
2. Don’t Try to Bend the Contest Rules
The adage that rules are meant to be broken, and the adapted philosophy of you can bend the rules do not apply to screenwriting contests, competitions, and fellowships.
The rules, regulations, and eligibility requirements exist for a reason — primarily to ensure that a smooth and fair review process.
Too many novice screenwriters think that the contests should make an exception for them. They’ll submit their scripts to competitions despite the fact that they are over or under the listed page count requirements. They’ll ask a fellowship to make an exception, even though the thousands of other applicants had to follow the very same directives.
Just follow the rules. Leave the breaking and the bending for later in your screenwriting career.
3. Don’t Submit First Drafts
Yes, screenwriting contests offer excellent platforms to test the waters for your screenplays. However, it doesn’t do you any good to submit incomplete work. And, yes, first drafts are unfinished works.
You want always to put your best foot forward. Remember that industry readers and industry insiders are reading and judging your screenplays.
Take the extra time to craft the best possible draft that you can before you submit to a contest.
4. Don’t Use Contests to Write the Script for You
Feedback is excellent, and any competition that offers reader feedback is well worth the extra cost. But you shouldn’t be using contests to write the script for you.
Don’t hand in a first draft so that you can get feedback to write your second draft. In the end, the feedback you get is just an opinion. Putting too much weight on those opinions, to the point where you are using contest feedback to help you write a better script is counterproductive. You’re not growing as a writer. Instead, you’re looking for shortcuts.
Script coverage is there to offer you a perspective. That perspective may inform you of some unseen issues with the story or characters. That perspective may provide some answers to some pacing or structure problems present within your script. But you should treat the coverage and feedback not as a crutch, but as food for thought.
Learn the best way to structure your screenplay with this free guide.
5. Don’t Forget to Perform Multiple Proofreads
If you miss the proper spelling of a word here and there, no problem. Even the pros make those mistakes in their drafts. But there’s nothing worse for a reader than reading a script that seemingly proves that the writer didn’t care enough about the material to do a few quality assurance readthroughs.
Multiple spelling errors are annoying. And that’s the last impression you want to leave with the reader — annoyance.
Before you submit your script, take an extra few days to read it line-by-line a few times.
Forget about experiencing the story or characters. That’s not what these readthroughs are for.
You can even give the script to trusted family members, friends, or peers to help you with this. It’s always nice to have fresh eyes on the material. But be sure to let them know that you’re not looking for feedback on the story or characters — you’re simply looking for typos, grammar errors, and spelling mistakes.
Pay particular attention to homophone and homonym errors. Your and You’re. New and Knew. To and Too. There, Their, and They’re. Its and It’s. Then and Than. Effect and Affect. Cache and Cachet. Break and Brake. Principle and Principal. Breath and Breathe. Rain, reign, and rein. By, buy, and bye. Always be sure to know the differences.
Tip: The best thing you can do for that polish rewrite is to CTRL + F (search) those above words and make sure that when present, they have the proper usage.
6. Don’t Bother with Local or Small Film Festival Contests
If you’re looking for some kudos, fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re looking to advance your screenwriting career, local and small film festival contests aren’t going to do you any good.
Stating that your script is an award-winning screenplay or that you are an award-winning screenwriter doesn’t really hold much weight, unless you’re a winner of one of the big screenwriting contests, competitions, or fellowships — Nicholl Fellowship, Launch Pad, Big Break, Screencraft Fellowship or Genre Contests, Austin Film Festival, Sundance Screenwriters Lab, etc.
You want to use screenwriting contests, competitions, or fellowships as career advancers — as ways to break through those Hollywood walls and get industry insider eyes on your work.
7. Don’t Submit Slow Burn Screenplays
This is more of an insider tip. Slow burn screenplays refer to scripts that take their time in introducing their characters, establishing their backgrounds, and getting to the core concept and proof of genre.
While we see plenty of excellent indie films that thrive as slow burn stories, when it comes to screenwriting contests, you need to engage the reader as quickly as possible.
Readers are tasked with reading dozens — sometimes a hundred or more — of screenplays throughout the duration of a contest run. There’s no escaping the hard and unfair truth that if you don’t capture their attention within the first ten pages or so, you’ve lost them.
If they don’t know what the genre is, who the main protagonist is, and what the central concept or conflict is within the opening pages of your screenplay, they’re disengaged instead of engaged.
But don’t worry. If you have character-driven drama, you can still tweak your opening pages to offer something that can pull them in. Be creative and find ways to introduce those elements early, introduce characters quickly, and showcase the core concept or conflict effectively within the first 5-10 pages.
8. Don’t Submit Scripts with Cliffhanger Endings
Believe it or not, this happens quite often.
Some screenwriters believe that leaving the reader wanting more is about building a climax that leads to a cliffhanger with unresolved story and character arcs.
It’s perfectly fine — and sometimes advisable — to present a script with franchise potential. However, you don’t want to write the script with the presumption that it is part of a current franchise that will surely have a followup.
Cliffhanger endings are not hooks that leave us wanting more. They are deterrents that leave us with unanswered questions.
9. Don’t Write Adaptations to Intellectual Property You Don’t Own
Even if you write the heck out of the script and present an outstanding adaptation, you’re likely breaking the rules of 99.9% of the screenwriting contests, competitions, and fellowships out there.
And, at the very least, you’re ruining your one shot of presenting quality writing by adapting material without permission of the original author or rights holder. There’s nothing the industry insiders can do with that script. The publishing company likely has the cinematic rights. And if not, anyone interested in your script has to go through the motions of buying the rights to the IP.
Focus on original stories.
10. Don’t Put All of Your Eggs in One Basket/Contest/Competition/Fellowship
When you submit your script, don’t count down the days to the projected announcement date. Don’t metaphorically “sit by the phone” waiting for the results. Heck, don’t even think about the results at all.
Just go on with your life. Allow yourself to forget that you even entered it.
Instead, submit your script to multiple screenwriting contests, competitions, and fellowships. And then forget them as well.
After that, start work on your next script. Keep writing. The fates will decide the rest.
Read ScreenCraft’s How to Turn a Screenwriting Competition Win Into a Career!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies