Screenwriting Competitions & Fellowships: What You Need to Know Before Applying
Every spring, writers worldwide work hard to launch themselves in the industry with the help of writing programs. And there are so many; naturally it's difficult to know not only which ones are worth your time and/or money but also which ones will best meet your needs as an aspiring screenwriter. In fact, the main question that those first starting out ask is , "Which competition or a fellowship should I enter?"
The answer depends on your own personal goals, but fellowships and competitions challenge writers to develop the best story and compete against one another for the top prize — and hopefully gain the industry access you need to launch your career.
But you only have so many hours in the day to write your brilliant stories, so where should you put your time? Let's go over some of the key differences between competitions and fellowships, what each one requires to apply, and potential benefits that you won't want to miss out on.
You’re probably seeing a lot of how-to guides on fellowships right now because spring is the season for many of these applications. In the past, they typically opened their application windows around May 1 to May 31, but lately, that’s been changing. NBC’s inaugural year of Launch TV Writers just closed its 2022 application window in early March, and next up is Paramount’s Writers Program, which opens on April 1st.
What You Need to Apply
Most fellowships require two scripts in the genre and format you want to focus on as a television staff writer and hopefully fit tonally with at least one of their current shows. Since most of these programs are from companies with multiple networks and streaming options, there should be at least one show you could see yourself in the writers’ room for.
Now, for Disney, NBC, and Warner Media Access (previously HBO Access), both of these scripts should be your original ideas. For Paramount, you’ll submit one original script and one spec script, meaning an episode you made up for any show that aired recently. It can be hard to narrow down what spec script you want to write, though. Thankfully, Warner Bros. Workshop only asks for one spec script (no original pilot) and they curate a list of shows for you to pick from. Therefore, whatever you pick from their list will also work with your Paramount submission.
If you’re looking to apply for all of these fellowships, which are thankfully free, then you’ll need two original pilots and one spec script from the WB list in total.
In addition to your script, some fellowships ask for a resume or bio, an optional letter of recommendation, and a couple of personal essays with prompts provided, or some variation of these elements.
The essays are where you truly get to pitch yourself as a writer, so don’t slack in this area. The people who run the fellowships might read your scripts blind, but they’ll look at your application holistically, and your essays are often the thing that gets you over the top.
What You Get If You’re Accepted
Each program varies in length, but they each have the same mission to find the great showrunners of tomorrow. Their goal is to find writers with a strong voice and presentation who just need access to the industry, some shaping to understand how to brand themselves, and how to sell themselves in a meeting. They want to make sure you leave the program staffed (though there are no promises this will happen) and stay staffed.
In the case of Disney, they expect this to be your full-time job and will pay you a salary so that you can focus on your writing full-time. The other programs focus on weekly workshops, simulated writers' rooms, practice meetings, etc., but are all programs that do not pay you. However, thanks to everyone moving to remote work in recent years, you don’t necessarily have to pick and move to LA if you’re accepted into these programs, as many of them have a virtual component.
Disney, NBC, Paramount, WarnerMedia, and WB fellowships aren’t the only fellowships either. Nickelodeon, Sundance, and many more have their programs with similar applications. So, you can use the same scripts for multiple applications. If you don’t get in, don’t worry, the executives behind these programs are paying attention to who is applying and how they’re growing.
Screenwriting competitions are similar in that they’re working on getting writers access to the industry they wouldn’t otherwise have. The best competitions are run by people invested in your success because when you succeed after winning their competition, it’s bragging rights for them too. The trick here is to vet your competitions to ensure you’re applying when your script is ready, and you’re only applying to competitions that can help launch your career.
What You Need to Apply
You only need two things to apply for most competitions: an original script and payment. Some competitions might focus on a certain genre or format, but there aren’t resumes or personal essays included like fellowships.
Unlike fellowships, most competitions charge a fee to apply, which can vary based on how notable the competition is and how far away the final deadline is, with many competitions offering “early bird” deals if you submit sooner.
What You Get If You Win
What you win will also depend on the competition, but the goal is always to help you get established in the industry. Judges are often reputable managers, agents, producers, screenwriters, and studio executives (and should be listed on the site). When your script places in the top few rounds, your name and script will be sent to industry people that work with the competition to find the next great writers, so even if you don’t win first place, you still have a shot at connecting with people who are interested in your work.
Most competitions work with writers whose scripts place well to connect them with the right people or continue to develop their script to make it marketable. While this isn’t always the reason that people apply, it is often the reason most writers tout their success after a competition, often praising the great work of the development team.
Some competitions also offer a monetary prize, screenwriting software, or other tangible prizes, but the main reason you applied is for the career they’re helping your launch, so these are often more appreciated bonuses.
Set Yourself Up for Success
It feels like there are new deadlines every week, and considering how many come with a fee, it’s critical to prioritize your focus. Here are some things to consider before you go on a competition-entering spree.
What Are Your Goals?
Do you want representation? To be staffed? Are you outside of Los Angeles and looking for networking opportunities? All of these answers impact where you should put your time.
For example, a feature writer shouldn’t be spending their time on TV fellowships, but a few film fellowships might be worth their interest.
If your goal is to get in a writers' room, especially if you’re already in Los Angeles, then TV fellowships are a great option. Just know that the number of people accepted is low, so you may need to apply a few times.
For people outside of Los Angeles looking to break in, or those in need of representation, competitions are a fantastic choice, no matter where in the world you are or your professional skill level.
Vet Your Competitions
Before applying to any competition, there are two things you should look into. The first is who the final round judges are. Often, these are the ones you could meet, so you want to ensure that the judges are people you think will understand and be interested in your voice.
Secondly, it’s important to look into whether or not the readers are paid. This isn’t something often discussed on screenwriting websites, but many smaller competitions do not pay their readers or pay them very low wages. You might have to do some digging to find out for sure. But many competitions will say that their readers work in the industry, and the truth is, no quality reader is doing it for free. So, if they’re not paying their readers, then how can you know that your script is being professionally vetted?
With fellowships, they’re connected to major studios and have often been around for decades (even if they’ve rebranded). In this case, you don’t really have to vet them, just ensure you’re applying to a program that you want to be a part of.
Vet Your Application
Once you’ve chosen where you’re applying, whether it’s a competition or a fellowship, you should vet yourself.
This means that you should have a professional reader and friends in your network reading your script, checking for typos or any story issues before you submit. Some companies help with your essays for fellowships, which is not a bad investment since personal essays are a significant part of your application.
And if at the end of this year you’ve applied to several fellowships and competitions with your script, don’t sweat it! There are thousands of applicants and many great scripts and writers slip through the cracks. The best part about being a writer is that the only thing you need to do the work is something to write with and an idea, so get to work on that next great story.