Writing for the Judges

Everyone has a story. It’s this simple belief that rouses people from their beds with the inkling that all they need is a word processing program to compose the next Academy-lauded screenplay. Nobody wakes up and thinks: I’m going to coach the Dallas Cowboys, where do I fax my resume? I’m going to create a violin concerto, where can I pick up some sheet music?

It’s that arm-chair critic mentality, where a person can watch a movie and think, “I could’ve done something much better.” They head on over to the local bookstore and find a myriad of books on how to become the next William Goldman. I did a search on the in-store computer at a Borders Bookshop, comparing the quantity of active books on creative writing with those on the Islamic faith, the fastest growing religion in the world. The outcome was scary for a writer like me. At last count, there were over a billion Muslims in the world. However, the bookstore only shelves about 150 books on the subject. There are over 700 books for the new writer, whether it is for screenplays, novels, or memoirs. When you think about it, the competition isn’t just fierce, it’s sadistic.

I’ve been working at screenwriting for six years. I have nothing optioned. Nothing sold. Still, I could use conviction when calling myself a screenwriter. There are many like me, who, although they aren’t validated as a screenwriter with sales or options, they still take their craft seriously. Nevertheless, there are just as many who buy some screenwriting software, pound out several thousand words book-ended between FADE IN and FADE TO BLACK and call it a script. They don’t rewrite. They don’t get it read. They send it out. These unpolished, unready screenplays are what clog the market.

Ask any Hollywood reader and they would attest to this. It’s not that the majority of what they read is crap. One figure that I’ve heard, countless times, is that if a reader pores through 100 scripts, one might be kind-of enjoyable. That one-out-of-a-hundred may not be worth producing, however, the reader managed to read past the first forty pages.

If you’re a screenwriter and just spent the last year pouring blood, sweat, and tears into your screenplay. You’ve read all the aforementioned books on the subject. You had it read by colleagues. You rewrote and rewrote it again. Now, it’s ready for Hollywood. You know, deep in your heart, that this is a gem amongst the dunghill of unworthy scripts. The problem is, how do you prove it?

Contests. There are so many out there, from the industry-approved fellowships to the vanity competitions that take in thirty or forty entries. If your screenplay can move through the contests, the more credibility is awarded to your screenplay. In 2002, I was one of these screenwriters, possessing marketable screenplays but lacking the clout or the luck to have it read by promising enterprises. Then I qualified high in two reputable competitions. I won neither of them, mind you, but I came away as a finalist and a semifinalist. It brought me to the point where producers, agents, and managers are contacting me. I just have to sit back and send out my screenplays.

And, boy, is there a variety of contests. Sometimes, it feels that there is one contest for every aspiring screenwriter, all vying for their piece of the writer’s lowly earnings. One has to be careful when selecting a contest. It could get expensive. A writer, especially one that does not live off a trust fund, needs to submit to the contests that will get him the most for his money.

There are the big fellowships, like Nicholls and Chesterfield, that garner the most attention. By just placing as a semifinalist for Nicholls (which received over 6000 submissions last year) was enough to earn me some respect. Still, your script has to be good. Damn good. One out of 6,000 are tough odds. How does your script match up? It’s a good question. This question you have to answer honestly. The readers at these contests are just as important as the readers for some agency that just requested your script. If you can’t get past the first round in a contest, don’t be surprised if your script gets rejected all over town. The reader can’t always be blamed.

Nicholls and Chesterfield’s deadlines are always in late May. I use this month as a deadline for myself, and aim to have the scripts I plan on submitting polished and shining before I enter it (usually on the last day of eligibility).

Another contest I have been raving about lately is Cinestory. I submitted my screenplay in October, 2001. It took about six months before I learned I had qualified as a quarterfinalist (I made it all the way to finalist). Nevertheless, because I placed high, I was invited to their retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains in California. It promised the world. I was a bit leery, but decided to invest for the tab and head over. Honestly, I didn’t expect much. Any screenwriter worth his/her salt is wary of emailed claims, with promises with fees attached.

The Cinestory retreat is an informal affair that puts you, literally, in contact with industry professionals. I’m not talking about those cattle-call events you buy into just so you obtain five minutes of face-time with some studio hack. At the retreat, you actually eat with agents. Shoot the breeze with managers. Share a beer with a producer. It was an excellent and endearing time. I made more contacts there than any West Coast excursion. The feedback I received has spawned a better script. That was worth the price alone.

You have to be careful, though. There are contests that are not so reputable. I have been getting emails from some freak named Michelle Miller (as well as other pseudonyms) for some sham called the Hollywood Next Success Contest. Evidently, they pose as a small house production company interested in receiving query letters. Once they have your query letter, they have all your information. Welcome to the Spam Age. Every couple of months, they change the contest’s name (and Michelle changes her name) and send out emails requesting scripts (and an entry fees) to every one and anyone who might have sent them a query. They went as far as using the Writers’ Script Network as an outlet for more quarries. WSN’s founder Jerrol LeBarron sent out emails to all subscribers warning of the scam. As genuine as the contest may be, they started out deceiving the writer. For that alone, they deserve no respect.

As of late, the Hollywood Next Success contest has resorted to telemarketing to drain the writer’s wallet. I just received a phone message from a bubbly representative, telling me I had only a few days left to make the entry deadline. The message was sandwiched between cold calls from a company promising the vacation package of a lifetime and a solicitor telling me I’m paying too much for my phone bills. I hated spam from Hollywood Next Success. I don’t appreciate this new telemarketing plan either.

There is also a case against the ASP/Screenprize contest that is, currently, in litigation for being a scam. It is an easy way to pluck writers of their hard-earned cash. Create a contest and promise the world. Who would even know? What did P.T. Barnum say about suckers?

There are some contests that I have entered and felt just like another number. One contest I would never recommend is anything (and I think, from all the email I receive from them, they hold contests every other day), from the Hollywood Film Festival. Twice I entered their contests and twice I lost. No big deal, I’ve lost plenty of contests. In fact, when you look at in it perspective, I’ve lost them all. However, I have yet to see a posting of winners from this contest. Cinestory, SlamDance, Hollywood Gateway… they all send out a list of winners. The winners are even listed on Moviebytes. However, I have yet to see anything from Hollywood Film Festival that is not a blatant advertisement for one of their money-sucking events. Writer beware.

The smaller contests will always offer the best odds. However, you must ask yourself, what will it do for me? Several years ago, I placed fifth in a contest held by the University of Washington State. I spoke with the organizers, just to see how many scripts were entered. Thirty-three. I don’t want to knock the contest, placing fifth out of thirty-three is not horrible; it just didn’t do anything for my script. The William Morris Agency will not be impressed that you were a finalist in Joe’s Making Your Hollywood Dream Screenwriting Contest, based out of Oakwood Hills, Montana.

Nevertheless, some of the smaller contests include script coverage with their fees. This alone may be worth the price of submission, since professional script coverages run in the hundreds of dollars and contest fees are usually under $50. Taking advantage of this element of the contest helps one compose a better script.

Contest are an important aspect to screenwriting, since, especially today, more companies depend on how a script places before they request a read. The modern screenwriters has simplified screenwriting formatting programs, internet support groups, and books and books and books that could assist any writer, no matter how untalented, to pen a screenplay. Contests should be used as another tool for the writer. Don’t depend on the monetary awards of a contest. Prestige alone could move your script further than the dollar.

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