Screenplay Contest FAIL
Updated: Dec 4, 2021
The above screen cap was posted on twitter by a writer named Dave Crosman. It looks to me like it was written by an A.I.
I loosely follow “screenwriting twitter” (tweets from screenwriters who are mostly trying to break in). There is presently a brouhaha about script notes coming in from the Austin Film Festival’s screenplay contest which are laughably incoherent...which is the source for the above.
“Script notes” (or coverage) in this example is a cash grab made by the screenplay competition. They’re paying somebody (or, as the case may be, not paying them—if they use volunteer readers) to read your script in order to judge it.
So the contest offers the writer, “Hey, instead of never finding out what we actually thought of your script when it advances or doesn’t advance—pay us extra and we’ll have the reader write up notes for you.”
In general, coverage is essential to get. The only real way you grow as a writer is by seeing how your stuff plays (or doesn’t play) with actual human beings.
Ideally, you have a network of professionals or writers at least at your level to give you feedback. But that can be hard, so you can pay any number of coverage companies (or find independent contractors on Fiverr.com) to give you notes, for a fee (anywhere from a few bucks to a few hundred).
However, it’s a very bad idea to buy the “script notes” add-on from a screenplay competition—because the readers being used to judge the initial rounds are often unvetted and overworked. They’re kids. And the notes you get back might be garbage…as just happened to a lot of writers from AFF. [Update: I understand the AFF notes were free. But they sucked, so you get what you pay for?]
The AFF is actually one of the higher-regarded screenplay contests. If you win or place highly, it opens up professional doors for you from managers and producers.
But to me, the whole thing nicely illuminates why I am done with screenplay competitions. I’m not saying you should be, too…but here are my reasons.
Reason number one is—just look at the above. These are the people who are judging your script! Can you really trust that the winners are the best scripts?
I’m not saying all contests are corrupt. Or that the people who run them are bad. Or that all the readers are dolts. Heavens no.
Reason number two is that even in the best-case circumstance…the judging is still based on taste. Even if you wrote the best script of all time—you still probably won’t win. It’s just math. The most popular screenplay contests are now getting 6K, 8K, 10K or 12K+ submissions. That’s insane!
Let’s say 95% of those scripts are simply amateur scripts we can disregard—they suck, because screenwriting is hard and it takes a long time to get good at it.
If there’s 5% left, that still could be 500 scripts. Being the winner or top-ten finalist means being in the top 1–3% of those pretty-good scripts. How can you count on that?
Clearly, people do win—and it helps them quite a bit.
But even if the readers were all geniuses—it’s just opinions anyway. It’s not science. It’s taste. It’s somebody liking this one thing over the other thing.
Yes, some scripts are objectively better than others…but to really stand out, they need to be distinctive. This means different. Which can easily become polarizing—let’s say three of the final judges love it, but one hates it, because it was edgy in some off-putting way.
So the winner is the script that gets the consensus of the four judges—it’s not the best script, it was the best script that was least offensive to somebody’s taste.
So it’s a crapshoot—does your personal voice connect with the judges? Or potentially alienate them?
I’ve entered a bunch of screenwriting contests. I’ve had several scripts advance to the Quarterfinalist or Semifinalist rounds, but no higher.
And I’m done. It makes no sense. I’m out.
My goal is to make movies, not win contests.
What do I want, a trophy? A little prize money? The latter might be nice—but there’s way more money in actually making movies.
To me, it seems like the ONLY utility a contest win has is introductions to managers and producers.
But…DUH, if you have a script great enough to win a contest—and beat out 10K other scripts—why do you need some contest to validate it?
A “winning” script probably has a cool concept, which is the single most important thing to attracting industry attention.
So, you write a query email with your logline to a bunch of producers or managers—and if they think it’s cool, they’ll ask to read it.
If it’s really good and somebody thinks they can sell it—believe me, they will try!
If it doesn’t have a cool concept: chances are even if it wins a contest, it won’t do much else for your career—possibly get you some meetings, some introductions, but you still have to go off and write the thing that they actually want to sell/make.
So really, what good is the win?
Well, it’s that third-party endorsement—especially if your script is more of a “voice” script than a “concept” script. And it’s nice for your ego. It does open doors.
Fortunately, if you want an introduction to pros—almost all of the screenplay contest companies also have coverage services. You give them $150 (whatever), they read and critique your script.
If that script is awesome—if, hypothetically, it would do very well in a contest—chances are they’ll love it in coverage.
And then you get the same result as a win: they’ll kick it out to their industry contacts. (Although, not really: what they’ll do is circulate the logline and ask the pros, do you want to read this? So you’re still back to square one: it’s got to have that cool concept they think they can sell. It just means they won’t delete the email out of hand.)
The contest/coverage companies grow their business by making “success stories” of worthy writers who then provide testimonials for their websites—enticing thousands of other writers (most of whom will never go anywhere) to continue to pay money for services, contests, access programs and other bullshit.
Folks: the only person who really teaches you how to be a better writer…is you!
I’ve skimmed dozens of how-to articles from screenwriting websites (“Ten ways to make a better character!”).
They’re almost all written by writers who couldn’t hack it as professionals. They’re useless.
There’s one blog I’ve come across that talks about screenwriting in the same way that actual working writers do: Practical Screenwriting by Tony Tost (no surprise, an actual working writer).
Anyway—for your career, kicking ass in coverage is almost as useful as winning a contest. You get the introductions, if not the trophy.
There’s also the Black List website, which is like a contest that operates year-round. Getting a 7 out of 10 is useless; getting an 8 out of 10 gets you in their weekly newsletter to industry people (the only thing that matters).
The Black List and the coverage services offer the same frustrations as contests, which is that you’re at the mercy of the reader—and some readers are just weird/dumb/have bad taste and won’t get or like your script.
But to be fair, it’s not that their readers are dumb—it’s more likely that your script sucks!
Or put it this way, the fact that your script sucks makes it irrelevant that their readers might be dumb. In fact, their dumb readers could damage you by liking your script if it actually sucks! You’ll feel confident that it’s the time to out and get reads, and then fall flat on your face. It happened to me, and boy did that suck!
Also, contests take too long. As a writer, I need feedback, and the quicker the better. (Not to mention, the better the better.) If my script sucks—and in early drafts, it almost certainly does—I need to hear why!
To me, entering a script in a contest, just to have that fantasy of thinking it’s the greatest script ever and of course it’ll win, and waiting months for the results, only to have it not win—it’s just a waste of time and money.
To be fair, none of the scripts I entered into contests (the last being this past spring) was good enough to win. I learned that the hard way: by getting feedback from other sources, realizing what was lacking, and either abandoning it or doing a new version of it.
Contests are a fantasy, a waste of time, and not worth the entry fee. (Again, just my opinion. If you won a contest, you’ll probably have a different opinion. Also, if you run a contest, I know you’ll have a different opinion.)
The only thing you need to succeed is a great script. The only way to write a great script is to write a lot of bad, then okay, then very good scripts—and gradually teach yourself enough along the way so you can make it great.
Don’t give anybody else the power to tell you what works best for you—and that includes me!
But it definitely includes these dopey and borderline predatory contests.