First, the resource:

Go. Look. Learn.

Now, I am the last human being on planet earth to tell you not to enter screenwriting contests. I've won six of them. I won enough in screenwriting contests to pay the rent last year. In Brentwood.

But allow me to be the first person on planet earth to tell you to be careful about entering screenwriting contests. I want you to enter the right contests for the right reasons.

Here's why I think you are entering contests:

1. Exposure.
2. Exposure.
3. Exposure.

Here's why you should be entering contests:

1. Exposure.
2. Notes and Judgment.
3. Support.

I remember entering my first contest. It was connected to a conference I was planning to attend. I imagined myself as the winner (or even a finalist), being bombarded with requests to read my script from all the high-profile panelists. Returning home to a filled answering machine. Agents sending messengers to my apartment to pick up copies of my script, hot off my overworked printer. Sale, production, success!

I was a little naïve. And I only made the quarterfinals. And nobody called. Now I know the winner probably didn't receive any calls either.

That same year I blindly entered another contest called the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. Again, I made it as far as the quarterfinals and no farther. This time, however, I was surprised to receive a half-dozen phone calls requesting the script. Not from anybody very high up the food chain, but from people in the business and working. I was hooked on contests as a way to get my work seen.

Again, I was a little naïve.

When it comes to contests, there are the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting and there is Everybody Else. The Nicholl is the Cadillac of contests (now that Cadillac is making good cars again). As far as most of Hollywood is concerned, it is the only contest. It has started careers. It has resulted in movies being produced. Everyone in town waits with baited breath for the winners to be announced each fall. Writers who make even the quarterfinalist cut will get a handful of script requests.

So my first piece of advice is, if you think you have a great script, enter the Nicholl. That is the brass ring. But, like Hollywood itself, were we all worthy, there still would not be enough room for us all at the top. On to the other contests.

Let's look again at the reasons I think you should enter contests:

1. Exposure.
2. Notes and Judgment.
3. Support.

1. Exposure. Fine, but nobody's looking at these other contests! No, they're not. With an exception. If a company sponsors a contest they may look at the winning script. May? Yes, may. The Radmin Company really does read and consider the finalist scripts in the Radmin Company Contest. I know because I won that one. It doesn't mean they think your script deserves to be put on the market or that you deserve to be represented. Call me the bearer of bad news. If you've gotten this far it should be no surprise.

You're going to have to expose yourself. Just don't get arrested. Contest wins or placements are fine material for query letters. They lift you up out of the fray. Your work was judged to be good by someone other than your mother. A win will get you read. Maybe not at CAA, but somewhere.

2. Notes and Judgment. Some contests offer notes on your script. These can range from a couple of sentences to script consultations from top analysts. Just today I received a set of full story notes from Linda Seger, which I won with the Grand Prize in the Screenwriting Expo contest. She was gracious enough to work on a script I'm having trouble with rather than the winning script (which nobody's going to make anyway). Now that is a valuable prize!

If a contest offers notes as part of the prize or the entire prize, try to find out what these notes are. Is a paragraph worth forty bucks? Usually not. I got "notes" on a script in a contest I won that barely related to the script. I think the reader was trying to be funny, and since I had a big check coming my way I didn't really mind. But if he did the same thing to all the scripts he read I'd mind very much.

On to judgment, which isn't really the word I want. Perhaps "comparison" would work better. What I mean is, a contest gives you a chance to measure your work against the work of other amateur writers (most contests disqualify writers who have been paid too much money for their writing).

If you enter a half-dozen contests and never make the first cut (usually the quarterfinals), take another look at your work. That script, in its current form, isn't working for you.

Here's what happened for me last year. I entered ten contests. I won half of them. With one exception, if I made the first cut, I won the contest. Sometimes your script will just not work for a reader. First rounds usually have a single reader. You can be bounced by that one reader. Bad luck. A fine script might not work for that person. But that shouldn't happen a half-dozen times in a row.

3. Support. This, of course, is that little thrill you get when the letter arrives or you check the website and find you've made the quarterfinals. This is priceless. It tells you you're on the right track. You told a decent story. Your writing isn't irretrievably flawed. And you might win! Take that good energy to your writing. Get back to work. Try to make the next one even better.

At this point, some of you are shouting "Show me the money!" Yes, there can be money. A lot of money. The Nicholl Fellowship awards five $30,000 fellowships. Other competitions award money, conference passes, software, books, and on and on and on. Look for prizes that will mean something to your writing. Is the check big enough that you could quit your day job for a while? Does the conference pass include access to their high-profile guests or panels that only winners and finalists can attend? If all they offer as a prize is exposure to industry pros without defining what they mean, be careful.


So which contests to enter? The Nicholl, of course. Then it gets tricky. Let's look at the pros and cons by category. And realize that some contests cross multiple categories. The Screenwriting Expo is both a conference contest and a magazine contest, for example.

1. The Fellowships. The Nicholl is the king, obviously. Fellowship contests intend to support the winner(s) for the term of the fellowship (usually a year) so the winner(s) can write full-time without having to work a regular job. I love this idea. They will usually provide the winner(s) with mentors and monitor their work for that year, expecting them to produce at least one more script during their fellowship year.

There aren't many fellowship contests. Some are offered in television, and match their winner(s) as interns or assistants with current shows. Many make a strong effort to see their winner(s) fledged into writing careers when their fellowships end.

One word of caution about fellowship contests. Read the fine print. Some fellowship sponsors will own everything you produce during the fellowship. Is that worth it to you? Probably. Maybe not.

2. The Conference and Festival Contests. These are a favorite of mine, because of the exposure for you and your script. Yes, I mean that if you win or are a finalist at a big conference or festival, you should go. Many of these contests offer reduced admission and even travel and lodging assistance for their winner and finalists. Still, winning one of these might cost you money. Go anyway.

3. Personality Contests. There are not many of these. The biggest is Zoetrope. Make the finals of this one and Francis Ford Coppola will pick the winner. He's so well known that even my spell-check knows how to spell his name. Contests like this appeal to the exposure impulse in a big, big way.

4. Prodco Contests. These can be very exciting. A way to get a script directly to the people making movies! Yes and no. Some of these contests only pass the top few scripts on to the prodco sponsoring the contest. That's fine; they weren't going to make #147 anyway. Watch out for automatic options (see below). And be aware of a catch-22. Either they are going to award the prize to the best script regardless of their production interest, so the winning script almost certainly won't attract the further interest of that prodco), or the winner will be the script that does attract their interest regardless of merit (which means a poor script might beat a strong script).

You should also be aware that prodco contests often mean that the prodco has an interest in management and could be looking for new clients. This could be good for you. Or not.

5. Magazine Contests. Another favorite of mine, because they have real access to publicity. I've won three of these. One announced their results in a half-page ad in the middle of the magazine. One had a whole page in the back of the magazine. When I won the Screenwriting Expo contest I got a whole page in the front of Creative Screenwriting Magazine as part of a multi-page spread about the Expo. Priceless.

6. Regional Contests. Have a script set in your home state? I bet your state film festival or film commission has a contest. Enter it. They would love to find a great piece of material that could be made and boost their local film industry. And it doesn't have to be your home state, either. I recently wrote a script set in a state I've never visited. I entered their film festival contest, and if I win, I'll go.

7. Genre Contests. Let's face it: comedy has a hard time in most contests. So does horror. We can argue about why elsewhere. Rather than argue, some contests have done something about it. There are contests aimed directly at certain genres. Other contests have categories just for genres. Enter these and you'll know the readers won't be prejudiced against your work from the get-go.

8. Niche Contests. Like regional contests, these speak to specific special interests. Writers who are members of minority or special interest groups, scripts concerning certain subjects, all can find contests tailored to them. Take advantage of these opportunities to network and have your work seen.

9. Television Contests. You see the trend, right? These are just for television scripts, obviously. They can be sitcom scripts, one-hour scripts, TV movie scripts, and even reality show ideas. For the first three, they can be for your entirely original creation or for specs written for existing shows.

10. "Option" Contests. Watch out for these. I'm lumping together a number of contests, all of which lay claim to your script one way or another if you win. The only one I feel is worthwhile is Project Greenlight. This one is also fine as an opportunity for peer review. Other than PGL, be very wary of receiving an option as a prize. Options in this situation mean very little other than a loss of control over your material. These contests are often little more than a way for a new, under-funded prodco to pay their readers to find material.

11. Gimmick Contests. These are all the "best first page" contests and the like. It will feel good to be a winner, and if the prize looks good, go ahead. But nobody cares about the first page without all those other pages that follow.

12. Short Script Contests. Like the feature contests, but entry fees and prizes (if any) are usually smaller. I'd be particularly interested if the prize were real production of the winning short, so long as the writer retained all rights.

13. Everybody Else. Last but certainly not least. This is obviously a catch-all category, but it catches some major, well-known contests. And some fly-by-night operations that look pretty shady to me. It's just a little more difficult to decide which to enter. You'll need to do your homework.

Some guidelines that apply to picking any contest:

-How many years has this contest been run? New contests are risky. How do you research them?

-Have past winners gone on to professional careers? Not many contests can boast of even one.

-Have prizes from previous years been awarded? I've won six. One has not sent me all the prizes promised. That same contest was sued by a previous winner.

-What do they do to publicize their results? Because now you know nobody will beat down your door. Will they post the news on their website (which nobody will visit). Will they take out an ad in the trades? Will they send the script to sponsoring prodcos?

-Do they promise to send the script to too many people? This is the dark side of the question above. Sending a script to a sponsoring prodco or two can be positive, assuming you are notified of where it's going and given the right to say no. But stay away from contests that promise a blanket submission all over town. I saw one recently that claims it will send the winning script to over 100 places! You only get one chance to make a first impression. If none of those companies wants your script in its current form, you're doomed. Your script has been read, covered, and rejected everywhere. It's dead.

-What is the entry fee? Is it more than the usual $40 or $50? Why?

-What is the prize? This is next to the entry fee for a reason. These people are taking in a lot of money. They'd better be kicking back some of it to their winner(s). I'm not saying they have to be the Nicholl, which is supported by a foundation and loses money every year, but it had better be something more than a cash cow for the people running the show.

-Do they make their deadlines? They expect you to make them. In all fairness, most contests miss their deadlines for reporting results. A week or two is fine. But I am waiting for the final results on a contest I entered in October of 2003. It's February, 2005. They are ten months late with their results. Another contest is nearly that overdue. Unacceptable.

-Are their entry requirements worth the pain? Are you willing to send two or three copies of your script? Are you willing to have your application notarized? Are you willing to write a synopsis? A few contests have weird, weird requirements. You decide.

-How many entries do they receive? A smaller contest with a handsome prize may be more appealing than a large contest with a small prize.

-Who are the judges? This is important in the final rounds of judging. They should at least be willing to tell you some of their previous judges, if not the current year's judges.

-What are the judging criteria? Will they be more specific than "best script?" Do they have their judges use scoring sheets?

-Do they allow electronic entry? I am crazy about electronic entry. It's easy, it's cheap, and it's fast.

The last and only rule is don't enter blind. Do some research. Follow their entry guidelines to the letter. Send your best work. Respect the readers. And the best of luck to you and your scripts.

The Contests