One of the ways for beginning screenwriters to get through the enormous wall that separates them from the business is to win a screenwriting contest. I myself have won one – the now defunct Carl Sautter Memorial contest. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of contests out there. Unfortunately, most have an entry fee and many won’t help you much even if you win. How do you decide which are worth entering?
I would generally look for contests associated with some reputable organization such as a film commission or film festival. Look at your local commission and festivals in particular. They might have contests limited to local writers, which increases your odds. You might also look in the region your film is set. Many commissions have contests just for scripts set in their area to encourage filming there.
Some studios and production companies offer excellent contests and fellowships as well. Just read the application materials carefully. Make sure it really is a contest and not simply a way for the company to get paid for accepting slush pile material. And some of the fellowships require a commitment of a year or more. If you’re serious about screenwriting that’s probably not a bad thing. But make sure you know what you’re getting into.
Unfortunately some contests are scams. They just want to collect the entry fees and sometimes they’re even designed to give the award to a specific person. There is no organization that oversees the ethics of contests. The longer a contest has been around the more legitimate it is likely to be. Look back at the lists of previous winners. If you have doubts about a contest, do a web search to see if the results were widely published.
You’ll also want to consider the entry fee. I would avoid ones that costs more than $40 - $50 unless they're really well known. You can burn through a lot of money in entry fees. Balance the fee against the potential benefit you might get from the contest.
And you will want to analyze the potential benefit. Contest that give big cash prizes are definitely worth a look. And consider how the contest promotes the winner. Some festival contests will give you a free pass to the festival, which you can use to make a lot of contacts (though if they don't provide travel you'll have to weight that cost). Others might set up meetings with agents or producers. Even free participation in a class or seminar can be a good payoff if the entry fee is reasonable.
Most legitimate contests will distribute the winning scripts to a wide range of industry professionals. But if you win you shouldn’t leave it up to the organizers to do all the promotion for you. That’s the time to send out query letters to your own list of agents or producers touting your success, giving a quick logline of the script and asking if they’ll read it.
There is one contest that rises above all others: The Nicholls Fellowship administered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Even the semi-finalists get pursued by agents and producers. But be forewarned – the competition is fierce. If you really think you’re ready, though, you should definitely apply. You can find out more at:
Finally, though contests are one of the most straightforward ways to get your foot in the door, they should not become an end in and of themselves. Be selective of which ones you enter. And once you win a couple you should really evaluate what more you can get out of the process.
But until then, good luck!