When you are starting out, getting someone in the industry to read your screenplay can seem like an insurmountable task. Screenwriting contests promise to offer a short cut. Almost all of them claim to get your script in front of industry professionals. (For an entry fee.) (Provided you win.) But not all screenplay contests are created equal. You could easily spend thousands of dollars entering contests this year, and at the end of the year you’d be no closer to a career as a screenwriter.
But there are screenplay contests – and fellowships – that can help you advance your career, though not always in the way you expect. I won a contest (the now-defunct Carl Sautter Award) early in my career and received some excellent prizes and reads from many producers and agents. Here’s a look at some of the contests and fellowships that are worth your attention. It is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you a place to start as you consider how to spend your hard earned money.
Traditional Screenplay Contests
The Nicholl Fellowship is the big dog of screenwriting contests. It’s sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the people who run the Oscars). If you are a finalist in the Nicholl – or even a semi-finalist – producers and agents will be contacting you to read your screenplay. The competition is fierce – nearly 7,500 screenplays are submitted each year and only about 10 reach the finals.
The Nicholl costs $60, but winners receive a $35,000 grant. Contests that offer big prize money can help your career simply by giving you the freedom to spend more time on your writing.
When considering a contest I suggest evaluating the stature of the sponsoring organization, the history of the contest, and the prizes offered. Then compare that to the cost of entering. Some contests focus on specific types of material - certain genres, for example, or screenplays set in a specific location (usually sponsored by the government's film department for that state, city, or whatever). It may be worth entering contests that your material is right for because you have a better shot at winning. And obviously avoid ones your material is not right for.
Film Festival Contests
Some film festivals sponsor screenwriting contests that provide winners with passes to the festival and participation in festival events or workshops. In addition to the learning opportunity, this can provide you with networking opportunities if the festival is well attended by industry people.
The Austin Film Festival Contest is probably the best of these. Cost is $40 and all entrants get at least discounts to the festival (with bigger discounts the higher you go in the contest). Plus, this contest is taken seriously by the industry. And Austin passes on feedback from the contest readers – another potentially valuable benefit of contests… as long as the readers are good.
Slamdance also offers a contest that provides reader feedback, a cash prize, and festival passes – not bad since it coincides with Sundance.
Film Independent’s Screenwriters Lab
The Film Independent Screenwriters Lab is a four-week intensive program for art house style screenplays. Many participants go on to have their screenplays produced (I suspect Film Independent does a lot of behind-the-scenes pushing of the participants’ scripts). In addition to the classes and industry mentorship, participants get passes to the Los Angeles Film Festival. Definitely worth the $45 entry fee.
The Studio Fellowships
Many studios offer writing fellowships. Particulars vary in terms of length and financial compensation, but they are all programs designed to train writers. The majority of these are for television writers with the ultimate goal of getting the participants staff writing jobs on that company’s shows. Obviously that would be a career making opportunity. Also note that many of the fellowships are dedicated to promoting diversity, though most are open to any applicant. An added bonus – many don’t have application fees, so they’re definitely worth trying. Here are some links to investigate:
Warner Brothers Writers Workshop
Speaking of diversity, there are some excellent programs designed to give writers of color, LGBT writers, and female writers opportunities. Here are some links that might be useful if you fall into one of these categories.
CBS diversity mentoring program
NBC’s Writers on the Verge
Film Independent’s Project Involve
As I said, this is not an exhaustive list of worthy contests and fellowships, but hopefully it will give you a place to start investigating and a metric for comparisons. Note that most of these are only open to writers who have not yet made significant money in the film or television business.
One final benefit of entering these contests: they can be a gauge of how good your material actually is. If you don’t make the finals in one contest, don’t worry. The competition is high and reader taste and experience can vary dramatically. But if you enter a dozen contest and don’t make the final in any, maybe your money would be better spent taking a screenwriting class and your time better spent developing your craft.
Need to develop your craft? Try my book: The Three Stages of Screenwriting.
And if you're in Los Angeles, I will be teaching a pitching workshop at The Writers Store on April 9th.