Monday, March 28, 2016

(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Screenwriting Contests

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

Diversity Programs

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.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Seven Tips for Better Pitches

If you want to be a writer in Hollywood, the reality is you are going to have to pitch your ideas. This isn't always a natural skill for the type of people who gravitate to writing.

There are many types of pitches and many pitching situations – from formal original pitches to pitching for an assignment. From two-minute pitch-fest pitches of your existing script to casual 60-second pitches at industry social events. From a five-minute pitch in a general meeting to a pitch of a new idea to your agent. Feature films, television shows, and web series all require different approaches. Here are seven tips that will help in almost any situation:

1. Give them a log line before launching into plot. Remember, they don’t know anything about the story you are pitching. If you launch into details and scenes, it can be confusing. Give them the basic idea up front. Once they know the idea, they will know how to process the information that follows.

2. Tell them the genre. Don’t make them guess if your story is comedic or dramatic. Don’t surprise them by revealing science fiction elements halfway through the pitch. Let them know up front what kind of story they are going to hear. In television, the genre will probably be evident by who is hearing the pitch, but consider what other information they may need, such as whether your hour drama is open or closed-ended, or whether your sitcom is single or multi-cam.

3. Tell the plot through the character. Just like character is the viewers’ way into a movie or television show, it’s the buyer’s way into your pitch. We only care about the plot to the extent that we care about the character, and to the extent that we can see how the plot affects the character. Don’t simply recite dry plot points, describe how the character feels about the events and what decisions and changes the character makes as a result of those events.

4. Be specific. A pitch is shorter than the final product (movie, TV show, etc.) and you don’t have the advantage of the fully dramatized scenes, so you need to be as specific as possible so that the listener envisions the final product in their mind. Don’t just say the character has a bad relationship with their father, for example. Why is that relationship bad? What is their father like? Choose your words for maximum impact.

5. Practice with real people who don’t know your story. You have the advantage of knowing a lot more about your story than the listener, so you may not recognize what they won’t understand about your pitch. It’s important to test drive your pitch with trusted friends – ones who will be honest with you – to find out where you are being unclear.

6. The pitch should be the same tone as the story. If you are pitching a comedy, your pitch better be funny. If you are pitching horror, it better be scary. Since you don’t have the advantage of actors delivering lines, this can be a challenge. For a comedy you may have to make jokes that won’t be in the movie. That’s okay – you are showing them that you’re funny so that they'll know the script might also be funny. And present your story in a dramatic way. Don’t recite every aspect in the same monotone.

7. Engage with your listener. Make eye contact, read their reactions. Watch for where they get confused so you can elaborate or slow down. It’s okay to have notes for a longer pitch – most buyers will expect that. But never pitch from a computer – it’s very distancing for the listener.

Pitching is a difficult but necessary skill for screenwriters in Hollywood. You need to put as much care into learning the craft of pitching as you do learning the craft of writing. But with practice, anybody can become a better pitcher.


If you're in Los Angeles, I will be teaching a pitching workshop at The Writers Store on May 7th where I will be revealing many more tips!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Using Preparation in Opposition to Heighten Emotional Impact

(SPOILERS: Children of Men, Aliens, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Whiplash, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

There’s a technique in screenwriting known as Preparation in Opposition. This is when you heighten an emotional moment or surprise by setting up the opposite. If you’re going to deliver bad news to the character, for example, make them happy. More importantly, set up the audience to believe good stuff is going to happen. Then the bad news is a greater shock.

For example, in Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby), there is a scene where our group of heroes is driving through the countryside. Theo and Julian are blowing a ping-pong ball back and forth, demonstrating a favorite trick, while the other passengers laugh. Theo and Julian are ex-spouses, and Julian admits she’s never been able to pull off the trick with anyone else. It looks like maybe the romance might be rekindled between them.

And then the car is attacked by a gang and Julian is killed. We feel Theo’s devastation at the loss. Imagine if, instead of the playful beginning to the scene, the group in the car were discussing the danger of their mission immediately before the attack. Julian’s death would be much less shocking and Theo’s sense of loss less palpable.

Another example comes at the end of Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron). Once the surviving heroes escape the planet and return to their ship, Ripley congratulates Bishop on a job well done – an important emotional moment since she hasn’t trusted him through most of the movie. And then we see acid dripping and BLAM – the mama alien’s tail pierces Bishop’s chest.

This is actually a version of another preparation-in-opposition cliché – just when we think the killer is dead, they rise one last time. But it doesn’t feel cliché in Aliens because the resolution between Ripley and Bishop is genuinely wrapping up a subplot of the film. Also, the mama alien’s reappearance is planted earlier. When the drop ship is taking off, it gets tangled, giving the alien time to get aboard. The plant is not obvious at the time, but in retrospect it helps the surprise make sense.

Too often in weak screenplays we see the surprises and twists coming a mile away. It’s understandable – for a surprise to be believable, after all, the elements need to be planted. But then it’s your job to convince the audience that something else is going to happen. The twist that the queen is still alive in Aliens works because we believe the scene is about something else entirely.

The opposite works too – if you want a happy surprise, have the character give up hope. Before E.T. comes back to life in E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison), Elliott and his siblings are given time to mourn his death. In fact, Elliott has just said his goodbyes when E.T.’s heart light comes on. Once again, effective planting helps make the surprise believable. The film has established that we don’t really understand E.T.’s physiology so we can believe that the scientists were wrong about his death, and we know that a message has been sent so the return of E.T.’s ship (which triggers his revival) is not surprising. The result is one of the greatest moments of joy in film history.

Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle) uses preparation-in-opposition a lot and quite masterfully. The first time Andrew attends studio band – after having been personally selected by Fletcher – he is given an opportunity to take his turn on the drums. The ultimate point of this scene is to show how abusive Fletcher is to his students. The culmination of the scene is when Fletcher rips Andrew apart, embarrassing him and making him cry. This is a crucial plot point, because Andrew will then have to decide whether to quit or accept the sadistic challenge of trying to please Fletcher.

We have already seen earlier in the movie and even earlier in the same scene that Fletcher can be cruel and doesn’t suffer fools, so this is not an entirely unexpected climax to the scene. But Chazelle gives us a preparatory scene in the hallway where Fletcher finds a nervous Andrew and tells him to relax, asking him about his family, and assuring him that he doesn’t have anything to fear – after all, it’s only his first day and he was chosen for a reason. It works, giving Andrew confidence as they return to the classroom.

Because of this, when Fletcher turns on Andrew it comes across as shocking and unexpected, even though we really shouldn’t be surprised. Moreover, Fletcher uses what he has just learned about Andrew’s family to insult him, revealing the whole pep talk in the hall was a set-up. Not only has Andrew been set up, so have we, the audience. It creates a strong emotional bond between Andrew and the viewer.

This technique was used to create the shocking emotional twist at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (written by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt, based on characters created by George Lucas). Kylo Ren seems to be on the verge of turning from the dark side. He even asks his father for help. This is the culmination of a subplot running through much of the movie. We’ve seen Kylo Ren’s commitment waver before. When it turns out Kylo Ren is actually luring his father to his doom, the impact is heightened by our belief that Kylo Ren could be changing.

When crafting your scenes, you don’t want the outcome to appear too obvious to the viewer. Whatever feeling you’re going to end on, try to set up the opposite expectation in the character and the audience. It will add dramatic and emotional power when the twist comes.


Learn more about preparation-in-opposition and other screenwriting techniques in 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.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Learning from Failed Movies

(SPOILERS: Eddie the Eagle, Valkyrie, Titanic)

This weekend I saw Eddie the Eagle (story by Simon Kelton, screenplay by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton) and was very disappointed. A big part of the reason I thought the movie didn’t work was the screenplay. When confronted with a movie like this, I think it’s important, as a professional screenwriter, to be able to analyze what went wrong and consider how I would have fixed those problems.

Eddie the Eagle is based on the fantastic, heart-warming story of British ski jumper Eddie Edwards. These kinds of projects can be deceptively difficult. Since the true story is so good, it seems like all you have to do is put it into a proper structure, maybe heighten the obstacles, and you’re good to go. The trouble with this approach is that the audience already knows how the story ends.

Granted, Eddie’s story may not be widely known (I remember him, but younger audiences wouldn’t). However, anyone buying a ticket will be going to the movie about the underdog ski jumper who made it to the Olympics. The marketing tells them how it came out. So the first mistake the movie made was that it tried to build suspense through act two as to whether Eddie would qualify for the Olympics.

Let me illustrate the issue with another movie that had the same problem: Valkyrie (written by Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander). It was a true story about a plot by German officers to assassinate Hitler. However, everyone who knows even a little history knows that Hitler was not assassinated by German officers. The movie tried to build tension over whether the scheme would succeed – for example, there was a long sequence where we were supposed to be on the edge of our seat waiting to see if Hitler would stay in a room where a time bomb was set to go off. Except we already know he won’t, so the sequence came across as tedious instead of tense.

When I came out of Valkyrie, my friend said it was like they tried to make a movie about the Titanic from the point of view of the Captain and whether he would hit the iceberg. Of course, the movie Titanic (written by James Cameron) was a gigantic success… but it wasn’t from the point of view of the Captain. The tension in Titanic was not whether the ship was going to sink – we all knew it would – it was a romance about whether lower class Jack and upper class Rose would end up together, with the fate of the ship used as a backdrop.

So one technique to making a known story interesting is to focus on a different dramatic question than the outcome of the main historical event. In Valkyrie, the main character was an officer who knew from the first moments of the movie that Hitler was bad for Germany and wanted to get rid of him. The officer never wavered in that belief. But there was another officer who struggled with his loyalty to Germany. Could he betray his country by participating in a coup – even if the coup would ultimately be good for his country? What does patriotism really mean? I think an interesting movie could have been made about that character and his struggle.

So getting back to Eddie the Eagle, in the second act, Eddie has to jump 61 meters to meet a newly imposed safety requirement to make the British Olympic team. He goes on the European ski jumping tour in a long sequence of practicing and competing, trying to make the distance. Practice and repeated attempts are probably the way he did it in real life, but it’s not that interesting on film, and it’s not tense since we know that eventually he will succeed.

But the truth is, we know how most stories are going to come out – even fictional ones. In action movies, we know the hero will beat the bad guy. In romantic comedies we know the lovers will end up together – and in romantic tragedies, they won’t. What usually makes a story interesting is not whether the hero will win or lose, but how.

Here was one of Eddie the Eagle’s big challenges: a ski jump is difficult but simple. You slide down the hill, you lift off, and you land… or you don’t. It’s hard to make the technical aspects of the sport interesting. So if I were writing this story, I would have looked for some kind of internal challenge Eddie had to overcome, some sort of self-doubt, fear, arrogance, etc. The arc of the movie would be about how he overcomes that flaw to achieve the goal we know he will achieve. (There are other possible alternative stories – it could have been about him raising money for his training, for example. But this is a heartwarming sports story, so I would look to the character for the solution.)

A second problem Eddie the Eagle has is that it doesn’t just use every sports movie cliché, it doubles down on them. Is it a cliché that the really good athletes will be mean to our scrappy underdog? Then the really good athletes in this movie will be the cruelest people on Earth! (This is the worst kind of cliché… one that isn’t true in the real world.)

I want to focus on one cliché in particular: the unsupportive father. Practically every line out of Eddie’s father’s mouth in this movie is some version of, “Give up your silly dream and get a job,” with the occasional, “Don’t expect me to pay for your skiing” thrown in. (And then, of course, in the very last scene Eddie’s father tells him he’s proud of him, for no apparent reason other than it’s the last scene and that’s the movie cliché.)

Now, an unsupportive father might be a good obstacle to put in Eddie’s way. But given that it’s a cliché, the writers ought to have tried to find a variation on it. Perhaps they should have thought more about why the father was unsupportive. Here are three ideas:

1. Focus more on the financial aspect. Skiing is an expensive sport and Eddie’s family is working class. There’s only the briefest nod to this when his father mentions they haven’t taken a vacation in three years, but it’s not treated as that significant a sacrifice. If Eddie’s father was shown to really struggle for every dollar, it would be plausible that he would resent his son’s spending so much on what the father thinks is a waste of time.

2. Eddie’s father could worry that his son will make a fool of himself, and want to protect his son (and himself) from ridicule. Maybe there could be a scene in the local pub where Eddie’s father hears people making jokes about his goofy son’s attempts to be an athlete. Then there would be some subtext if the father goes home and tells Eddie he should give up his silly pursuit.

3. Eddie’s father could be worried that his son will get hurt. Eddie had bad knees as a child and spent a lot of time in a hospital. It would be perfectly reasonable – and even sympathetic – if his father feared ski jumping was too dangerous a sport for his fragile son.

I think any of these options would have been far more interesting and engaging than the one-note lout we’re given. When you find yourself writing a cliché, try to get deeper into the character. A believable character motivation can make the cliché seem fresh and unique.

And when you see a bad movie, use it as an opportunity to learn how to make your own writing better.


Hone your craft with my book, The Three Stages of Screenwriting