Hmmm… I was thinking of titling this Contests & Other Ways to Waste Your Money, but that seemed rather negative. And not totally fair. I’m a believer in contests, for the right reasons — which are different for different screenwriters. (Hint: you have to figure out what you want from a contest, because not all contests offer the same rewards.)

Since the state of screenwriting took a hit during COVID, contests have risen a bit in my esteem, at least to the point that I needed to test out my theories. That’s correct, I finally entered a few contests and will report on how contests can aid a script’s chances on the road to selling and producing your work. Will my old views still hold true or shall I learn something new? I don’t know about you, but I’m always up to learn something new!

First up, I entered the BlueCat screenplay contest. I’ve always liked this one, because it offers one page of feedback for every script. It’s nice to get a little feedback. I actually thought it would give me a little insight into how my script would progress in the contest. Sadly, I was wrong. It only muddied the waters and offered more questions than insight. Very confusing.

I must state for the record, that I entered the TV pilot script contest, and I only entered a script that I had vetted in other ways. Contests are not places to test if you’ve learned your screenwriting skills. And it’s a waste of time to send something that you haven’t had professionally proofed. So, we’re talking about entering a script that has been proofed, read for continuity and concept, then entered. THAT MEANS: if you aren’t sure that you’re entering a professional-level script to the contest, DO NOT ENTER IT. Why? Because it’s a waste of money.

OKAY – so we’re on the same page about entering a script that you’d be proud to send to a producer!

Screenplays are always judged by three main points (whether a contest or IRL):

  • Professionally written
  • Concept
  • Screenwriter’s track record

In a contest, you don’t have to worry about the last one, so that makes the first two more important. We already established that we’re sending in a solid script, which means the reader is looking for story flaws. Things that make production too costly or don’t fit the genre. Readers will get very picky and bring a lot of their own experiences to this point, so what one reader would love, the next could hate and it sinks your script!

Please keep that in mind. ONLY ONE PERSON is deciding if your script goes forward or ends its journey. You could do everything right, and still get no traction in a contest. I’ve know many talented writers that have won a contest with a script, only to have the exact same script not even make the first contest cut in a different competition.

So, yes, this business is subjective as Hell. Better get use to that one! Tough skin and all that, because anyone at any point can easily say, “It’s not what we are looking for.” I’ve been on both sides of that statement, and I can honestly tell you that ‘what they are looking for’ is both very broad — meaning the producer has a wide range of interest — yet really specific. The minute you pitch a producer, face-to-face, your concept will trigger all of the things they don’t want in a project. This might seem harsh, but each producer has a long list that’s not really a list. It’s just what’s crammed in their life/producing history, and it’s full of nuances of what they can and can’t get produced. Which makes it really hard for a producer to say, “this is what I want.” It’s something you know when you hear it. (Yeah, I’ve always hated that line. But it’s so true.)

How does this apply to my BlueCat experience? Well, my TV pilot did not make it through the first cut, even though the feedback was wonderful! So, I’m left with questions that can’t be answered. I know what the reader liked, but the one “point of improvement” offered in the feedback didn’t seem to be enough to end the script’s journey. I mean, it was a pilot, so somethings are setups for the series. The reader shouldn’t know everything in the pilot. Was that point the script’s demise, or was it something else?

My TV script is a limited-run series, so if the reader went in looking for CSI or a TV pilot like that, mine was definitely lacking. Hmmm… questions.

Feedback, whether you understand it or not, still points a finger at a spot in your script that at least one person stumbled over. So, like a good screenwriter, I went back over that spot and sent my pilot to another contest. I’ll keep you posted on how it fairs.

Bottomline, know why you’re entering a contest. Only enter if you can afford the fee. Enter early, because the readers will be less jaded, in theory. (Aren’t they always jaded?) And if you want real insight to what CONTEST READERS are really thinking, listen to this interview I did with Howard Casner! He gave me the inside scoop on contests — and he’s read for the biggest ones! WATCH THE INTERVIEW HERE: STRATEGY SESSION WITH A HOLLYWOOD READER!