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Enter to Win! How to Impress Contest Judges

ENTER TO WIN! How to Impress Contest Judges With Your Screenplay or Teleplay

There are literally hundreds of screen and television writing contests held annually. In addition to the Fade In Awards (now in its 21st year!), notable competitions include the Academy Nicholl Fellowships, Sundance Screenwriters Lab, Austin Film Festival, HBO Access Writing Fellowship and Slamdance, just to name a few.

Some of these contests are open only to amateurs. Others allow both novices and paid professionals to compete. Some competitions judge only screenplays, while others have separate categories for features, teleplays, short films and even web content. Some competitions offer cash prizes, some merchandise, some industry access, and some combinations of all three. All offer winners some degree of much-needed exposure, and perhaps even a bit of prestige.

If you’re thinking about entering a screenplay/teleplay contest, understand that the qualities that define an award-winning script are not necessarily those that make for a blatantly commercial one. Today, with most studios concentrating on franchises and sequels, being able to write within a rigid commercial framework, craft and familiarity are of paramount concern. Most contest judges have other priorities. They’re looking for originality. They’re looking for a distinctive “voice.” They’re looking for writing that transcends genre. While commercial viability may still be an evaluation criterion – and this varies from contest to contest – it is unlikely to carry the same weight as it does when trying to sell to a studio or producer.

How then can you impress contest judges with your work and make yourself a viable competitor? Here are some Do’s and Don’ts of entering writing contests:

Do perform your due diligence before sending in your script and entrance fee. Make sure the contest is legitimate, has a history, is recognized by industry professionals and has a record of spawning working writers. Go in with your eyes open.

Don’t overlook the more obscure competitions. Sure, everyone wants to win the Nicholl, but it awards only one top prize per year. Increase your odds for success — and your opportunities to get noticed — by entering as many competitions as you can find — and your budget allows.

Do enter contests that favor the type of format you choose to write. Some contests only judge feature screenplays. Others have separate categories for feature scripts, teleplays, short scripts and even web-based content. If you want to write for television, enter contests fully or partially geared toward that form.

Don’t submit older scripts that have repeatedly failed to gain recognition in previous contests unless it has undergone a major rewrite. If a script has repeatedly failed to make even the first cut in other competitions, don’t expect different results in the future. Beating the proverbial dead horse not only wastes your time and the judges’, it can, over time, diminish your “brand.”

Do read the rules and follow them. A contest is a game. A game must have rules if it’s going to be any fun. Understand the structures the contest organizers have imposed and follow them to the letter. Unlike Hollywood, a writing contest is no place for an iconoclast.

Don’t ignore the marketing opportunities offered by the contest entry form. Often, forms ask that you include a logline and/or a short synopsis of your entry. Take the time to polish these descriptions and make them as clear, as sharp and enticing as possible. Very often, judges will form initial impressions of your script based on how well you’ve described it before they even look at its first page.

Do choose a subject you’re excited about. A prize-winning contest script inevitably reflects the obsessions of the person who wrote it, the passion woven into every page. If you’re writing just to win — if your script is the product of some kind of clinical calculation — the cynicism is going to bleed through, and will ultimately be self-defeating.

Don’t put too much emphasis on genre. As stated earlier, most contest judges are looking for what’s good, not necessarily what they think can “sell.” Don’t worry that studios no longer make adult dramas or that first-time writers can’t sell $200 million sci-fi epics. At the same time, don’t worry that your script isn’t “arty” enough or may be considered “too commercial.” In a contest, a great slasher script or slapstick comedy can be just as prize-worthy as high-brow historical drama.

Do pay close attention to the fundamentals of good screen- and TV-writing, including structure, pacing, character development and dialogue. Like everyone in Hollywood, contest judges are looking for engaging stories, vividly drawn characters, scintillating dialogue and page-turning suspense. Only the contest judges actually mean it.

Don’t be afraid to test boundaries. When it comes to original screenplays and TV pilots, most Hollywood producers are looking for concepts that fall midway between the exotic and the cliché. They want stories that are original, but not too original. Contest judges, however, tend to lean more toward originality than they do the tried-and-true. If you have a feature film or TV series pilot you feel may be too bizarre or off-putting for general consumption, contests are a good place to look for an eager and sympathetic audience.

Do detail your script to provide specificity in time, place and character. Inserting specific geographic locations, car brands, weapons types, etc., helps create more vivid pictures in the reader’s mind as well as adds to verisimilitude of the story you’re trying to tell.

Don’t be afraid to inject occasional author commentary and other literary devices that are normally discouraged when writing for industry buyers. Unlike spec screenplays, which are the equivalent of architectural plans for eventual motion pictures, contest entries are end-products designed to be enjoyed for their sakes. Use whatever tools you have at your disposal to make the “read” as entertaining as possible.

Do carefully proofread your script before submission. Typos and grammatical errors aren’t just signs of amateurish writing; they are distractions that pull readers out of the script and undermine the “willing suspension of disbelief” necessary to enjoy any work of fiction.

Don’t demand perfection from yourself. Perfection is not just the enemy of greatness, it’s also a paralyzing agent as it’s impossible to achieve. No script is “perfect.” Certainly the best movies aren’t. Great scripts, like great writers, are often messy, flawed and open to criticism. But they’re also exhilarating, inspiring and unforgettable. In other words, they’re alive.

Do be patient when waiting for contest results. Many competitions take as much as a year to reveal their slate of winners.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t win. Like studios and producers, every contest has its own criteria and sensibilities. What constitutes “great” to one group of judges may be a “pass” to others. In this industry, there are no absolutes.

Finally, do keep writing…and keep submitting your work. Any athlete will tell you, everyone faces defeat. The only difference between champions and also-rans is that champions get up and try again. – Allen B. Ury

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