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How to Win Screenwriting Contests
By Christina Hamlett 

On any given day, a screenwriting contest is probably being held somewhere.  Should you pay fees to enter them?  Who are the judges?  Will you get a critique whether you win or lose?  Where do you go from here with your winning (or losing) script?  Such are the questions that plague writers planning to put their screenplays up against total strangers in a competitive forum. 

The enticement to participate, of course, is the fact that these scripts are actually being asked for, as opposed to the customary pitching route of writing copious letters, making telephone calls, and knocking on doors to see if someone, anyone might like to read your material. 

The even better news is that, with certain exceptions (usually tied to direct association with the sponsor or regional/membership restrictions), they are open to all and are extremely well publicized on the Internet and in trade magazines. 

The prizes awarded are as diverse as the material being sought and range in significance from a nice chunk of change and/or an option agreement (Hurrah!) to a cheap certificate and complimentary plastic comb (Oh).  Somewhere in between are scriptwriting software packages, agent representation, expense-paid seminars, mantle-worthy awards, screenwriting books, and consultations in person or in print by industry experts.  I think the delightful irony here is that although your lack of experience/credits could preclude you from getting a Disney exec to even read an unsolicited letter, your participation in a Disney-sponsored script contest will assure that your material is reviewed, judged, and maybe even selected!

There is also a lot of latitude in terms of entry fees, most of which go toward administrative processing costs, reimbursing the judges for readings/critiques, and paying for the prizes.  While your personal budget picture is obviously the determining factor in how many contests you choose to enter, those which will yield some measure of professional feedback on your work are generally well worth the cost of admission.  (And don’t forget that you can deduct those fees on your income taxes as writing expenditures, along with membership dues, subscriptions, and supplies.)

What can you do to increase your chances of winning? 

1.  Follow the instructions!

2.  Always submit a freshly printed out copy each time.  It is worth the expense.

3.  Use #6 brass brads to bind the project.  Never use a binder, metal slide fasteners, or Velo plastic strips.

4.  Do not write the title on the side binding.

5.  Submit the script in an envelope that will be easy for the recipient to open.  Layers of heavy-duty tape on the outside or gobs of gray fluffy insulation on the inside are annoying.

6.  Include a self-addressed, stamped postcard whereby the recipient can confirm that the material has been received.  Do not, however, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the script’s return if the rules specifically state, “Scripts will not be returned.”

7.  Enter early as opposed to waiting until zero-hour.  The same psychology of theatrical auditions curiously applies to the order in which scripts are read; those viewed first tend to set a precedent for those that follow.  Toward the end, the judges are more rushed and impatient to get through the stacks.  Suffice it to say, a lot of scripts begin to look exactly the same at that point.

8.  Fill out the requisite releases and contest forms legibly and in black ink.

9.  Include the appropriate contest fees in the same envelope with the entry forms and the script.  (You’d be surprised how many people forget to do this.)  Your check should be paper-clipped to the entry form, not submitted loose where it could accidentally be tossed out with the envelope.

10.  In the event that you move or change your phone number during the competition period, it would be prudent to let the contest officials know that via mail.  If their letter of congratulations comes back returned or they call only to hear the message that your number has been disconnected, do not count on them investing a lot of time to find out what happened to you.

Nearly every screenwriting site listed has an announcement section for upcoming competitions.  My own favorite in terms of user-friendly features is the contest section found at http://www.moviebytes.com, where you can find the rules and advance information on contests held monthly, yearly, internationally, and even those that charge no fees to enter.  The brief sampling below will give you an idea of what’s in the works for aspiring contestants:

Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting

The Nicholl, an international contest held annually, is open to any writer who has not optioned or sold a treatment, teleplay or screenplay for more than $5,000.  Up to five $25,000 fellowships are offered each year to promising authors.

Austin Heart of Screenplay Competition

This contest invites entries in both the Children/Family and Adult/Mature categories.  Cash prizes and passes to the Austin Film Festival are awarded to the lucky winners.

Chesterfield Film Company Writer’s Film Project

Up to five winners (in any genre) are eligible for $20,000 stipends for one-year fellowship based in Los Angeles to learn more about the craft of screenwriting.

Walt Disney Studios Fellowship Program

The people responsible for that famous mouse also hold a screenwriting competition every spring.  Like the Chesterfield, the prize is a residency program in LA for 8 lucky writers, with round-trip airfare and one month’s accommodations provided for those who live outside of Southern California.

Writer’s Digest Writing Competition

The television and movie script division of this annual contest is still fairly new, but already attracting a high number of applicants.  Unlike other contests in which the entire script must be submitted, WD calls for only the first 15 pages plus a one-page synopsis.  Cash awards, books, and WD subscriptions are in the offing, with the Grand Prize being an expense-paid trip to New York City to schmooze with publishing industry execs.

Moondance International Film Festival

The objective of this international contest is to promote and encourage women screenwriters and filmmakers.  Screenplays, animation, stage plays and short stories are all eligible for review.  Helpful tip: Moondance judges encourage non-violence as a solution to conflict, and place high emphasis on character-driven, intelligent, and non-stereotypical roles for females.

Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 104 plays and musicals, and more than 250 magazine and newspaper articles.  Her website can be found at www.absolutewrite.com/site/christina.htm.




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