I almost threw my phone across the room when I opened an email promoting a Save the Cat screenwriting contest that offered “over 50 points of analysis!” which, truly, what does that mean?
My well-established distaste for Save the Cat aside, I get asked a lot about what screenwriting contests I like/are good/aren’t scams, and while I sometimes name a few (and full disclosure, I run a site that catalogs contests and deadlines but that’s more about helping writers plan than endorsing any one contest), there’s really so much more to consider before spending your hard-earned money on entrance fees.
Let’s define scam. To me, a scam is they take your money and don’t deliver what they concretely promise. In that sense, the vast majority of contests are not scams. They judge scripts and deliver the prizes promised. I have heard horror stories of contests just taking your money and never hearing from them again, and I’m sure that happens more often than I’ve heard, but you can mitigate that by doing some research. Truly, never give anyone your money online without looking at a page or two of Google results ya feel?
Okay so if they’re not out-and-out scams, let’s examine the real question. Are they worth it? And under that, let’s get to the real real real question: will a contest get me further down the road in my writing career?
The answer is somewhere on the spectrum between “probably not” and “maybe, but it depends on a lot of factors, and how you define getting “further down the road.”
Most contests are run by companies whose main business is either contests, coverage, or other writer services. They are trying to sell you something. The nominal prizes are sales tools, as is all the copy on the site. These are not worth it.
Getting real industry exposure can be worth it. Meeting people can be worth it. Getting your script put in front of people who could do something with it is definitely worth it because if you were doing that yourself you wouldn’t need contests. So there are definitely opportunities to be had, but it’s important to understand that very very few people are going to reap those benefits.
The type of contest also matters. They fall into basically three categories:
Network/Studio Fellowship: These are run by networks/studios and they are basically looking for writers that could potentially come work for them. There is generally some kind of pay involved (although, not a ton) and almost always a lot of learning opportunities, working with working writers/producers/execs, mentorship, and other super-valuable interactions with the industry. These also almost always require you to be in LA for the term of the fellowship.
Workshop/Retreat Contest: These are generally run by some kind of festival or film organization. The prize is usually something like a week of workshops with other writers that are led by working writers. An example is the Sundance Writers Lab. This is obviously a valuable experience if you can win it.
Regular Contest: These are just regular contests with a list of prizes ranging from money to meetings and everywhere in between. This is the bulk of contests, and you have to really evaluate whether it’s worth your time and entry fee.
So how do you decide if you should enter a contest?
How long have they been around? Who runs it? What do they have to gain from it? What do former winners say?
These are all good questions to ask yourself when looking at a contest.
If the pitch is overly salesy and vague, probably avoid. Look out for the claims of previous winners going on to great things, that’s more likely to be correlation than causation. Just like comedy schools love claiming successful people as their own even when they were never on a house team, lesser contests love to claim successful alums.
A track record matters, but that doesn’t mean something newer can’t be worth it. I entered a brand new pilot festival once and it turned out to be maybe the best $25 I ever spent. You just have to make those informed decisions.
On that note, let’s talk cost. A good average expectation for an entry fee is $50-$60. That’s still expensive, but it’s a reasonable average. Above that and you have to take a hard look at whether the return on investment is going to be there.
You can get a lot of things from contests: exposure to reps, exposure to execs, exposure to producers, money, travel, table reads, meetings, workshops, and useless Save the Cat! software. So step one is examining what they’re offering.
If the only thing on offer is money, then you’re basically buying a lottery ticket. You can’t make your living off of contest winnings. A little money is nice, and I’ve won some money from contests before, but that’s not the reason to enter.
If they’re offering workshops or meetings, look for the specifics. Workshops being led by working professionals are gold. Generic “distribution to executives” promises are basically worthless. Good contests will tell you exactly what they’re going to do with your script and who will be involved because they aren’t (just) trying to take your money. They have a mission.
Travel to festivals/table reads/etc can be a lot of fun and can be great ways to meet people and network, plus get exposed to a whole lot of other writers. Getting a free producer’s badge to the Austin Film Festival Screenwriter’s Conference is, for me, a valuable prize in and of itself. Coupled with the fact that Austin has a track record and reputation for being legit, that’s one I enter and recommend without reservation. It’s one of the few.
Big name judges are often used as a draw, and that can be useful to you: if your script piques someone’s interest that can do something with it, well, that’s basically the one thing we’re all trying to do, right? But it’s important to remember one thing: these big name judges aren’t reading first and second rounds. They’re looking at finalists.
For a concrete example, let’s look at this StC contest.
The cheapest entry fee is $135 which is honestly INSANE. I have never seen an entry fee so high for the early deadline. They must really be offering something great?
Grand prize winners get travel to LA for pitch practice sessions with “industry executives” and “a real pitch to a production company in LA”. Finalists get Save the Cat software. Everyone else gets what they claim is “$495 worth of feedback” but we have no idea what that means.
We really don’t have any idea what any of this means beyond the specifics of the travel to LA. Who knows who the “industry executives” are or who this prodco is? Still, you may decide it’s worth it to take a shot on this, because honestly you never know when or how you’ll meet that person that can help your career, so you cash out $135 worth of Bitcoins and send them your script.
While you’re waiting for your 500 bucks worth of feedback, let’s talk about something that doesn’t get addressed as much as it should, and I want to be super honest with you here.
In order to get any of the real benefits from a contest, you basically have to win, or in some cases place in the top 3–5, which are basically all the same rank because at that point it came down to some judge’s preference not really the quality of the writing.
Placing in the quarterfinals or semifinals is generally meaningless from a tangible results standpoint. It can be useful personally (more below) but professionally, it’s not really worth talking about. Nobody is going to take interest in you because you were a quarterfinalist in some contest. Even finalist is sometimes not enough for any recognition.
There’s a couple of exceptions. Being a semifinalist in the Nicholl Fellowship is a big enough honor that you’ll probably get some heat from it. And being a semifinalist for Austin comes with some very nice perks in terms of the conference itself, as well as a little respect from your peers. But otherwise, if you want a contest to do anything for you, it’s gonna have to be Finalist or better.
For 5 years I kept a spreadsheet of every contest I entered (sometimes with multiple scripts), how well I did, whether or not I would enter it the next year, and so on. The one thing I didn’t track was cost. Why? Because Jesus Christ who wants to face that number?
In 2015 I entered 39 contests so at my average of $50 per, that’s almost two grand, and I can pretty much guarantee it was more than that. Undeterred by (more likely willfully ignoring) that number, I doubled down (almost literally) and entered 60 in 2016. Those two years were outliers but telling.
Why did I spend all that money on contest fees? Am I now a gainfully employed screenwriter?
The answer to the latter is that this is a long-ass Medium post rather than a tweet from my verified account announcing my new movie and saying “enter contests!”.
The answer to the former is probably summed up in two thoughts. One — desperation. We all want to make it. I had the ability to enter contests so I put a lot of the weight of my hopes and dreams on them. I spent much more than that on improv classes and while neither has yet directly led to my screenwriting stardom, I don’t have a lot of regrets about it either.
The second part though is more subtle. While I haven’t gotten my “big break”, I have gotten some gain from entering contests.
When I wrote my first feature screenplay, it made the quarterfinal round in the PAGE awards. Today, I know that’s meaningless. 2012 me was just venturing out into the writing world seeing if he could even do it, and so that placement was the world of validation to me. That, along with winning the McSweeney’s New Columnist Contest in 2010, are the two things that gave me the confidence to keep writing.
When I wrote a pilot that took third place in the PAGE awards, I got a little bit of money (first time being paid as a screenwriter!) and, more importantly, read requests from producers that led to a couple of pitch meetings. Nothing further came of that but it was kind of a huge deal.
When I wrote a pilot that placed in the top 3 of SeriesFest, I got an all-expenses-paid trip to Denver for a festival and three days of intensive workshops with other writers led by showrunners, agents, producers, and other working writers. That experience was invaluable and, for the $25 bucks I spent entering the thing, probably the best investment I’ve ever made.
Being a Semifinalist at Austin was another experience that was worth it just for the experience. The conference is incredible and it came at a time when I was really down on myself as a writer. Being surrounded by so many other writers was a needed boost of confidence and belief. Nothing tangible came from that script, but the free conference badge was priceless.
An interesting side-effect has been if you enter enough contests and pay attention to the lists of winners, you start to see some names over and over again. Some of those people have even reached out to me and introduced themselves because we’re in this cohort of people hitting the finals in a bunch of things but not quite breaking yet. Other times, you’ll see someone who used to make those rounds in the finalists break through and end up on Deadline and that’s a fun moment of jealousy and hope.
There’s been other small wins. Meetings, a shopping agreement, a free option, but nothing more concrete than that. However, that’s kind of how a career in this craft is built. Little hops from one lilypad to the next until you either fall in and drown or make it to the other side of the pond.
Also there’s no other side of the pond. It’s the pond forever. You never make it. You just keep trying not to drown.
The other side of that experience is that there’s been a lot of nothing. I was a finalist in a Tracking Board contest where half the finalists got reps from the thing and I didn’t (no shade to TB, they actually worked their asses off getting our scripts out there and that felt like a valuable experience even though I didn’t get anything). I’ve been top 3 and top 10 in more than I can count at this point and haven’t gotten a thing from those experiences.
Some of that is on me. I could maybe be reaching out more and saying “hey my script was top three in Final Draft Big Break, you want to read it?”. Most of what you get in this industry is what you work to make happen.
Also nobody cares about Final Draft Big Break.
Don’t pay for the feedback from the contest judges. It’s not worth it. Plenty give free feedback. Also, get feedback from writers you trust. Or the Black List website.
Have a goal for entering contests and learn something from every entry.
If you need external deadlines, contests do provide great frameworks for making sure you’re writing fresh things every year. Just don’t go overboard.
This is just my anecdotal experience after years of entering both TV and feature contests: feature contests are better than TV ones. Features get better prizes. Features get more attention. It seems more likely that something could come from winning with a feature over a pilot.
If you go in with eyes open, and don’t rely on them to be your whole strategy, then I think they can have value. But you have to be super choosey and go for it with ones that seem like they have the chance of actually yielding real results. The vast majority are a waste of your time and energy and money and emotional capital.
Remember that you have to write a fucking great script that can win. And you have to get judges that respond to your work. And you have to follow up and advocate for yourself. And you have to make the most of those tiny opportunities when they present themselves, whether via contests or not, if you want to build any momentum.
All in all, I’d borrow from Michael Pollan and say: Enter contests, not too many, mostly for festivals/fellowships/workshops.