One of the fastest ways to garner attention for your script is to win a screenwriting contest. The top contests often enlist industry judges, including agents and producers, and provide publicity for the top placing screenplays.
So how do you win one of these contests? As a judge in several competitions, I’ve read lots of screenplays and noticed a few things that all the top screenplays have in common.
Here are my tips for making an impression….
Write a great screenplay. Duh, right? But you’d be surprised by what some people think constitutes a great script. More on this in a minute…
Follow the contest directions. If they ask you to submit a synopsis that’s less than one page, make sure it’s less than one page. If they ask for a one-sentence logline, don’t send them a two-sentence logline. Seriously, why get kicked out of the running for something dumb? Follow the rules!
Make sure your script looks like a screenplay. Use proper formatting. Final Draft is great. Also, Celtx is free. No fancy drawings on the title page. Make it look professional.
Have a strong concept. Within the first ten pages, the judge should have a clear sense of what kind of movie they’re reading. In order to make the rounds successfully in Hollywood, people will need to describe your movie clearly in a couple of sentences. Do you have a succinct logline that makes describing your movie easy? Does this concept/logline grab the reader’s attention? Judges are looking for clarity of concept because it indicates that you have drilled down to find the engine/hook of your film.
Write in a genre that you love. It shows when the writer loves the genre they are working in. It comes through the pages as pure joy (even if you’re submitting a horror film.) Write the kind of movie you love to watch!
Tell a story that matters to you. Even if it’s a wacky comedy, what’s the emotional center of the story? What’s the theme? How can you leave the contest judge with a lump in his or her throat? Do we feel something when we read your script? Many a screenplay with problems has been pushed through to the final round based on emotional impact.
Fly Your Freak Flag! And I mean this. Let’s hear your specific voice. I was recently judging a contest and one script WOKE ME UP. I mean this person’s voice was so clear and so daring, and so unique that I immediately moved it to the top of my list. The script had issues, but the voice was impossible to ignore. Be original!
Do Not Chase Trends. Repeat. Do Not Chase Trends. There’s a certain kind of generic script that always comes through the contest pipeline. The writer has decided this story is “commercial,” but it’s obvious that his/her heart isn’t in it. These scripts are usually boring, and don’t get pushed forward.
Listen to consistent feedback. If you get notes back from multiple screenwriting contests and the notes are the same, pay attention. Fix these issues. Resubmit to other contests after you’ve strengthened and/or addressed these problems.
Don’t hang around, waiting to win. After you’ve submitted your script to some contests, start your next project. Make this one better, stronger, even more unique. Keep writing and improving your craft!
Winning a contest isn’t the only way to start a screenwriting career, but it can provide access to highly placed industry insiders. This access can be extremely valuable, especially if you don’t have any Hollywood “connections.”
Take Action! Does your script have a strong concept? Have you written in a genre that you love? Does your story have a strong emotional takeaway? Does the writing uniquely and specifically reflect YOU? Have you dealt with all the consistent issues pointed out by your prior readers to create a polished story? Is the script formatted properly and have you followed the contest directions?
When I was just out of film school, I made the semi-finals of a big Hollywood screenwriting contest. I didn’t even make the finals, but got lots of interest in my script from agents and producers.
I had written and rewritten this script to within an inch of its life. The screenplay was in a genre I loved, and had an emotional takeaway I felt strongly about. This script got me my first paid writing job and launched me into the professional world of Hollywood.
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