Saturday, September 18, 2010

Best In Show: Making Screenwriting Contests Work for You

Post by Trai Cartwright
[Excerpted from an article I wrote for Writer’s Digest “Writing Contests” magazine:]

Screenwriting contests, they are a-changin’. Used to be, there were only a handful, and winning one scored you a small title and a smaller check, but little else for your trouble. Used to be, only story editors and junior executives or their assistants judged most contests, bringing with them limited expertise or interest in the outcome. Used to be, only dramatic or indie screenplays had any chance of winning.

But times, they have a-changed.

While there are still a suspiciously high number of contests that are at best unhelpful to a writer and at worst shameless scams—in the past decade a dynamic range of industry-minded and increasingly powerful contests have emerged. It’s the Golden Era of Screenwriting Competitions and there’s never been a better time to submit your scripts to (carefully researched) contests, and reap the rewards.

One indicator that things have changed in the contest world: the iron-fisted rulership of the coming-of-age/historical biography/family drama has ended. Now, any and every genre has a shot at taking the top slot. Why? Because contest-winning screenplays are no longer just calling cards to the industry. They are commercial enterprises that get attention and sometimes even get made.

This million-dollar cottage industry’s mission is now about providing real assistance for new writers hacking their way into Hollywood, often by sending out the best contest scripts all over Hollywood for consideration. You don’t even have to win—placing in the quarter or semifinals of any of the top contests can be a springboard to getting your script read. These competitions now attract brand name players as their upper strata judges, and they facilitate launching the careers of new writers, sometimes by taking on those scripts themselves.

Once the best-kept secret in town, screenwriting contests are now fertile ground for high-stakes competition, with future power-scribes duking it out for real-money prizes and that crucial all-access industry pass.

As a competitor, it’s more important than ever to submit only your best work. What does it take to win or place in a contest? What exactly do contest judges look for? What excites them? What turns them off? What’s a guaranteed pass?

I lined up a panel of contest judge superstars to find out, and sent the article off to Writer’s Digest. They’ve published it twice, once in their Screenwriters and Playwright’s Market and now in this month’s one-off bookazine, Writing Contests.

A friend of Northern Colorado Writers is the editor, Mr. Chuck Sambuchino, and he’s put together a terrific bunch of articles plus over 300 real-deal contests for all kinds of writers looking to score in the contest world. Available at bookstores September 25.

What has your experience been with writing contests?

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