Full Disclosure: Michelle is the Executive Coordinator at Script Pipeline, but her opinions are based on a variety of experiences trying to break into the industry as a film and TV Writer. Her views are her own.
Okay, that’s not totally true. I do get it.
I, too, have flipped off my computer screen upon reading yet another rejection email, then mentally did the math to figure out how many hours of work that rejection email cost me. It’s a gut-punch like no other, and it makes you want to give up on contests entirely.
Yet, I still apply to contests, and until I get my proverbial “big break,” I’ll keep applying to them. Why? Because as my film professor said, it’s important to put as many lightning rods in the ground as you can.
I’m also compelled to add that my day job is literally working at a screenwriting contest, so I get behind-the-scenes access into how contests can truly skyrocket someone’s career. Granted, the chances of placing in a contest are statistically slim—but so are the odds for getting any opportunity in the film industry … plus, there are ways to stack the odds in your favor … but more on that later.
The reason I want to talk about contests is that it seems like there’s a special hate for it in the screenwriting community. If you’re not on Twitter and would like to get up to speed, the argument against contests can essentially be boiled down to four main cons:
Contests are expensive.
Contests are predatory.
Contests are subjective.
Contests are a lottery.
Now, these complaints aren’t necessarily wrong (it depends on the contest), but I’d argue they’re incomplete. They’re taken out of context, as if every other path to success were 100% free, littered with highly attainable opportunities, and full of only good, generous people who are always objective about the craft.
Anyone who’s spent time querying, networking, or working in the industry knows this just isn’t true. These same cons exist within other paths to success—they’re just not as heatedly debated.
Let’s take the first claim: Contests are expensive.
People like to emphasize the fact that networking is free. At first glance, this is true. You don’t have to pay anyone to email them, DM them, or have a Zoom chat. If you’re networking in person, you might end up paying for the other person’s coffee or you may pay to attend a networking event, but you could limit yourself to networking without spending a single dime, if you wanted.
But that doesn’t mean networking is free. You still pay—but with time. A lot of time. The better you are at networking, the more of it you’re probably doing, which means less time for writing or extra gigs you might need to pay the bills.
Same goes for querying. It takes time to draft the right letter, then to do the work of reaching out to managers, which can be a daunting task.
Another common piece of advice is to find work in the industry. If you’re already in L.A. or if you can nab a work-from-home job, this can be one of the best ways to make connections while actually getting paid.
However, if you’re currently living elsewhere and you can’t find a remote position, it can be very expensive to pack up and move to L.A., especially when the salary for many entry-level jobs isn’t enough to pay rent. The #PayUpHollywood movement speaks for itself.
For those with limited time on their hands, or for those who can’t afford the move to L.A., it might make more sense to pay a one-time entry fee to submit to contests, which can be a shortcut to meeting the right people if they place (again, more on this later).
Let’s take the second claim: Contests are predatory.
I often see contests get written off with this warning: Keep in mind, folks, they’re a business.
Well … yeah. I can’t argue with that. They are a business. But so is this entire industry! Studios, production companies, management companies, and executives are all trying to make a profit. I don’t understand why contests are seen as less virtuous for doing the same thing that the rest of Hollywood is already doing.
You may be thinking—yeah, but there are some really terrible contests out there who are literally just trying to take your money.
I agree with you. Not all contests are equal, and some have definitely earned their poor reputation. But the same can be said for any entity in Hollywood. Most of the people in the screenwriting community are lovely, but there are some people I hope to never interact with. Similarly, there are a lot of good jobs in the industry that pay decently … and then there’s #PayUpHollywood.
Let’s take the third claim: Contests are subjective.
I can’t argue with this claim, either. Even when you have contest judges who are trained to look out for top-tier writing, at some level, it’s going to get subjective—because art is subjective.
People try to avoid the subjectivity of contests, so they give their script to their boss to read. But what guarantee do you have that your boss is going to like it? Even if they’re a horror fan, they may hate the meta-horror-comedy script you wrote about the pandemic. And how do you know the five major connections you made at that networking event will want to read past page 3 of your script?
Maybe you went the querying route and got yourself an amazing manager. They sent your script out to some major production companies but, unfortunately, none of them like how you treated a global pandemic like a meta-horror-comedy.
… See where I’m going with this?
Let’s take the final claim: Contests are a lottery.
By now, you get the point I’m trying to make, so I only have one thing to say about this:
If there’s anyone out there who landed a great industry job, made a career-changing connection, or found a powerhouse manager, and you DIDN’T feel like you were beating the odds, you’re probably a narcissist.
Let’s say you actually want to enter contests …
If you’re interested in adding contests back into your rotation of “screenwriter to-do’s,” there are definitely steps you can take to help make the process less aggravating.
For starters, it’s important to do your research before applying to contests, specifically looking at which contests have a strong track record of helping their finalists. By narrowing down the list of contests you feel confident in, this will automatically narrow down the number of entry fees you’ll have to pay.
Additionally, many contests offer a reduced entry fee the sooner you apply, so you can save a lot of money simply by planning out when you submit.
The most important step, however, is making sure your script is competition ready.
There’s a great Twitter thread by Script Pipeline winner Crosby Selander that goes into this from a contest finalist’s perspective. As a development exec, I have my own perspective.
I'm seeing some opinions about contests from writers that broke in almost 20 years ago. Not to disregard their opinion, but as someone who recently broke in after a decade long struggle to do so, I believe I'm more qualified to speak to this.— Crosby Selander (@CrosbySelander) August 4, 2021
People email me all the time with questions like: Is it okay if I submit an incomplete draft? How polished does the script need to be? What if my script is 200 pages long? I wrote it as a novel because I don’t yet know screenwriting format—will that disqualify me?
If you’re asking these questions, you’re not ready to submit to contests. At least, you shouldn’t expect to place … or get anywhere close.
I used to swim competitively, and in that sport, the difference between first place and eighth place can be a tenth of a second. Screenwriting is just as competitive.
Even if you’re beyond asking basic questions, there are lots of ways your script can get edged out by others. Maybe your writing doesn’t ooze as much emotional resonance. Maybe the voice is almost there but not quite. Maybe the protagonist is a little too passive.
Or maybe it gets edged out because of subjectivity. It happens … everywhere. Not just contests.
Now, I’m not saying you have to enter contests.
Just so we’re clear—
YOU DO NOT HAVE TO ENTER CONTESTS!!!!!!!!!!!
They’re not the magic pathway to success, and you should absolutely be leery of anyone who tells you they are. But you should also be leery of people who tell you unpaid internships or assistant jobs are the magic pathway to success. Even networking or querying can’t offer anyone guarantees.
Because nothing is guaranteed in this industry.
The path that’s right for you will depend on a variety of factors like your location, personality, talent, financial status, luck, etc. If you want my opinion on the “best route,” it’s a combination of industry work, networking, querying, and competitions. I’ll say it again because it’s worth repeating—put as many lightning rods in the ground as you can.
Whatever you decide to do, I wish you luck. From one rod collector to another, catching lightning isn’t easy.
*Feature photo by psychoshadow (Adobe)