It’s a new year, and that means the start for a new season of screenplay contests. There will be promises of cash prizes, more promises of getting a finalists’ screenplay read by Hollywood executives, and even more promises of winners securing representation from a Hollywood agent. Many aspiring writers with stars in their eyes enter these contests thinking they’re a gateway to getting their script sold.
Don’t believe the hype.
In 2009, I entered a couple just to see what it was like. It was a waste of my money and time. From what I learned during that experience many screenplay contest judges and readers don’t even read the thousands of screenplays submitted to them. Many outsource the reading of those scripts to complete strangers like friends, family, even people like their mailman! Others recruit readers from places like Craigslist for slave wages or no pay at all. So the chances of an aspiring screenwriter getting an objective reading of their work from a professional are slim to none.
Worse, those screenplays that do get read by this group of “readers” don’t get read all the way through. Some readers will pass on a script at the title page. A few will flip through to the last page and if the number is past 110 or 90 they won’t read it. Others will chuck a script after two or three pages. A majority read about 10 pages, and if they don’t like a script they trash it.
Some say, that’s how Hollywood works. But that’s now how Studio readers do their jobs. Studio readers are Union employees whose job is to read scripts regardless of how good or bad a script is from beginning to the end. The studio needs them to read an entire script and provide notes so an executive knows whether or not to consider a script, recommend a script, or pass on it. Their notes are extremely influential on whether an executive chooses to invest millions of dollars on greenlighting a project for production into a film.
Because their job is so critical to a studio’s business, Studio readers have to follow rules established by the Writer’s Guild of America and studio management regarding the handling and reading of screenplays. They can’t just chuck a script they don’t like after a couple of pages; the notes they write after reading the entire script detail the reasons why they’re passing on the material. If studio readers they’re paid to read the entire script, why should screenplay contest readers and judges be exempt from following industry standard protocol regarding the reading of scripts?
When Screenplay contestants pay a fee to enter a contest, it’s because they believe their COMPLETE script will be read and judged by film professionals. They pay a $50-$85 entry fee in the hopes of receiving an objective assessment of their writing and objective feedback from someone with an understanding of film and how screenplays work. Contestants don’t pay that kind of money to have a contest coordinator’s friends, mailman, or some dudes from Craigslist looking for a few bucks judging their writing.
From my experience and what I’ve been reading about most screenplay contests are nothing more than a cash grab for contest coordinators. Doing the math on screenplay contests:
$50x 3200 people = $160,000.00.
$60 late fee x 500 people $300,000.00.
Subtract about $15,000 for cash prizes and the rest is profit. And that’s just for the contests by themselves.
Many writers opt for the additional script coverage which costs $175-$250. The math on these numbers are:
$175 x 3,200 for detailed script coverage = $560,000.00.
$250 x 3,200 $800,000.00.
In addition to the contests and the coverage throughout the year, Screenplay contest coordinators offer workshops, seminars, and other events like networking with industry pros to help contestants “improve” their writing. This keeps gullible writers plunking down cash and keeps a steady stream of income into contest coordinators pockets out of writers’ wallets.
Doing the math again:
$250 a head entry fee x 50 people at the Sheraton/Holiday Inn for whatever event = $100,000.00.
$100,000 x 10 cities = $1,000,000.00.
Screenplay contests are a multi-million cottage industry for contests coordinators, but at the expense of aspiring screenwriters. Now the greedy coordinators feel so complacent about their steady stream of revenue from writers they don’t have to do things like read the scripts submitted to them. I say it’s time for writers to put down the pen and fight back. If screenplay contests are to be the gateway to selling a script, then they should have to follow the same standards regarding the reading and handling of scripts as outlined by the WGA.
Shawn’s advice to aspiring screenwriters: With the exception of the Nicholl Fellowship and the Sundance Film Festival, (where scripts are actually READ) avoid the screenplay contests and keep your money in your pocket. Instead of paying contest entry fees, invest in getting script coverage from a professional screenwriter or sending query letters to production companies. In either case, a screenwriter has a better chance of getting their entire script read by an industry professional and getting a fair and honest analysis of their writing than entering a screenplay contest.
*We interrupt the regularly scheduled content for a special report. All About Marilyn Chapter 4 will be up Next Saturday.*