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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Screenplay Contests- Save your Money

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.*


  1. I don't write screenplays, Shawn, but this also holds true for many of the scams now being run by hustlers to cheat the many aspiring writers. You, anyway, are not surprised by the supposedly great names that set up these scams today. For all of them, study as if your pocketbook depends on it, and it does.

    You did us all a great favor, as usual and the math is superb and useful. You might consider doing a book on scams. Ah, but then so many of us seem to be begging to be cheated again and again. My hat is off to you for this one.

  2. Hate to be a weenie but your second calc is wrong by a power of 10 (60x$500=$30k). Nonetheless, you are right that the profits are huge since they are clearly not incurring any major costs. Would be good to dig in on this point (get some feedback from the coordinators as to the actual costs incurred). Ultimately, are they doing what they say they are doing? If not...this is fraud and they have a right to be exposed. Nice work overall on this. Fletcher D.

  3. FletcherD:

    I'll check my math next time. (I was in a hurry to get this article out before the contest season started) But these screenplay contests make big bank off aspiring screenwriters. As a writer myself I know how hard money is to come by and I don't want to see writers wasting their money on things that aren't going to advance their careers an iota.

    Query letters to a production company only costs about $1 between the postage, stamp on the SASE and the printing of the letter.
    Script coverage from a professional screenwriter is about $175-$250, and the feedback is invaluable from them. Both are much more effective ways for a screenwriter to advance their career than wasting time and money on a contest where a script won't get read.

    I've been reading on other boards and blogs, and even in an article that many judges of screenplay contests don't read the thousands of scripts submitted to them. Some pass on the cover, others only read up to a certain point then move to the next script. That's not what people paid for and that's not what they were promised. These contests present themselves as a gateway to getting a screenplay sold, yet they don't follow the procedures that Union script readers and free-lance script readers do.

    Professional readers have to read an entire script and provide notes to an executive on whether they should pass, consider or recommend a script. They're paid to tough out scripts both good and bad to do their job.
    They can't pass on scripts the way contest judges and readers have been doing lately. It's totally unprofessional and unethical to take money from writers and not read or partially read their material when someone is paying you to read an evaluate an entire script.

    With Screenplay contests outsourcing the reading of screenplays to anyone regardless of qualification it makes the judging of those scripts suspect. When they make their announcements, they promise that scripts will be read and evaluated by film professionals, or someone with a background in film. A dude from Craigslist or a mailman really doesn't know what to look for in a good script, nor do they know how a screenplay is formatted.

    Personally, I do feel a fraud is being comitted by some of these contests and the California Attorney General's office really needs to investigate the industry. I also feel that the WGA and other unions in film need to establish some guidelines on these contests regarding the reading and handling of scripts.

  4. Nice post. I read your total post. It's very simple and effective