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How to Sell Your Screenplay Pt. 2 – Contests & Festivals
As we talked about last week, there are no easy answers to how to sell your script and break into the film industry. In this series of podcasts, I’m not going to give you a simple five step program for selling your screenplay that’s going to instantaneously change your life.
But I am going to give you some techniques and skills I’ve developed in my own career that have been successful for my students, as well as a whole new way of thinking about what it means to break into the film industry in the first place.
Remember, breaking into the film or TV industry is different for every single writer. Breaking in is a marathon, not a sprint. If you are looking at selling your script as a way of changing your life and fixing all your problems, you’re probably looking at it backwards, not to mention putting so much pressure on your writing that success is going to be very difficult for you to find.
Last week, we talked about laying the groundwork for success as a screenwriter by building a lifestyle that supports your writing, cultivating a process in which every day is a good day because you are showing up and doing what you love, creating the space for your writing, and building your infrastructure so that you can keep writing and working your business plan as an entrepreneur until the luck you need to break into the industry matches up with the work you’re putting in to open the door for you.
This episode, we’re answering one of the most popular questions for screenwriters and TV writers hoping to break into the film industry:
Do screenwriting contests and festivals actually help you sell a screenplay or TV pilot?
One of the wonderful things that exists for screenwriters today, that didn’t exist when I was coming up, are screenwriting contests and festivals. Back in the day, we didn’t have this stuff. In fact, I have never competed in a screenwriting contest or a film festival in my life.
Today, we have what seems to be an amazing resource, but it’s also a really expensive resource. All those application fees for festival after festival raise a few questions. Are all those festivals really helping? How do you get the most out of them? How do you know which festivals to apply to and which to run from?
Like with many aspects of this industry, there are a lot of sharks in these waters. There’s a lot of gold in them hills (to mix my metaphors a little bit). There are also simply a lot of well-intentioned and less well-intentioned people out there trying to snap up money from desperate writers who are trying to break in.
It’s important to know what screenwriting festivals and contests are likely to do for you and what they’re likely to not do for you.
It’s important to know which ones to apply to and which ones to run away from.
It’s important to understand the business model by which contests and festivals can both help writers and also inadvertently hurt writers.
We’re going to talk about all of this so that you can get the most out of screenwriting contests and festivals.
The first thing to understand is that not all film festivals and screenwriting contests are created equal.
There are many different kinds of screenwriting competitions. There are festivals and contests where it’s just amateur writers competing against other amateur writers. There are other contests and festivals where you’re competing against emerging writers and even professionals.
Then there are contests and festivals like Disney/ABC, the Academy Nicholl Fellowship, or the Austin Film Festival (the Writers Guild also maintains a helpful list of prestigious competitions and fellowships), where the best of the best are competing. If you win one of these life-changing contests, it’s likely that producers are going to be calling you rather than you calling producers.
So there really are certain screenwriting festivals and contests that can open the door for you that will change your life and career. These are not hard to find. They have famous names and you probably already know them.
There is also another respected range of film festivals and screenwriting competitions.
These are screenwriting contests and festivals that have good reputations and genuine connections in the industry. Their name recognition means that they attract a wide range of applicants, and though you may be still mostly be competing with amateurs and early career writers, they attract a lot more of these writers, so the competition is tougher, and a win means more.
For example, my friends at ScreenCraft, at Coverfly, and at Catalyst, are just a few of many very good players in this market.
These are people who genuinely have writers’ best interest at heart, but who also have real connections with industry professionals because they attract good contestants and genuinely work their butts off to get representation and access for their winners.
Every screenwriting contest wants to get representation and access for their winners, but not every screenwriting contest actually has somebody at the helm who has those kinds of connections.
For example, why am I giving ScreenCraft, Coverfly, and Catalyst a shout out in my podcast right now? I’m giving them that shout out because I love these people. I would do anything for Philip Gilpin at Catalyst or John Rhodes at ScreenCraft because these people have been good to me. They have built a real connection not only with me but with lots of great writers and artists.
We used to drive to Vermont for Catalyst, which was beautiful. Now we fly to Minnesota, which is fine but cold!
Why do we go there and brave the cold? Because we love Philip. When Philip calls us up and says, I want you to help out this writer. I want you to read this script, we know him and trust him. Quite frankly, we’re going to do it because we know the writer genuinely needs our help, but we also know that Philip’s not going to waste our time with somebody who isn’t ready.
Those respected mid-level screenwriting contests and film festivals with strong connections are great places to bring your work. Those are people that you can trust because their business model is not just about people winning, it’s about helping those people to succeed. And because they happen to actually have the resources, they’re big enough and connected enough that they actually can help.
That said, it’s not the same as winning a competition like the Nicholl Fellowship or ABC/Disney. They don’t have a huge corporation or studio attached to them, but they do have a certain cachet within the industry. We know that the winner is actually going to have a script that is ready, and when the call comes, we’re not getting a cold call from somebody that we don’t know.
If it’s not one of the screenwriting competitions that I mentioned (and there are hundreds of wonderful contests in that level), then how do you know which contests are for real or not?
How do you know which screenwriting competitions and film festivals are actually able to help you?
When it comes to festivals, I recommend looking for small film festivals, not big ones, in beautiful locations.
For example, Sundance is a great place for you to meet the director of a documentary. It’s a great place for you to meet other emerging filmmakers and screenwriters and directors of photography. It’s a great place to network and mingle.
But the producers who can make a script and buy a script and sell a script, they are usually behind the velvet rope. They are in a VIP room. They are somewhere where you can’t get to them.
Sundance and Cannes are giant markets. These are places where producers primarily go to acquire films that have already been made. So yes, if you have a film, you want your film in those contests (if you can get them in).
But if you have a script, then the chances of you actually getting to pitch it to a producer there are not that great because those producers are in meetings back to back, trying to either acquire or sell films, not scripts. They’re hard to get access to because they’re behind the velvet rope.
It’s great to go to those festivals, but you’re meeting your peers there generally, not the person who’s going to buy your script.
On the other hand, all people like going to pretty places, especially in the dead of winter. That doesn’t mean that all pretty-place film festivals can attract real industry professionals, but it’s a good place to start. Look for a place where people would want to go, and then look at who’s speaking there.
Look them up. Are they for real? Is there only one real industry professional? If they’re not exactly the person you need to talk to, then that’s just the one person the director of the film festival happens to know, not necessarily a real connection.
If you see that there are 10 real professionals, with real credits, speaking at a film festival, that is a festival with a real connection to the film industry.
For example, I go speak at the Summit that ScreenCraft puts on every year. It’s an incredible event, in which they bring all these A-list writers together to teach the attendees. That’s a pretty good sign that this is a company that actually has connections to people who can help you– because without great connections, they could never get people at this level to attend.
If you go to Catalyst, you’ll see dozens of people who produce TV shows flying in. You’ll see real agents and managers who represent professional writers.
These are places that are successful. These are places where you can connect.
What’s best about these smaller film and TV festivals is that they often don’t have a velvet rope.
One of our students met Bobby Farrelly at ITVfest (now Catalyst) while singing karaoke at the bar. Why? Because it was in Vermont, and there was only one bar, so that’s where we all ended up.
That’s the kind of film festival you are looking for if you are a writer still early in your career; a place where you’re going to get a little bit more access, where there’s less of a VIP situation, and where there are lots of people who can potentially help you.
One person speaking at a film festival doesn’t mean anything unless they’re really your person. But if there are a lot of real players in the industry, that’s the kind of film festival you want to participate in, especially if the festival has a dedicated screenwriting or TV writing part of their program.
Another thing you can look at to determine if a screenwriting competition is for real or not are the prizes being awarded to the winners.
There are some contests that do a really good job of matching their winners with agents or managers. There are some contests that guarantee their winners a meeting with a certain level of studio executive or producer or agent. That’s the kind of prize that you want! That’s the kind of prize that indicates that this might be a contest or a festival that is worth applying to.
What you really want is not the laurel, and quite frankly, unless it’s a stupid amount of money, you don’t want the money either. $1,000 is really nice, but it’s not going to get your movie made. I would take a meeting with somebody that can actually help my career over $1,000 any day.
If you don’t know whether the contest is reputable, you want to ask yourself a number of questions:
Who do they work with? Who’s speaking there? What other events do they organize? Do they seem connected? Do they seem like they can actually help? What’s the prize? Do they promise representation? Do they assist with representation? Do they get you a meeting with an industry professional? Do they get you access?
If they’re not promising that, then they probably can’t deliver that even if they want to. They probably don’t have the connections to do it.
You can also look at what past contest winners are doing since winning the screenwriting competition.
Are their winners represented? Have their winners gone on to make movies or sell scripts or TV shows or get staffed in writers rooms? Have their winners advanced in their careers?
There’s also a third level of film festival and screenwriting contest which I’ll just call the “Joe’s Film Festival of Central Idaho” level.
(If there really is a Joe’s Film Festival of Central Idaho, then I apologize. I’m not trying to pick on you, I just don’t know about you!)
There are a million little “contests” and “festivals” run by wonderful (and not so wonderful) people who are often very well-intentioned, but also often have zero contacts in the industry, zero prestige, and zero ability to actually help you beyond awarding you whatever gifts they have managed to get from their sponsors.
There are contests that are even more exploitative than that.
There’s one contest that I heard about recently that was giving away what looked like a $10,000 prize, but it was actually only a $10,000 credit towards $50,000 worth of services that you would have to buy in the next year in order to claim your prize.
You have to really pay attention because there are a lot of bottom feeders out there.
If you have the resources to pay numerous submission fees without it affecting your daily life, then you should apply to all three levels of festivals and contests!
That’s right, even the crappy bottom feeder ones. If you have enough money to do it, there is no reason not to go wide.
Now I’m making the assumption right that your script is actually ready. (And that’s a bit of a risky assumption, because most scripts are not!)
But If you’ve done all the work, gotten real feedback from a professional writer, and you’re pretty confident your script is ready, and you can afford to do so, then you should go send it everywhere!
Why should you apply to even the crappy festival where there are only about 10 people competing (and most of those don’t know how to write a screenplay), and even if you win, the organizers don’t have any industry connections?
There are a couple of reasons.
#1: You never know.
You’re not going to meet a Hollywood agent at one of those contests, but if it’s Joe’s Film Festival of Central Idaho, you might meet the dentist from central Idaho who doesn’t know anybody at CAA, but who does have 100 grand, would really like to make a movie, and wants to read your script.
You’re not going to get the professional level of access, but you might get a little bit of access. You might get lucky.
More importantly though, at those lower levels you can start to collect lots of laurels.
A single laurel from Joe’s Film Festival of Central Idaho is probably not going to mean very much.
If you call a producer and say, I just won the screenwriting competition at Joe’s Film Festival of Central Idaho, they’re probably going to think, Okay. That’s nice. It’s not going to mean much to them.
In fact, some producers have even been burned by these festivals. They were well-intentioned. Maybe they gave a good prize. Maybe they agreed to meet with the winners before the contest and then did meet with them after.
But because those contests are happening at the amateur level, sometimes the winner still has a really amateur script; the kind of script that might make a teacher like me say, Wow, there’s tremendous talent here, but someone who’s a producer say, This is the winner? I can’t make this. This script isn’t industry ready.
Screenwriting competition winners often win with scripts that aren’t industry-ready, not because the writers lack talent, but because they are still early in their careers.
That’s because a lot of smaller contests don’t get enough applicants to actually end up with that diamond in the rough.
This happened to me. There was a small festival that I used to sponsor. I really believed in what they were doing, and I really liked the person who ran the festival. I thought his heart was in the right place, and I still think that that is true.
I gave him a prize that was worth about $3,600 because I felt like it was going to really help the eventual winner. I was happy to do it because I wanted to help out, and I thought it would be fun to work with a great writer who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity.
When I read the winner’s script, I saw a tremendous amount of talent.
I also saw a script that was completely unproducible.
I saw a script that probably needed at least a year of development before it could even be sold to a producer.
I saw a script with a great premise and a couple of moments of amazing voice, but I saw a writer who didn’t have the fundamental craft down yet.
I called this lovely person who ran the festival, and I said, Hey, what’s going on? How did this person win? I don’t really understand.
He replied, Well, we only got 380 submissions, and this was just the best one we had. And he does have a lot of talent.
My friend was 100% right. The winner had a lot of talent. But I work with a lot of talented writers. The reason that I had given them a $3,600 gift was because I wanted to help someone take the next step in their career, and I was given someone who wasn’t ready.
A lot of producers have been burned in this way, not by the big screenwriting competitions, not by the mid-level well-respected screenwriting competitions, but by the tiny baby screenwriting competitions where you genuinely want to help, but you end up disillusioned; where you can’t depend on a screenplay being good just because it won.
Does this mean if you win a small film festival that you shouldn’t be proud of yourself?
No! It means that you are better than the other amateur writers and it’s time to start applying to those mid-range screenwriting competitions. Maybe it’s even time to apply to one of the top film festivals and see how you do when you start to compete against more experienced amateurs and emerging writers, and eventually against professional writers, so you can see how well you do as you climb those ranks.
There’s nothing wrong with winning small. That means somebody sees something beautiful in your script.
But a lot of producers aren’t going to take a win at a festival they don’t recognize very seriously unless they know and trust the person who runs it.
Winning a single screenwriting contest, unless it’s big, doesn’t do much. But calling a producer and saying, “Look, I was a finalist in 14 film festivals, I won 3, and I made it to the second round in 11…” is actually a nice little calling card.
Even if those wins come from little tiny festivals, they still kind of say, Hey, people like this script!
Also, if you’re doing well in a lot of festivals, there’s more chance that you’re going to bump into a little bit of luck and meet one of those smaller producers. It might not be the kind of luck where the person can actually make your script, but it might be the kind of luck where it’s a person who can advance your career a little bit, take you to the next step, and introduce you to somebody.
If you have unlimited resources, then go wide.
If you have limited resources, then you really want to target the film festivals and screenwriting contests that are going to give you access.
In a future episode, we’re going to talk about how to figure out exactly which industry professionals you should be targeting. A lot of people in this industry do speaking engagements, judge contests, help out. A lot of them want to give back.
Once you know which individuals you should be targeting, you can Google them and see where they are speaking. If they’re speaking at a film festival, then go! (especially if it’s one of the small or medium-sized festivals). You can start to look at things like which contests are going to give you access, which contests are going to give you a meeting, and which contests have winners that are doing well.
It’s also important that you don’t apply to just one screenwriting competition!
Don’t throw away your $85. Save some money and apply to a bunch of screenwriting competitions, because contests can be valuable for your own development as a screenwriter, but only in volume.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
Everybody thinks the purpose of a screenwriting competition is to win, but the way I see it is that the real purpose of these contests is to get information about your screenplay and yourself as a writer.
If you’re working with a professional writer in a mentorship program like ProTrack at our studio, then you already have a lot of that information. A professional writer will have read every draft and you will know for sure if your script is industry ready. And if it’s not, then they’ll help you get it ready.
That doesn’t mean you’re only going to receive positive feedback or that everyone who reads your screenplay is going to love it. That’s not the case with any screenplay. People always pass on screenplays. People always have issues with screenplays.
What it does mean is that you have a professional opinion to let you know the script is ready to go.
Screenwriting contests can be valuable help you see how your script plays in the wider market. But applying to just one contest doesn’t help with that. You might get one crappy reader, or one reader who just doesn’t like the genre you’re writing in, or one writer who just had a bad day.
Suddenly, you feel like you failed.
Not winning, not being a semifinalist or quarterfinalist, not placing, not even making it to the second round in one screenwriting contest or festival gives you absolutely zero information.
And quite frankly, even winning a single small contest tells you very little.
Since taste is subjective, you need volume to really know anything.
Let’s say you are an early career writer, and you say, You know what? I’m not even going to try Nicholl yet. I want to see how I do if I apply to 10 small-to-medium-sized contests where I’m competing with amateurs and maybe advanced amateurs.
Let’s say the results from those 10 competitions come in, and you discover that you made it to the second round in most of them, but you weren’t a finalist or semifinalist in any of them.
It doesn’t mean your script isn’t good (your script might be great, and you might have just gotten unlucky), but it means that you’re not yet really standing out among the amateurs.
That means your script probably needs some work, and that’s valuable information.
Okay, first, let’s get my script to a point where it stands out. Why isn’t it standing out? Maybe it’s really clear, but it’s not moving people. Maybe there’s a little bit of formula in there that feels fresh to me, but familiar to somebody who reads a lot of scripts.
If you’re submitting your screenplay to a lot of film festivals and not making it to the second round, it’s almost guaranteed that you have a problem in the first 10 pages.
That’s valuable information! Most screenwriting contests and most film festivals, especially the smaller ones, can’t afford to fully read every script that gets submitted. This is not true for every screenwriting contest or every film festival, but a lot of them simply can’t afford to read every script completely.
If you’re paying $85 to submit and it costs them $50 to have somebody read it, that doesn’t leave a lot of profit. It doesn’t leave a lot of administrative or even marketing costs. So they probably can’t afford to read your whole script.
What a lot of contests do is read the first 10 pages of your screenplay, and then you’re going to go into one of two piles: You’re going to go into the there’s no way pile, or you’re going to go into the let’s read this in the second round pile.
If you submit your screenplay to 10 screenwriting contests or festivals, and you don’t make the second round, that’s not a failure. That’s information.
That’s valuable information. Okay, I’ve got a problem in the first 10 pages of my script. Let’s look at the first page. I might just have a problem on my first page that’s turning people off, or that’s making them decide to skim and not to read, or that’s making them feel not connected, or making them feel like this is too familiar.
I guarantee that if you enter multiple contests, and you’re not making it to the second round in any of them, the problem is in your first 10 pages. That’s useful. That’s valuable information.
If you’re early in your career, start small. If you have to find finances to do it, start small, see how you do, and then work your way up. It’s okay if you win a bunch of small contests but only get to the second round in some bigger ones. That means you’ve got something, it just needs some work!
Once you’re competing against more experienced writers at more popular or respected contests or festivals, if you don’t stand out as much, great!
That just means that there’s a skill set that you need to develop. It’s time to find some more mentorship. It’s time to build your craft. Let’s figure out why this isn’t getting as far in the more advanced contests.
That said, if you only apply to one of the more advanced screenwriting contests, then you’re not going to learn anything because it might just be a coverage reader who had a bad day. You need enough volume so that you can actually analyze the results.
One last thing about that:
Do not ever, under any circumstances, for any reason, pay for development notes from a screenwriting contest or a film festival.
Do not do it. In fact, don’t pay for written development notes from anyone, because usually you’re not getting development notes at all.
What you’re getting is coverage.
Coverage is something completely different than development notes. Coverage is something written by either an aspiring writer at the very, very beginning of their career who has usually never sold a script, or by people who have been in coverage for a long time but whose writing careers have stagnated (that’s why they’re in the coverage business).
Particularly with screenwriting contests and film festivals, coverage readers don’t get paid very much. If they’re reading for an agency or a production company, they’re probably getting paid about $50 a script.
Most contests can’t afford to pay their coverage readers $50, not if you’re paying $85 or even $150 for “development notes.” They can’t afford that, so they’re probably paying between $25 to $35. Maybe they aren’t paying anything and might even be using an intern to write your coverage.
You just have to ask yourself, like with anything in the film industry, Does it seem too good to be true? If so, then it probably is.
Even if someone tells you that only professionals will write your development notes, you can do the math. Hold on a second. If I’m paying $85, or I’m paying $150, there is no way that that script reader is making very much money; not after advertising, not after administration, not after whoever owns the company makes some money. There’s just no way.
Let’s pretend they were making a full $150. Let’s just pretend. You still have to think, How long would it take me to read a whole script, write a perfect logline, write a one-and-a-half to two page summary that really captures everything that happened with the script, and then write some helpful development notes that would actually advance the script? You start to realize even if they were making the full amount you paid, they’d still only make about 30 cents an hour.
That’s when you realize that coverage readers cannot afford to do the job of development notes, even if you’re lucky enough to get somebody brilliant.
There are a lot of brilliant people who started coverage. I got my start in coverage, but when I was writing coverage, I was an intern. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing! I hadn’t even read a script before when I wrote my first stack of coverage notes.
Please do not pay for written “development notes” or take coverage seriously as a way to develop your script.
I’m going to tell you a story to kind of illustrate this.
One of my very talented students was (and still is) a wonderful writer. Talent is a great asset for a writer, but hard work is so much more important, and he is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever worked with.
He worked on his very first script constantly; worked his butt off for about three years. Even though it was only his first time writing a script, he was in our ProTrack Mentorship Program, and he had really, really, really done the work.
He writes broad comedies for 13 year-old boys; little, funny, gross-out PG-13 comedies. Those kinds of comedies are not everybody’s cup of tea, but somebody who loves them is going to love his work. He’s very good at writing these kinds of scripts, or rather, he developed his screenwriting craft until he became very good. He puts in the work and he works on it like it’s a work of Shakespeare.
We had gotten this particular script to a place where I said to him, quite honestly, This script is really ready to go. This script is working, it’s professional, and it could be made.
He started to send his screenplay out to contests, but he made the mistake of paying for development notes.
He called me in a panic and said, “Jake, I have three different sets of development notes, from three different screenwriting contests, and none of them like my script.”
“That doesn’t bother me,” he continued, “If they don’t like my script. I’ll rewrite my script as many times as I need to rewrite it. What’s concerning me is that none of these notes agree with each other!
I have three different pieces of coverage, and they are all saying completely contradictory things. One guy says that I’m super funny, but I struggle with structure. The other guy says I’m great with structure, but I’m not funny. They’re that contradictory!”
He sent me the notes, and I read these three pieces of coverage. There was literally not one thing that they agreed upon. There was not one area of consensus.
We got together and I said, “Is there any note here that kind of opens a door for you? Any note that feels true? That makes you say, ‘Yes, that’s it’?”
He said, “Honestly, Jake? No.”
I said, “Is there any note here that makes you angry? Any note where you’re having such a visceral angry reaction that it feels like maybe they hit a little too close to a nerve? That feels like maybe they’re onto something?”
He said, “I don’t really feel angry. I’m more confused than angry.”
I told him, “Okay, you’ve done the work on the script. None of these notes are really doing anything for you. Let’s just keep sending it out exactly the way you wrote it.”
He ended up winning the Canada International Film Festival with that exact same script.
Just imagine if he had changed it! He would have been taking the words of an intern, of a person rushing through the script, of somebody who doesn’t even like his script… and changing his intentions based on their off the cuff feedback! He would have been taking notes from somebody who wasn’t even enjoying his script enough to even advance it, instead of somebody who is invested and wants to make it better. That’s crazy!
I’ve seen so many really wonderful writers develop their scripts into the ground by taking “development notes” from interns.
Don’t waste your money on development notes.
No producer worth their salt would ever send coverage to a writer as “development notes.”
Even back in the day when I was a producer, before we had zoom, we used to spend a fortune flying writers in first class (the Writers’ Guild requires first class) for notes meetings if they didn’t live in Los Angeles. We flew a guy in from London, first class, and he spent a week with us. We didn’t say, Here’s a bunch of written notes, here’s what you do. We sat down and talked to him.
If your script isn’t working, by definition, it means something in your intention isn’t coming through clearly.
By definition, if all of your intentions for the script were coming through clearly, then the script would be working, and you wouldn’t need development notes.
By definition, the reason the script needs notes is because something that’s in your subconscious, that’s in your intention, is not coming through yet. There’s a gap between the script in your heart or in your mind, and the one on the page.
That’s why real development happens as a conversation.
In a ProTrack Mentorship session here at the studio, a professional writer will read every page you write, but instead of telling you what to do based on what’s not coming through, they will try to understand your intentions and then teach you the art and the craft you need to land those intentions on the page.
For example, they point out, “I don’t understand what you mean by this line.”
Then the writer says something like, “Oh, well, this was my intention.”
And the professional replies, “Okay, I understand what you’re doing. Let me help you build that.”
Whereas a coverage reader is going to see that same line that isn’t currently working, without understanding the intention underneath it. Most likely, they’re not even giving you well-reasoned advice. They don’t have time!
They’re giving you whatever advice their screenwriting professor (who, by the way, may or may not have ever even sold a screenplay) gave them.
They’re giving advice based on whatever screenwriting book they read, whose author may or may not have ever sold a screenplay.
They’re giving you some kind of recycled screenwriting advice that, even if they’ve identified the right problem, is probably the most formulaic possible solution.
The reason coverage readers give such poor advice is not because they’re poorly-intentioned, aren’t very smart, or don’t read a lot of scripts. Some of them are brilliant writers who will go on to have incredible careers.
But they’re not there yet. And many of them will never be.
If they were writers who had the level of experience where they could develop a script to a point where it could sell in this competitive market, then they wouldn’t be writing coverage for 30 cents an hour.
Do not waste your money on coverage notes. In any screenwriting competition, you’re simply looking for how well you perform. Then, if you need some feedback, seek it from professionals.
For screenwriters, the purpose of screenwriting contests is twofold.
As we’ve discussed, the first purpose is to give you some information, not about whether your script is good or not, but about how it is competing.
Information about whether the first page is working, whether the first 10 pages are working. Are you doing better than the amateurs? Are you competing with emerging writers? Are you writing at the professional level? And remember that you need some volume to do that.
That’s the first purpose of screenwriting competitions. Get some feedback outside of your own bubble, but don’t get details. You want details from a professional screenwriter who is an expert in developing scripts.
The more important purpose of film festivals and screenwriting contests, if you apply to the right ones, is that they can give you access.
They can give you access through official meetings.
They can give you access through the connections that the people who run them have within the film industry (if they actually have those connections).
They can give you access through connections to the people who contact those festivals looking for scripts.
They can give you access through connections to the people you can network with who attend those festivals.
If you win a big time contest, like the Nicholl Fellowship, then people are calling you, you’re not calling them anymore. But even the smallest festivals and contests can also give you access if they’re good ones. The people in attendance or speaking at the festival or contacting the contest may be emerging producers, rather than established ones, maybe they’ve never made a movie before, but they’ve got some money, or maybe the festival will give you access to speakers with whom you can network.
Remember that most screenwriting festivals and contests are not instant sale situations, for the most part. But they are opportunities to gain some experience, gather some valuable information, and make some connections that may help you in the long term.
Every once in a while you’ll get a little bit of luck. You’re singing karaoke with Bobby Farrelly, and suddenly he’s producing your film. That’s the value of film festivals. That’s the value of screenwriting contests. There are a lot of great ones out there.
Don’t waste your money before your script is ready, but once your script is ready, this is an extraordinary way in, as long as you do it smartly.
In the next episode, we are going to talk about an entirely different way into the industry, one that doesn’t have anything to do with screenwriting contests or film festivals at all. We’re going to talk about the old traditional way: How do you get your script to a producer?
More importantly, we’re going to talk about how you target the right producer for your script, and then how you get past the gatekeepers who are supposed to separate you from those producers. So stay tuned next time.
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*Edited for length and clarity