The next couple of weeks impose some hefty deadlines for screenwriters. And every year, about 1-2 weeks from the deadlines of these big contests, I start getting tons of emails saying “I just finished my first draft. Can you get my script ready for Nicholls?”
by Danny Manus
This is the wrong way to enter contests.
I’ve been a judge for the Page Awards for three years and I’ve had numerous clients win or be finalists in major contests including Page Awards, Austin Film Fest, Scriptapalooza, the Disney/ABC Fellowship, LA Scriptfest, and (the now defunct) CS Expo. So, can I help? Sure. But can we totally fix your script 3 days before the deadline? No.
Especially with contests as big as Nicholls, Page and Big Break, where there are thousands of submissions, you need to take it seriously! And there are certain things you need to think about when entering any contests:
Prestige means – enter those contests that actually mean something. Enter ones that have a great reputation, that get great media exposure, whose winners get into the trades, whose winners get HIRED and REP’D, whose finalists get optioned, ones that are nationally recognized and get more than 500 submissions. Do you know what it means to be a semifinalist in a contest that only has 500 submissions? NOTHING.
And enter ones that mean something in a query letter if you win. Enter ones where the judge of all the winners isn’t the ONE guy holding the contest. I’ve said it plenty of times, there are only about 10-15 contests that mean anything to Hollywood, including the ones mentioned above. Do your due diligence before shelling out $30, 40, 50, 60 bucks year after year.
Payoff means the prize is worth it. Now, this may be subjective. Maybe you really need that iPad, or really want that steak dinner and $500 bucks. If so, great. But if I was paying to enter a contest, the payoff better be ACCESS. Yes, a cash prize is awesome and makes you feel like you actually earned money doing what you love – and that’s a great feeling. But the key to a great contest is one that is either going to help you vastly improve your writing or get you access to people and players or meetings that can actually help your career and get you exposure.
There are thousands of submissions, you need to take it seriously!
Entering a contest just to get feedback from anonymous “readers” who are paid $20 bucks to write a paragraph about your script is just a stupid idea. You enter contests to WIN them. If you want feedback and notes, pay a consultant that you can have a 1-on-1 (and not anonymous) relationship with who can walk you through where your script needs improving. I’m not saying there aren’t contests that give great notes and that it’s not a nice bonus, but it shouldn’t be the reason you enter one.
The third step is Readiness and Preparedness. And this one has nothing to do with the contests – it’s all about YOU! I want to give you just a little glimpse into Nicholls. Last year there were 7,197 screenplays submitted (a new record). There were 368 quarterfinalists (about 5% of all submissions), then 129 semi-finalists (almost all of which got script requests), and then 10 finalists and 5 winners. So, just to get any notice by Hollywood, your script and writing has to be in the top 368 scripts out of over 7,000.
Do you REALLY think your first or second draft is going to be good enough to do that? Do you really think that a script that you RUSHED to rewrite in a week is going to fare well? Let me tell you – it won’t.
If your script isn’t truly ready to compete against THOUSANDS of others, then don’t submit it just because there’s a deadline. Wait until next year, or the next contest. Some contests do allow you to submit a new draft after the first round, but you still have to make it past that first round!
Rewriting is a process that, when done right, should take more than a week for most. Are there exceptions and writers who can totally rewrite a script in a week? Sure. But most of them are trained, professional writers who know the tricks to rewriting or at least have been doing this a while. If you’re a new writer, your rewrite period will probably last months. Most non-professional writers aren’t actually rewriting- they are doing what I call polite polishes. Some consultant told you the characters weren’t developed enough, so you stick 2 lines of backstory on page 21 and suddenly you think you’ve rewritten your script. You haven’t.
Rewriting is a process by which you re-examine everything and often eliminate or rework core parts of your script. Polishing is a process by which you just make the writing and characters and action shine a bit more. Polishing can be done in a week. Rewriting usually cannot be. And if you’re asking for notes from a consultant with 2 or 3 weeks to go before the deadline, that will only leave you a few DAYS to rewrite your script. This is what’s called – a bad strategy. You want to give yourself a solid month to get feedback, rewrite and review your script if you can.
Do you REALLY think your first or second draft is going to be good enough to do that?
Writing to a deadline is great – it’s usually the only motivation that will get me to write. However, while contests may be a great way to break in as a first timer, they are not for beginners. There’s a big difference between beginners and first timers. If this is your first draft of your first script, do NOT bother entering it into contests. You’re wasting your money. That’s not what these contests are for! Just keep working on it, rewriting it, polishing it, learning from it. Then 10 drafts from now, maybe it will be ready for a contest.
And finally, you need to think about Genre. The TYPE of script you’re writing and the type of contest in which it will succeed. Not every script is a Nicholls script! If you’ve got a raunchy teen sex comedy or a run-of-the-mill woman in jeopardy thriller or torture porn or slasher horror or an epic sci-fi action movie – Nicholls probably isn’t what you should be spending time on. Nicholls is looking for more PRESTIGE projects, stories where character and voice stand out. Over 50 percent of applicants last year entered drama scripts, which interesting enough made for only about 15% of all spec sales.
You should be looking at contests that are either broken up by genre (like Page Awards), or contests that are specific to your genre. There are some great genre contests out there specifically for horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. Look at the past winners of the big contests and see what types of projects did well and judge accordingly.
I’m not here to tell you which contests to enter, or which ones I love the most. I’m here to impress upon you that just because there is a contest, it doesn’t mean you need to enter it. And if you’re going to enter it, make sure your script is in its best shape possible to stand out and WIN.
– Danny Manus
Danny Manus is one of the most in-demand script consultants as CEO of No BullScript Consulting and author of “No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective.”
Danny is also a producer, a columnist for ScriptMag, a judge four years running for the PAGE Awards, and teaches seminars and workshops across the country. You can follow him on Twitter @DannyManus.