“Tell the story that you’ve been brewing in your head for years. Even if there hasn’t been something, something that you’re passionate about or something that you’re curious about. You’ve just got to start it.”
― Issa Rae
Are Screenwriting Competitions Worth the Effort?
Written by: Christine B.
May 26, 2022
Screenwriting competitions are touted as one of the best ways to progress toward a successful and gratifying career in Hollywood. But do they really live up to the hype? How many careers have been launched? How many rags to riches stories have been covered? Here’s the unadulterated truth of screenwriting competitions.
Winning a screenwriting contest could change the course of your writing career and, maybe, your life. But, more realistically, the odds of making your big break as a screenwriter by winning a competition are small. In order to get any of the real benefits from a contest, you basically have to win or place in the top 5. Contests may seem like the easiest option for people outside of the Hollywood system to break in, just as lottery tickets are the easiest option for becoming a millionaire. And, even if you did win, there’s no guarantee that your script will go anywhere. Anecdotal evidence suggests that while some contest winners receive up to a half-dozen contacts, others do not receive a single email.
Don’t enter screenplay competitions because you need the money. The prize money is more like an added bonus than a reliable paycheck. These competitions may seem enticing with plenty of money to go around, but the odds of winning are small. All of them, especially those that offer the largest prizes, are highly competitive. One strategy may be to enter as many competitions as possible, increasing your odds. However, with high entry costs, it’s unlikely to pay off. With screenwriting contests, quality is more important than quantity. Not all competitions are created equal. It means more to do well in one or two highly respected competitions like the Nicholl or Sundance than to do well in dozens of lesser-known competitions. Competitions aren’t a guarantee into a screenwriting career or a get-rich-quick scheme.
But it’s not all bad news. Entering a screenwriting competition has its own perks that can’t necessarily be measured financially.
The Real Winner’s Prize
Winning or placing in a screenwriting contest has generated positive momentum for many writers to jump-start their careers. Since many contests use industry professionals as judges at advanced levels, it is possible to make contacts simply by advancing in a competition. While the odds are still slim, these contacts have led directly to a career for a few writers. Placing in a contest should certainly be mentioned in a query letter and added to a résumé when appropriate. While the mention of a victory or placement in an obscure contest probably won’t guarantee positive responses from agents or producers, it can’t hurt. If you’re a lucky winner or finalist of a major competition, mentioning your experience can almost guarantee a read at agencies and production companies.
Screenwriting contestants complete scripts. Which any writer can tell you is often the hardest part of screenwriting. With the hard deadline that a contest provides, many writers find the strength to overcome their procrastination and finish their script. For other writers, contests are a great way to venture out into the writing world. In some ways, the validation of placing in a screenwriting competition can be the validation writers need to take their writing career to the next step. It might not mean a Hollywood career right away, but it could be a step toward that goal.
There are plenty of reasons to enter a screenwriting competition, and plenty of reasons not to. If you go in with eyes open, and don’t rely on them to be your whole strategy, contests can provide real value. For the vast majority, contests may be worthwhile for the intangible rewards: a finished script, professional confidence, and experience. There are lots of other ways to break into Hollywood, but entering a contest requires the least effort and sacrifice. Advocate for yourself, evaluate each contest, and make the most of those little opportunities to glean the best rewards. But, most importantly, keep writing.