How to win screenplay contests
The best way to win writing contests is to write a better script than everybody else, but there are some additional tips I can offer.
First, look for contests with narrow qualifying criteria. These can be geographic--for example, in the U.S. there are a few contests open only to the residents of individual states. Sometimes there are age limits as well. There will be less competition than if it’s a contest with no limits and one that takes entries from around the world.
- Ask how many entries they usually have. Not many contests list this in their promotional material but some of them will tell you if you ask. The bigger the prize, the more entries—usually. But you could find exceptions.
- Take the entry fee into account. A high fee limits the number of entries especially if the money prize is low. Normally that's a good reason to avoid entering, but if there is another benefit (e.g. a residency, meetings with agents, etc.) and you feel you have a strong entry it may be worth going for it.
- Read and follow the rules carefully. This sounds obvious but you would be surprised how many people don't adhere to the required format, for instance.
- Consider contests which require entries on a particular theme or mentioning a location, etc. For instance, a contest may require that your screenplay be set in a particular location or be on a particular theme.
For more generic contests, people will dig up something they've already written. Responding to a more specific topic or style usually means sitting down and writing something new, and fewer people will put in that effort. However, I would avoid doing that if the requirement is so narrow that you think it would limit your ability to market the script elsewhere if it doesn’t win.
A Mad Man tells how his career took off
Mad Man creator Matthew Weiner had more than his share of struggles when trying to get attention as a writer.
His writing samples weren't considered good enough to get him into a writing class at Wesleyan College, his thesis was totally destroyed by the cruel remarks of a humanities professor, and his films never won the prizes at his film school.
He did develop a survival strategy: "thrive on rejection and hold on to compliments. Rejection enrages me, but that 'I’ll show you!' feeling is an extremely powerful motivator."
There was plenty of rejection--three years of writing spec scripts while his wife supported both of them. Enough rejection that he gave up for a while.
What turned things around was making a low-budget, small, quirky comedy in which he played himself and used his wife, his apartment, and his car to finish the film.
After that, his career started to take off, but it took seven years from the time he wrote Mad Men until it was produced. In an interview in the book Getting There: A Book of Mentors, he says, "I lived every day with that script as if it were going to happen tomorrow. That's the faith you have to have."
What could you do to set you apart from the multitude of others trying to break in as screenwriters? It pays to spend as much time brainstorming how to market yourself and your scripts as you spend writing them.
Week 5 of Jurgen Wolff’s Script Coach workshop at Raindance is all about marketing yourself and your scripts. You can sign up for that session here.