WET T-SHIRT CONTEST
Should you Enter Screenwriting Contests?
April 28th, 2015
The following has nothing to do with wet t-shirts. This entry is actually about screenwriting contests - a subject with little marquee value.
One of the most popular category of questions that I find in my e-mail box is about screenwriting contests.
As I say over and over, I believe that most are a waste of energy and entry fee. Some - like the Nicholl and Disney Fellowships - are very reputable and have launched a few Hollywood careers.
Regardless of how reputable any contest might be, the screening process for most seems tenuous. Low fees for contest readers and a bulk of scripts guarantees a sloppy vetting system.
Recently, Scriptapolooza sent me a nice letter asking if I would read for their contest. Late last year, I judged the BIG BREAK! FINAL DRAFT SCREENWRITING CONTEST and found it to be a painless (even rewarding) experience.
Of course, I was only reading the ten finalists.
Scriptapolooza was prepared to send me a pile that could have weighed in at eighty scripts! I promptly declined.
The contest was targeting executives, agents and managers to read big piles of scripts - with permission to snatch up any great screenplay they discovered in the process. To the inexperienced, that is a Siren song, since it seems credible that most of those scripts will be wretched.
This leads me to believe that a busy executive isn't going to read scores of bad contests scripts from beginning to end. As a result, most will be tossed aside quickly. Now, in the real world of Hollywood, that's common practice.
But a writer isn't shelling out fifty bucks to William Morris or a studio to judge his work. Is it fair that a writer pay a contest entry fee and have his script tossed aside by page ten?
Of the ten finalist scripts from the BIG BREAK! CONTEST, I thought only about half were good enough to be there. Were all the other entries so bad that these mediocre scripts slipped through into finalist slots? Or is the reading process for screenwriting contests flawed?
We've all heard the countless stories of scripts that couldn't even place in some big contest yet went on to sell for six figures.
And then there's the bad buzz that often surrounds a contest winning screenplay. After all, the competition in a contest doesn't come close to the competition the same script faces in the real contest of everyday Hollywood. As a result, the industry doesn't greet the winner with the same sort of fanfare it received at the award's banquet a month earlier.
I have a friend who reads scripts for most of the big contests in town. A while back he wrote an article for twoadverbs.com, and I recently asked him to update it so I might dodge my blogging duties thanks to the class I'm teaching at L.A. Valley College.
Below is Johnny Rude's methods of reading scripts for screenwriting contests. He might be a dick, but it's an honest look at how - at least - one reader does it.
How does anyone win a screenwriting contest? How does the system work in a city where rules are meant to be broken? Follow these Nine Simple Rules and you’ll be well on your way to attaining your own brand of star power. It honestly isn’t all that hard.
I am a script reader who has digested thousands of screenplays. In that time, less than forty of those stories have made a positive, lasting impression. Depending on what contest you’re entering, I am your judge and jury. I am the gatekeeper that stands between you and the prize. I decide if your script is worthy, if your name will be smattered across a full-page ad in Variety. Bring your A-Game, dazzle me, and give me better than your best.
I’m not a steroid enhanced doorman donning expensive sunglasses and a strange haircut at an exclusive night club. I want to unclip the velvet rope and let you in. I am on your side.
But never, ever, ever waste my time. The consequences for your inability to follow a few simple guidelines are deafening silence. You could fail, and never know why your work was thrown into an insatiable garbage pail. Actually, that’s not true. I recycle.
My wrath will be unleashed if you fail to ignore my Nine Simple Rules. The rules are here for a few simple reasons – they work because they are a foundation to successful storytelling.
Reading for Talent Agencies:
This is where I started. The process is different from contests. Creating reports or “coverage” of a script is a one-on-one deal. I’m paid to write a critique of the script at hand.
The dirty reality: Most agents don’t read scripts themselves, they only read the coverage. Would you rather have your agent spending eighty hours a week reading scripts, or working the phones trying to get you a deal? Right or wrong, your opinion doesn’t matter. This is how the system works.
Reading for Contests:
In many ways, this method is more brutal on the writer.
I am comparing your work against other scripts.
How does the reading system work?
Do I soak in a hot bath and eat chocolates while I gaze in wonderment at the script cradled in my hands? Do I relish every word, paying attention to the meticulous detail hand crafted into each page? Do I re-read the script to make sure that I comprehended every nuance, every arc, and every setback?
You’ve got fifteen pages to grab me, before your work is dumped.
It’s not all that bad. Remember what I said: I recycle.
I’ve heard all the curses and moans before. “I paid a fifty dollar entrance fee; you’re being paid to read the entire screenplay.”
Look to what I said above, it was even italicized for your convenience.
I am comparing your work against other scripts.
I am being paid to find the top three scripts out of one hundred.
RULE NUMBER 1: Understand what you are submitting your script for.
This is a contest, not coverage. You are competing, not seeking feedback.
This is a big deal. Once you get it, you’re well on your way to understanding what is expected of you. More importantly, you recognize the reader’s mindset.
I never know the writer’s name. Sometimes I don’t even have a title for the script. There’s only a code number to reference. My job is to give a cold, logical appraisal of your work.
THE PROCESS: PHASE I
I pick up each script and before I really start reading it, this is what I look for. It’s like perusing a novel at a book store; this is my initial test drive.
RULE NUMBER 2: Know and obey the formatting rules.
Any font other than 12-point courier will usually get your script thrown out of the first round. Use oversized paper, a binding method other than two brads in three-hole punch paper, or some sort of clear plastic covers and you will be ousted.
Why so rigid on formatting rules?
After reading countless scripts, a reader’s eyes are used to seeing Courier 12-point, just as your eyes get used to a certain font style when reading a book. Plastic bindings don’t allow us to flip to the next page easily. Plastic covers just get in the way and serve no purpose. Oversized pages make the script big and too bulky to handle.
Ask yourself this question, do you want to make my job easy or hard? Work with me, not against me.
While we’re on the subject, no cast lists of potential actors to play the roles and no suggested movie poster designs on the cover page.
RULE NUMBER 3: Watch your page count.
I flip to the very last page. Is it over ninety pages, but fewer than one hundred and twenty? Any less than that, you have a treatment. If you run over that amount, your scenes are too long, your story too complex for your writing skills and you have more characters running around than you need.
RULE NUMBER 4: Keep your description appropriate.
As I’m skimming through the pages, I’m looking at random words under the description. I don’t want to read about azure skies and limpid pools of pure water. Do you have a fifteen-line paragraph of wordy redundancy? I’ve read my share of scripts with five pages of dense text. It’s great for a novel, death for a screenplay.
Why am I so firm with these rules?
To get an understanding of how big my pile of scripts is, let’s say the average screenplay is one hundred pages long. That equals ten thousand sheets, which is twenty reams of paper.
Pretend each script is one used car on a big parking lot. From a distance everything looks fine. Up close there are dings in the hood, another car has a flat tire, and several of them have smashed windshields. Right from the beginning, I’m not even going to give them another look, because there are so many more intact vehicles for me to choose from.
All is not lost. No matter how you performed during the first set of rules, I will now proceed to read your script. But if you already have a few demerits, I’ll be looking for any reason to toss your script.
I always read the first ten pages. Here’s what I’m looking for:
RULE NUMBER 5: Have a universal story.
There needs to be something in your message that everyone can lose themselves in. One reason why “Star Wars” was so successful is it's the classic good versus evil journey.
Simple done well is better than complex done poorly.
RULE NUMBER 6: Who is the main character?
Sounds basic, doesn’t it? But what does your protagonist stand for? I’ve read entire scripts where the main character reacts to events around them. They stand for nothing, nor do they have any purpose to their journey. In reference to “Star Wars”, everyone has been Luke Skywalker who wants to run off and make something of their lives, instead of working on the farm.
How can anyone decide all of that in ten pages? That translates into ten minutes of screen time. Who doesn’t make up their mind in that short period of time? If you’re not engaged in ten minutes, you pop out the DVD or switch to another channel.
I’m not expecting all my questions to have answers. I want there to be something engaging in what I’ve seen. A character I want to know more about, good dialogue exchange, and an interesting setting.
Assume those ten pages has been a smooth ride, and I’m engaged in your story. That’s good for you. I then flip through the script and read one or two scenes at random.
I want to be sure that your opening wasn’t all that you have in your writing abilities. I’m sampling the rest of your script and asking myself:
Do the scenes appear complete?
Does something happen or is the writing just filler?
Is the description crisp and to the point?
Does the dialogue flow, creating an engaging exchange?
At this point, I don’t care as much about the story as I do about your knowledge of writing. Do you understand the craft?
I may go through ten scripts that don’t meet these minimum standards. Then the eleventh may have all the elements which grabs my attention.
These are the writers that trust I know how to read a script. Nothing is rammed down my throat, nor do I feel they are wasting my time.
These are the scripts that make it to the next round.
I go through each of these one hundred scripts using this process. By the end of the first cut, I usually have between fifteen and twenty scripts left. For the others, t here’s no final reprieve from the governor, nothing can save them from their fate. Four out of the original five scripts are hauled out to the blue recycling bin. All because they didn’t follow Six out of the Nine Rules to Win a Screenwriting Contest.
THE PROCESS: PHASE II
If your script made it this far, you’ve done well. But there are still quite a few scripts left, and only one can be the winner.
I really delve into the scripts in front of me, taking one at random and reading it from page one.
Do you have what it takes to close the deal?
RULE NUMBER 7: Develop your character.
It’s one thing to have a good character, but can you successfully send them on a hero’s journey? Do you have a believable conflict? Does the story ebb and flow from success to setback?
Far too many stories take an interesting character and have them do almost nothing throughout the entire script. It’s not enough that the protagonist react to the events around him. His reactions need to shape his journey and achieving his goals.
I need to empathize with the character; weep when they are injured and throw my fist in the air when they succeed.
If any of this seems foreign to you, then buy a good book on story structure so you can understand and implement these features.
I stop reading, and dog ear the page at the end of the First Act break. This is usually around page thirty.
Three Questions I ask myself.
Do I want to keep reading?
Do I care about the character?
Is the dialogue engaging?
If I answer “yes” to all three, you could very well be in the top three scripts.
If I answer “no” to one or more, the script isn’t necessarily out of the running. But this is where the cruel game begins.
Like Olympic Downhill Skiing, the first person to finish the race is – by default – the Gold Medal Winner. That is, until the other racers finish their runs.
As I read the other scripts to the end of the First Act, I continue my culling process. By the time I’m done, I have five to seven scripts remaining.
A common complaint is, “If you just keep reading, it’ll get better.” This brings me to:
RULE NUMBER 8: Make it better from the beginning.
If the other scripts have kept me engaged from page one through page thirty, why hasn’t your screenplay? There is a one hundred and twenty page ceiling on your story, there’s not one scene, nor a single line of dialogue that can be wasted.
My job is to find the diamond in the rough. This is the process I’ve created from reading many scripts.
I’m not out to make anyone’s life miserable. I want to read a great story. I want to be moved, entertained and dazzled. I’m giving you my full attention, and you’ve gotten me this far. Don’t ruin your chance to win it all.
THE PROCESS: PHASE III
This is it, the final read through. I’m out to see if your mastery of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, melded into a collection of seemingly random words, is entertainment. It doesn’t have to be art, just a fun ride.
I pick up a script at random and begin from where I last left off. If I put the script down more than twice out of boredom, it’s usually finished.
How can your script make it to the winner’s circle?
That brings us to the final rule.
RULE NUMBER 9: Be precise and concise.
Each scene has to move the protagonist forward or backward. Don’t let the scenes start too early, and cut them off before they go on for too long. If our character is meeting someone at a restaurant, we probably don’t need to see them dropping off their car at the valet, and we don’t need to see them ordering food.
Figure out what you are trying to accomplish in each scene. Once your information is presented, go onto another scene. Make them tight, bright and to the point.
Do not ram a point home. If a murder weapon is an eight-inch knife, tell us once. We don’t need to be reminded again and again.
The best scripts are the one’s I’ve read the quickest. I’ve slogged through a few ninety-page scripts in three hours. I’ve joyfully cruised through one hundred and twenty page scripts in less than an hour.
A well written script will have the reader flipping through the pages at a breakneck pace. The description is enough to give a loose framework of the scene without going into camera angles and poetic prose.
A good writer allows the dialogue to propel the story forward in a manner that allows the reader to lose themselves in the exchanges. There are no rambling monologues or useless introductions between characters that slow the pace.
The good scripts have the reader arriving at the back cover far too quickly.
With the best screenplays, I always say, "It was so good, I could see the movie poster."
About the Author
Christopher Lockhart is a Hollywood executive, producer and teacher. For the last 16 years, he has worked within some of the entertainment industry’s most esteemed talent agencies searching through piles of scripts, books, articles, old movies and pitches in search of projects for "A" list actors. He started at ICM, where he worked with legendary talent agent Ed Limato, ran the Story Department, and facilitated the Agent Trainee Program. Later he moved to the venerable William Morris Agency, which eventually merged with Endeavor to form WME, the world's largest diversified talent agency, where he currently serves as Story Editor. He has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has taught at Los Angeles Valley College, UCLA and is currently an adjunct professor in the MFA program at National University. He is an award winning and Emmy nominated producer with credits that include THE COLLECTOR (2009) and its sequel THE COLLECTION (2012), as well as writing and producing the documentary MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS (2010) for Oprah Winfrey. He is a member of the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He has read over 35,000 scripts throughout his career.