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Screenwriting Contests

Are they worth it?

It seems like a new screenwriting contest is born every day.   Many make promises or allusions to opening Hollywood doors and exposing winning scripts to green-lighters.   And new screenwriters shell out entry fees hoping a win will be their golden ticket inside.  Unfortunately, most screenwriting contests do not have the clout or visibility level to help a writer achieve that objective.   

I don’t have a problem with contests, because they are helpful in keeping writers goal oriented, providing some adrenaline and hopeful thoughts, and maybe even boasting rights.  Some contests actually shell out prize money that can help make writing the next script a little easier.

But since most contests are ineffective in forging Hollywood careers, they aren’t a viable way into the business.  Using a contest or two as an adjunct to better writing and smarter networking is wiser strategy, in my opinion.  Two contests that have been effective in opening doors for writers are the Nicholl Fellowship and the Trackingb Contest.   Both are very different but have better odds than others in introducing new writers to Hollywood.

While there are lots of pros and cons with screenwriting contests (probably more of the latter than former), my bone of contention is in the judging process. 

The judging in most screenwriting contests is disingenuous.  Since contest judges get paid very little or nothing at all, it’s absurd to assume that a judge, assigned 30 scripts (as an example), will read each script cover to cover.    Let’s say it takes a judge 90 minutes to read a script.  (It takes me two hours to read a 120 page script, but I’ll speculate at a faster rate of speed.)      A judge will have invested 45 hours into reading those 30 scripts.   If he gets paid ten dollars a script, he’s earned about $6.60 an hour.  I guess in these hard economic times, any salary is appreciated.  But, in reality, the way to make that $10 a script fee pay off is to reduce the amount of hours put into reading.   That $6.60 an hour can easily be transformed into $13 an hour by reading the 30 scripts in half the amount of time.   How is that accomplished? By simply reading the first five or ten pages of each script and tossing aside the screenplays that suck.   This is a reality of screenplay contests.  This is the way most judging occurs.  There is little to no transparency in this process.  Because judging is done at home, away from contest administrators, bosses can turn a blind eye to the practice.

Ethically speaking, this is the way Hollywood itself treats scripts.  Most agents or producers aren’t going to read more than ten pages if they cannot connect with the material.  Of course, the difference between Hollywood and screenwriting contests is that Hollywood doesn’t charge the writer.  Contests charge entry fees and, I suspect,  some contestants believe their scripts are read from fade-in to fade-out.     I’d have more respect for contests if they simply described the entry fee as an administration fee that did not guarantee any script be read in its entirety.    But that might turn-off potential contestants, who believe their script should be read cover-to-cover.  (And I happen to agree.)     This is the dirty little secret of screenwriting contests. 

I’d say that as a script progresses toward finalist status, it’s far more likely to be read from beginning to end.  If a script is bumped out early – probably not.     In defense of contests, can anyone say that the voting process for, as an example, the Oscars or Golden Globes is done with anymore integrity?   The process of getting into film festivals probably isn't any better either.   As a result, writers entering contests might suspect some of these indiscretions yet choose to accept them with the hopes if they win the big prize, it won’t matter in the end. 

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.  

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