Check out the Latest Articles:
Winning Tips for Screenplay Competitions

Greg Gasawski graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in Playwriting in 2001. While at Columbia, he won the John Golden Award for Playwriting for his play Life of an Office Worker.

In 2003, he won
The Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project — one of five writers chosen to participate from a pool of over 4,000 applicants. While at Chesterfield, Greg wrote two feature-length screenplays for Paramount. At Paramount, he was mentored by Executives Chip Diggins and Pam Abdy. Chesterfield also provided Greg with the opportunity to have his writing mentored by writing team Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. In 2005, Greg was on the judging panel for the semi-final round of The Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project. Greg has also been a judge on playwriting panels in New York City for the 42nd Street Collective and Missed Theatre Company.

Greg has written, directed, produced (and often acted) in many of his own plays, staged in both New York City and Los Angeles. His original productions include
Columbus Day (for which he received both an acting award and playwriting award), and Dahmer (for which he received awards for both directing and overall excellence). He recently won a short play award for his work The Kingdom, which was developed for Magnetic North Theatre Company. His most recent play is Sometimes I Feel Like a Loser.

There are a lot of screenplay competitions out there. A lot. And a lot of people submit to these contest. Again…a lot. So, what are the judges looking for? What do they like? What do they hate? What do you get if you win?

There are really no easy answers to any of these questions, but if you’re anything like me easy answers are what you’re looking for. So that’s what I’m going to try and give you. Easy answers. However, before I dive in, there’s one thing that I want to say: Winning a contest is nice. Losing a contest is not nice. I’ve done both. But if you lose a contest, please don’t say to yourself, “Gosh, my script really must have sucked. Why did I waste ten moths of my life writing that stupid thing?” Instead, say to yourself, “Well, I don’t know who they had judging that contest, but whoever it was must have been a complete idiot.” A writer’s confidence can be tenuous enough, don’t let losing cause you to doubt yourself.

First, let’s talk about what the judges might be looking for. In addition to entering contests, I’ve been a judge in a couple — one for screenplays and a couple for playwriting — so I’ll tell you what I was looking for. Authenticity. A judge wants to hear your voice. Not you writing in the style of Diablo Cody or Tobe Hooper or Noah Baumbach. Don’t research the “hot script” that just sold or the “new writer” that everyone’s talking about because 500 other people are doing that, too. When you write in your own voice, your script stands out. Period. When you write in someone else’s voice, your script is just becomes part of the pile.

Character is obviously crucial. Your characters need to be real. Not “quirky” or “edgy” or “smarter than everyone else around him but too cool or disaffected to give a damn” but real. Real, to me, means organic. The character’s actions and dialogue need to be grounded in some sort of reality and need to true to the world that you’ve created. You, as the writer, need understand who your characters are. Create their backstories, if you need to. Mentally, try to see the world you’re writing about as clearly as possible. Think about the way your characters speak. Make their actions motivated. Why would the Hard-As-Nails Female War Correspondent fall in love with Smart Ass Soldier Who’s Seen One-Too-Many Children Killed in Iraq? We’ve seen it happen in a million scripts, but what we all want to know is “why?” Show the reader why things happen, and try to make it a grounded and actual reason “why”. Don’t make the reader connect dots. And don’t make them shake their heads and say to themselves “That would never happen.”

What else do the judges like? Structure. If you’re unlucky enough to have a judge who reads the first ten pages and then flips right to page 25, then you want to give them what they are looking for. There are plenty of books on structure out there (I like Save the Cat by Blake Snyder); take a look at one. Make sure you have a very clear catalyst moment as close to page 10 as possible. I know it’s a pain, but you also want to make sure that you have a solid act one break on page 25. A solid structure makes for an easy read. And an easy read is one thing that judges like.

What do the judges not like? Typos. Have someone else check for your typos. Don’t rely on Final Draft to find them for you. Don’t rely on yourself, because chances are that if you didn’t catch the typos the first time around, you won’t catch it the second time around, either.

Judges also don’t like a lot of “black” on the first page. The less you have in the way writing, the faster the script seems to move. Judges look for a certain energy in the script. They want to feel that the script is taking them by the hand and leading them somewhere — and leading them somewhere quickly. If there is a lot of descriptive action that the judges have to wade through, it slows the energy down.

It is

Nice to see

Something like THIS on the first page.

If it’s possible.

Also, watch out for over-CAPPING it. I can sometimes be guilty of this, so I really check the first few pages (where all caps seem to be the most frequent) to make sure that there’s a reason I’m using all caps. Additionally, don’t fall victim to your thesaurus. If a script says “She masticated the cake and imbibed the water” you know that the person’s been pressing “Ctrl+Shift+D” too much.

Unless it’s absolutely necessary, avoid including camera angles in your script. And don’t number your scenes. Your screenplay should read like a literary work — a story is what judges are looking for, not a shooting script.

You want your screenplay to look “correct”. Use three-hole punch paper with heavy brads binding the top and bottom holes. Don’t decorate the title page. Don’t put your screenplay in a plastic cover. Don’t attach a post-it to your screenplay with a little note to the judges. But you guys probably know all this already.

Lastly, what do you get if you win? Money is always nice. So is exposure. Read about the contest before you enter it. Most major contests will list the studios, agents, production companies that will request your scripts if you win. It’s also nice if your contest publicizes you if you are a winner. However, winning a contest is not a “golden ticket” as much of the internet will have you believe. There’s no guarantee that anything will happen with a winning script.

However, if and when you win it’s a good idea to have a few more scripts written and ready to go. If someone requests your script, they will also often ask to read one or two other things that you’ve written. Have those scripts ready to go. And don’t be self-conscious about touting your win. There are a lot of blowhards in Hollywood who are ready to brag about themselves at every opportunity. If you have won, obviously be gracious about it, but let people who might be able to help you know.

There are quite a few sites on screenwriting competitions out there. Here are a few of the bigger and/or more reputable competitions out there. Many of the winners are announced in the summer and submissions are accepted in the winter or spring, so you have plenty of time to get ready.

The Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. This is probably the biggest one out there. Up to five screenwriters receive a $30,000 grant. Additionally, there’s a lot of publicity if you win.

Scriptapalooza Screenwriting Competition. Although the name leaves something to be desired, this competition has been getting a lot of positive attention in the industry over the last few years. There’s a grand prize of $10,000 but Scriptapalooza has a reputation of really pushing winning writers.

Disney/ABC Screenwriting Fellowship Program. Another prestigious competition that employs up to 15 writers in both television and film, with a yearly stipend of $50,000. In Disney’s own words, this competition seeks out “culturally and ethnically diverse new writers.”

Zoetrope Screenwriting Contest. The grand prize in this contest is $5,000 and the top ten have their scripts submitted to agents, studios and production companies.

Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship Program. This is another year-long fellowship program that only accepts half-hour TV spec scripts.

Warner Bros. Writers’ Workshop. Another big-deal competition that focuses on television writing. Only half-hour and hour-long specs based on currently-airing shows are accepted. The best thing about this competition is that many of the winners are staffed by Warner Bros. after completion of the fellowship.

These are just a few to get you started. There are other really good ones out there — The Austin Film Festival Competition, The Sundance Writer’s Lab, The Bluecat screenplay competition. There are also competitions that focus solely on horror films, Latino films, gay films, and pretty much any other niche you can think of. Remember, there are costs involved with entering. Even if there is no entry fee, you’ll have to pay for making copies of your script, paying for postage and often for registering your work with the WGA.  But don’t let the number of contests out there, or the costs or anything else stand in the way of you getting your script out there.  You wrote it, you like it and you’re ready for people to read it.  Finishing a script is an accomplishment.  Give others the opportunity to acknowledge what you’ve done.

And the very last thing I have to say to you is — Good luck! I hope you win!

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sarah Sido, Brains of Minerva. Brains of Minerva said: Screenplay Competions: what will make your script stand out and a selection of the best ones […]