By Jerry Traynor, Associate Editor, Moviebytes.com
Screenwriting contests are not a one-size-fits-all affair. While there are obvious benefits to winning a huge and prestigious competition like the Nicholl Fellowships, smaller contests can be just as valuable if they hook you up with a judge who wants to option your screenplay, or a manager who wants to represent your work. Last year we identified more than 20 different contests that we thought were worth your consideration, and while the landscape hasn't changed all that much in the last 12 months, we've expanded the list a bit this year to include some new opportunities. Take a look:
Winning a major film or television writing competition can be a great way to win attention from the industry, but the opportunities listed below take that one step further because they basically are the industry. Why settle for a cash prize and yet-another-copy of Final Draft when you can win what amounts to a writing job at Warner Bros. or Nickelodeon?
A submission to the Disney/ABC Writing Program isn't a contest submission so much as a job application. Winners are paid a weekly salary for a one-year gig that provides access to executives, producers and literary representatives leading ultimately to a potential staff position on a Disney or ABC television program. The best part? It's free to submit.
The HBO Access Writing Fellowship provides participants with eight months of mentoring by HBO Creative Executives, as each writer develops a script suitable for HBO or Cinemax. Applications are accepted in the Spring, so keep your eyes open.
Sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Nicholl Fellowships remain the 800-pound gorilla of the screenwriting contest world, a competition so prestigious that its winners are almost guaranteed representation and a toe-hold in the industry. Need more convincing? Consider some previous winners: Erhen Kruger (Arlington Road), Michael A. Rich (Finding Forrester), Bragi Schut Jr. (Season of the Witch), Doug Atchison, (Akeelah and the Bee), and lots more. This contest routinely attracts more than 7,000 submissions every year, but even its finalists and semifinalists have been known to garner significant attention for their success.
Like Disney, Nickelodeon is offering a one-year, salaried position interacting with executives, writing spec scripts and pitching story ideas. They're particularly looking for writers with diverse backgrounds and experiences, so if that sounds like you, there's no better opportunity anywhere. And like Disney, this one's totally free.
The Warner Bros. Workshop has been around for more than 30 years, and its list of past participants includes a fair number of industry heavyweights like Terrance Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives), Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl) and Felicia Henderson (Soul Food). The submission process is competitive, so be sure to check their website regularly for deadlines and requirements.
These contests and fellowships may not be sponsored by industry heavyweights like HBO or Disney, but they nevertheless represent a significant opportunity for new and emerging writers. Some of them - like Page, Austin, and Scriptapalooza - are enormously competitive, while others - like CineStory - offer more realistic odds.
(Contests listed alphabetically)
The Austin Fest Screenplay Competition is a huge contest that's been around forever, and while it's not quite as prestigious as the Nicholl Fellowships, it's darn close. Past winners who have sold their scripts include Ron Peer (Goodbye Lover), Max Adams (Excess Baggage) and lots of others. This contest also attracts 6,000 - 7,000 submissions per year, but even those who don't win can benefit through discounts to the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Conference, one of the biggest and best parties of the year for screenwriters.
BlueCat has more of an indie-vibe than some of the other big contests, but they've had their share of success stories, too, including Ana Lily Amirpour, who won the BlueCat Grand Prize in 2007 and went on to write and direct the Sundance hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. BlueCat founder Gordie Hoffman is a writer/director himself, and won the prestigious Sundance Film Festival Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his terrific indie film, Love Liza.
A trailblazer among those contests offering mentorship as part of their prize package, CineStory may be the best contest you've never heard of. Each fall the contest's semifinalists are invited to attend an intensive, 4-day retreat in the mountains of Idylwild, CA, where they spend their days and evenings interacting with industry mentors such as Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (Iron Men, Children of Men) and Meg LaFeuve (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur.) The best part? This is one of the smaller competitions on this list, so if your script is ready your odds of success are pretty darn good.
Next to the Sundance Labs (below), Film Independent's Screenwriting Lab may be the best opportunity available for indie screenwriters to hone their craft. The lab is an intensive five-week program running two evenings a week in Los Angeles in July and August. The Lab is designed to help screenwriters improve their craft and advance their careers.
Sponsored by the folks who publish the industry-leading Final Draft Screenwriting Software, The Final Draft Big Break Contest offers a trip to L.A., substantial prize money, and a high-profile awards ceremony.
The Fresh Voices Original Screenplay Competition flies under the radar a little bit, but they offer substantial prizes and like PAGE, they offer awards in several different genres, as well as multiple TV categories. They also distribute several "Spotlight Awards" to recognize scripts in various categories such as "Best Role Written for a Female Lead", "Diversity and Inclusion," "Courage and Fortitude," etc.
The International Screenwriters Association (ISA) is a popular online organization for screenwriters, and sponsors a family of contests including the ISA Fast Track Fellowship, which flies two winners out to L.A. for a series of meetings with industry executives, and Table Read My Screenplay, which features screenplay readings in high-profile destinations like Sundance and London.
If you've written a "spiritually uplifting" screenplay, a submission to the Kairos competition is a no-brainer. They offer $50,000 in prizes, including $25,000 to their Grand Prize Winner, plus recognition at the Annual MOVIEGUIDE® Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment Industry.
Sponsored by the tracking-board.com website, the Launch Pad Feature and Launch Pad Pilot competitions have an excellent track record of winning agency and management representation for winning writers.
Nashville, like Austin, is a well-established film festival that features a Writers' Conference as well as an increasingly high profile screenwriting competition with various genre awards for both features and TV.
The PAGE International Screenwriting Awards is a huge competition with a gigantic $25,000 Grand Prize and a huge number of success stories. Your odds of winning the Grand Prize may not be great, but unlike the Nicholl Fellowships and some of the other contests on this list, PAGE offers prizes in 10 different genres, which means your sci-fi epic won't have to compete with another writer's indie romance, and vice-versa. PAGE is also an uncommonly well-run competition that meets their deadlines and responds promptly to email inquiries.
In contrast to contests like PAGE and Nashville that offer multiple genre awards within the same competition, ScreenCraft sponsors several different contests, each devoted to a specific genre or format, plus the ScreenCraft Fellowship for scripts from any genre. ScreenCraft is also a sponsor of the Screenwriting Conference at the Nashville Film Festival.
Script Pipeline has actually been around for about 15 years and has steadily grown into a family of well regarded screenwriting contests with a number of notable alumni, including Evan Daugherty, a former contest winner who went on to sell the $3 million spec Snow White & the Huntsman. Script Pipeline now offers a number of different competitions for both screenplays and TV, including a couple of contests for story ideas in case you haven't yet gotten around to actually writing your blockbuster.
Scriptapalooza, founded in 1998, offers separate contests for Film and TV, as well as a Screenwriting Fellowship. They take pride in promoting their winners agressively, and have had several films produced from their contest winners.
Slamdance is no Sundance, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. They've been around forever, and sponsor a well-respected screenplay competition that may be a little less snobby than their Park City neighbors. Competition is substantial, though, as they attract about 2,500 submissions every year.
For those on the outside looking in, Sundance can feel like a secret, cliquish secret society that doesn't necessarily welcome newcomers. If you fit their profile, though, there's literally no better place to have your screenplay nurtured.
the trackingb (read: tracking board) TV and Screenplay contests have a somewhat lower profile than some of the other contests listed here, and they offer virtually no cash prizes. That said, the insider access they promote seems to be legit, and past Finalist Mickey Fisher had a CBS TV series deal for his sci-fi spec Extant within eight months of winning this contest.
Talk about pedigree! The Writers Lab is funded by Meryl Streep, and is designed to provide opportunities for female writers over 40 years old. The Lab brings 12 selected writers together with outstanding professional female filmmakers for an intensive four-day screenwriting retreat of one-on-one meetings, panel discussions and other activities.
The Writer's Store Industry Insider contest is structured a little differently than most because they're not looking for spec screenplays. Instead, they ask an industry insider to come up with a logline, and then allow contestants to come up with the first 15 pages of the script. Finalists enter a mentoring program to complete their screenplays. Past winner Tyler Marceca wound up selling his script The Disciple Program to Universal with Mark Wahlberg attached to star.
StoryPros sponsors two contests, one with separate genre categories, the Story Pros Awards, and one for scripts regardless of genre, the Story Pros International. Both contests are well-run, and have a good reputation for the quality of their feedback (which costs extra).
Screenplay Festival is another contest that flies a bit under the radar, but it's worth considering for the recognition they give genre scripts. And if you want to improve your odds, consider Screenplay Festival's 100 Screenplays Contest, which limits entries to the first one hundred screenplays entered.