Screenwriting Competitions

As you probably know, there are a whole lot of competitions for screenwriters.  It’s a much less visible competition than other film contests (reports on the finalists for the Nicholl Fellowship never seem to get the same amount of coverage as, say, the hottest films from Sundance), so it can be a little hard to figure out whether they’re worthwhile.

I did a fair bit of research, and there are certainly some contests that seem to be consensus favorites.  The Nicholl Fellowship seems pretty great, but seems insanely competitive.  As we mostly write genre stuff, it doesn’t really seem like we’re a great fit for them, given that they tend to gravitate to writers of serious drama like Allison Anders, Susannah Grant, etc.

Obviously, winning a screenplay competition is always a good thing.  Almost all of them come with cash prizes, and several include some sort of pipeline for getting the winning scripts to a particular agency or production company.  That said, the odds of winning these things seems ridiculously small, especially since they’re not exactly open about how many entrants they’re getting (presumably because that might lead most screenwriters to realize the the screenplay competition business is much, much better than the screenplay writing business).

If the goal isn’t winning, then perhaps the way to treat these things is as a service to provide critiques.  Back before I teamed up with Matthew, I submitted one of my screenplays to Slamdance and received a fairly crushing critique, which, though hard to read, made me realize the script was pretty much a mess. (On a side note, I can always count on Slamdance to crush my dreams, since they also rejected my feature film I made many, many years ago).

One competition that showed up a few times in my research was BlueCat, whose main hook is that they provide you with two detailed critiques from two different readers on each script you submit.  That seemed like some good feedback to get, so we submitted both Henchman and The Zig-Zag Bangs Play Music For Spying.

We got our critiques back last week and the responses were, to say the least, mixed.  First off, I was somewhat surprised to learn that the same two readers read both of our scripts.  This wouldn’t have been that bad, except that one of the readers seemed to hate our style.  A lot.

Pretty much the only positive thing s/he had to say about us was that our script was properly formatted.  S/he used phrases like “less than satisfying,” “a horrible storyline,” and “does the writer actually want to get this film produced?”   S/he suggested we just give up and start over.  I guess it’s good to know that someone out there hates our scripts, but, given that Blue Cat’s website has little blurbs about how the readers try so hard to not be cruel and how any script can be turned into a masterpiece with work and blah blah blah, it seemed like a lot of not-particularly-constructive criticism.

Fortunately, the other reader seemed really into us.  S/he seemed to get what we were going for, and filled the critique with phrases like:

reminiscent of such cult favorites as “Scott Pilgrim” and “Buckaroo Bonzai”

A well-written script featuring a lot of strong comedy and a beautifully rendered alternate reality

the tone is strong, the writers are capable, and the script is a hilarious, evocative read.

The criticism we got from this reader was extremely specific and helpful.  The general advice was to trim some pages (they both weigh in at 120 and should probably be no more than 110), and get to the meat of the action sooner.  Good advice, and something we can certainly do.  I was really pleased with this critique as it both validated our work and gave us hands-on ways to improve it.   I only wish the other reader had been as helpful.

The other competition I entered was Bankable Script, a new competition which offers a pair of angles to separate themselves from the rest.  First of all, the script is a rolling competition.  Out of every hundred scripts that get submitted, ten move on to the next round, with a prize given at each batch of 1,000.  Kind of nice to know what your odds are.

It’s also a much cheaper competition than many of the others, though their “premium” packages get pretty expensive (i.e., to get feedback costs $40 more than just entering).  We went for the “silver” package on a pair of scripts, which advertised “Detailed Grades,” which seemed like it might offer some interesting results.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t move on to the next round, but we did get our grades, which were not very helpful.  For Henchman, we received the following:

Crash Test 1 : UN-CINEMATIC WRITING – Too much dialogue, not enough action.
Crash Test 2 : UNNATURAL DIALOGUE – Make it easy for the actors by creating realistic conversations.
Crash Test 3 : OK

“OK” doesn’t seem like particularly useful feedback.  I guess the script is full of plentiful, unrealistic dialogue, so maybe we can work on that, though I’m really not sure what more we can do there (or even if we should worry about it, since even the Blue Cat reader who hated us liked our action scenes).

Anyway, feeling fairly demoralized tonight.  It’s hard to pay a significant amount of money to be told how horrible your writing is by a variety of people.  I suppose I should focus on the one reader who liked us and follow the advice from the previous post about just doing what you do until someone is interested, but, man, sometimes it does get hard not to want to just give up.