Confessions of a Screenplay Contest Judge: Plot is NOT enough.

I’m often asked by my Screenwriting Staffing members what it takes to win a Screenplay Contest. Instead of lengthy emails back and forth, I tried finding links to send them regarding the topic. But most of the articles were 1) outdated, or 2) focused only on “plot” points. Many were written by writers sharing their own personal experience.

But the plot of your story is only half of the judging process during the 1st round.

This post is an opinion piece but it does hold some significant merit. Here’s why: I was previously the Screenplay Contest Director for Cincinnati Film Festival in 2015, a Screenplay Judge for Universe Multicultural Film Festival from 2014-present, a Screenplay Judge for San Diego International Kids’ Film Festival from 2015-present, a Film Judge for 48 Hour Film Project in 2015, a Screenplay Reader for BlueCat Screenplay Competition from 2010-2012, and a Pitch It! Screenplay Judge in 2015 for Eichelberger FilmDayton Festival. As a screenwriter myself, I’ve probably submitted my own scripts/films to OVER 40+ festivals (at least), where I have won, placed, and been REJECTED. So I do hope, in some way, that my advice does increase your odds in placing and/or winning in the next contest you submit to.

For starters, Film Freeway is my favorite. Namely for its user-friendly setup. But this post is in no way a promotion for any online submission platform. I just wanted to note that I will be referencing Film Freeway’s setup, but these tricks and tips can be applied when using  Withoutabox (or something similar), too.

TITLE PAGE:

I’m not talking about the title page on your script, the one with the title of your script, your name, and contact info. I’m talking about your PROJECT PROFILE. As a festival director and judge, before clicking on your script, I’m taken to your online profile. Often writers leave this blank. All I see is your script’s title in big, BOLD letters, and an attachment (your script) to click on. At this time, I do not know your name, your genre, the premise of your story, your background, or your reasoning for submitting to my festival.

So now, even before opening your script, I’m reluctant.

Film Freeway, among others, gives you the opportunity to “buff” up your script’s (and you as a writer) resume before reading the actual script.

  1. Your script should already have a Logline. List it under OVERVIEW. If, by chance, your script wins/places, a logline will be needed for publicity purposes. Having this saves the contest time. Plus, it already proves you understand how the “industry” works.
  2. Your Bio. Whether you are a produced screenwriter or first-timer, this should never be left blank. Introduce yourself. The contest wants to know more about you. They want to be excited to include you in their festival.
  3. Specifications. This lists your page-length, language, genre, etc.. The reader needs to know, before clicking on your project, that your script meets their requirements.
  4. The Award section should not be left blank, unless your script’s not had any success (but we are going to change that). Like it or not, festivals (and this goes with films, too) want to know that your script has been vetted. Of course, this only applies to a few lucky people, but in the event your script gets accepted, places, and/or wins at another festival, gloat! Trust me.
  5. Project Links. Most writers think this only applies to people submitting films. Wrong. It goes for screenwriters, too! Most likely your script, since it’s a spec, doesn’t have an official website and/or facebook. But I do hope by now, as a writer in the 21st century, that YOU have your own personal Twitter and/or Facebook (especially Twitter!). Link them. If you don’t have a personal domain, put your IMDb, blog, anything that showcases who you are. Why is this important? Well, it’s the MOST important part in your profile! Contests want to know you’re active, you have a following. Because if and when they select your script, they want to know you are going to promote the shi* out of it all over the web. It’s a give-and-take relationship. You tagging a contest is FREE publicity for the contest itself. That’s a win-win situation. How can a festival refuse?
  6. News & Reviews. This doesn’t just pertain to your script. This pertains to you. Whether you were featured in a local paper for saving a dog from a burning building, or your last film won an Oscar, LIST IT. It shows them you’re relevant. If your script received positive coverage and it’s featured on the company’s site, share it. Again, like it or not, this tells the reader up front that they are reading a pro’s script — it puts them at ease.
  7. Writer’s Statement. Why are you writing? What drives you to write everyday? The contest wants to hear your passion, your muse. Excite the reader even before they read your script. It will make the reading process more rewarding for them.
  8. Cover Letter. For the 99% of screenwriters who have day jobs, writing cover letters should be second nature. It’s your introduction before your resume. Your script is your resume. But before reading, they would like to hear why you submitted to their festival. They are hoping it’s not because the price was affordable, or it was the first one that came up on google. They hope it’s because you believe in what the festival embodies. For instance, I made sure to submit my latest film that brought light to the Alzheimer’s epidemic during “Alzheimer’s Awareness Month” (November). I have a grandmother who, unfortunately, has this terrible disease. It’s what inspired me to write and co-produce the movie. So I spoke about that. I also made sure to ONLY submit to festivals that delighted in showing those type of films — so I made sure to compliment them for their initiative to showcase films with a purpose. The film was accepted into 3 festivals just last month. Get the point?

SCRIPT APPEARANCE:

Nothing is more aggravating than opening up a script that, at first glance, is not FORMATTED  right. You could have the best “plot” in the world, taking us on the ultimate “hero’s journey”, but who would know? Your script’s already been tossed. It may not be fair, but it’s how the contest world works. If the contest promises coverage, the reader is forced to continue on. But try to think objectively here:

If a contest receives 1,000+ submissions, and an unpaid reader has to turn in 35+ a week, do you think the reader will give much time to a poorly formatted script? Nope.

  1. When a reader opens your script, it shouldn’t just start on FADE IN. Your title and name need to be listed. Contact info is up to you (unless the contest requires it).
  2. There’s a reason why sites like Film Freeway have PROJECT PROFILES. That’s so you can “pitch” your script before anyone reads it. So why do so many writers submitting to contests feel the need to list out the entire cast and synopsis in their script before FADE IN? You wouldn’t submit a script like that to a producer, right? Well, hopefully not. So… save that for your profile page; when a reader opens your script, he/she only wants to read the actual script, not that you think Morgan Freeman would be great for your lead character.
  3. DO NOT submit a script with scene numbers. This is for shooting scripts, not spec. When a reader sees this they immediately SCREAM amateur.
  4. Same with CONT.. Those are for shooting scripts, not specs.
  5. COURIER FONT only. Please, please limit the amount of BOLD, ITALICS, and UNDERLINING, too. These readers are looking for a reason to move to the next script. Do consider that most readers are writers (or hoping to be). Many are in film school or just graduated. So they’ve been lectured (and brainwashed) on all the do’s and don’ts when formatting a script. And like it or not, those are the things most of them look out for. Look, I underline words in my spec scripts. And I keep those in when submitting to producers. But I ALWAYS take those out when submitting to contests.
  6. End the script with THE END. This way the reader knows there aren’t any missing pages at the end. You’d be surprised how many scripts have been cut off with missing pages.
  7. Test your script before sending it. Open and close it. Make sure there are no attachment errors, etc.. I can count on more than 2 hands how many times I opened a script and an “error” message showed, or the file was corrupt. NEXT!
  8. Your file name should list your first and last name and the title. There’s nothing a contest hates more than scripts that are titled “UNTITLED”. Your script will get lost in the pile, rest assure.
  9. All scripts should be in PDF. Do NOT send a word or google file. There’s so much screenwriting software out there (some in which are free) that there really is NO excuse to 1) submit a script that’s not formatted correctly, and 2) a script written in word.

QUESTIONS I’M OFTEN ASKED:

“When’s the best time to submit a script to a contest?” For starters, I always say sooner. Why? Because it’s much cheaper. Contests can get quite expensive. But I also say sooner because after about a month in, the reader is drained. They have read so many bad scripts, especially from writers who didn’t follow instructions, that they have lost hope.

Grab the reader’s attention while they’re still excited about the contest.

“How may people read my script?” Truth be told, usually one during the 1st round (sometimes in the 2nd round, too). Your larger contests typically have 2 readers judge your script during the initial judging process. That way, if you get a reader who’s having a bad day and they just want to vent, you won’t be screwed. Your mid-major ones usually have one during the initial judging process. They can cover anywhere between 2-30 (sometimes more) scripts in a contest. Your tiny ones are often not even read by “readers”, they are read by the people running the contest. So you have 1-2 people who read every single script (or so they say).

“Who’s reading my script?” Typically, readers for contests don’t get paid. There are a few out there that do, but for the most part they are being offered “experience”. Often these readers have limited experience covering scripts, but do hold some sort of degree or basic knowledge in screenwriting. When a contest boast their talented, industry-connected judges, those judges only read your script if it advances.

“Should I submit a first draft?” No. Seriously, don’t. I know a lot of writers submit to contests to see where their script stacks up, and if they need to do more re-writes, but they are just throwing money down the drain. If you want to see how your script is viewed, buy COVERAGE.

Contests are looking for final drafts that they can take to their industry network — not work-in-progress scripts.

“Why does the festival staff ask if I will be attending their festival?” Simple. It’s a festival, a festivity. It’s a place to mingle and network. Watch great films, read great scripts. If no one shows up, it’s no longer a festival. They want people engaged in their product. They want to fill seats in the auditorium, sell merchandise, and garner buzz. I’ve volunteered at festivals that were empty — it’s embarrassing for both the staff and those attending. So it’s imperative that those they select as winners are there to collect the award (plus, they know you will be bringing guests). How would the Oscars look if each time they read off the winner no one came on stage? So if your film or script is a finalist and you get an email or call asking if you will be attending, you better say YES (and find a way to get there). Because the finalist who says “NO”, will mostly likely NOT be the winner. Again — fair? Maybe not.  It’s just how the game works. Trust me.

I taught a class on this once at the Hollywood International Film Academy. It lasted 4 hours, and I could have probably gone on for another 4. Writers often wonder why their script is rejected. And sometimes, yes, your story just isn’t there. But a huge role in your script’s initial success is decided by your presentation. It’s like that class you had in high school where 10% of your grade was just showing up. That’s how I view these online platforms that allow you to submit scripts. Contest directors, judges, and readers REVIEW your profile. It plays an imperative role in your script’s success. Especially if your script passes the first round and moves to the second.

Your script already has a 50% chance of advancing if you just follow basic guidelines. Why? Because 50% of the writers who submit don’t follow them — and it irritates the hell out of the readers. Readers are the gatekeepers. Many of them are like you and I. They have good days and bad days. They are underpaid (or not being paid) and doing this for the experience. So give them a rewarding experience. Don’t give them a script that won’t open, or a script that’s missing pages.

Your plot/premise will ultimately decide whether you win or lose. But your presentation (or, lack thereof) will decide if you advance to the next round.

To close, I do want to mention that a writer should only submit to contests that have the muscle to change their career. I get the whole “padding” your script’s resume. So I understand why writers submit to “smaller” festivals that do nothing but post your name and your script on their site. But the truth is, contests aren’t cheap, and if your script makes it, you deserve to have your script in the hands of decision-makers. So be sure to review each contest, FilmFreeway and Withoutabox provides you with the contest’s info. A solid contest connects you with the “right” people. And finally, don’t get discouraged. I know writers who have placed in the Top 5 at one elite festival, and didn’t get through the 1st round in a no-name festival. Why is that? The reader had a bad day? The script never got read? The reader didn’t prefer your genre? Who knows. That’s the nature of the beast. But that’s how Hollywood is, folks. You only need 1 connected person to be a champion for your script!

Be sure to check out MovieBytes. They have a comprehensive directory of contests with their deadlines.

This blog was written by the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing. Jacob N. Stuart is an award-winning and represented screenwriter, with over 15 scripts produced and/or optioned. He has been active in the film festival/contest circuit for nearly 10 years. You can follow him on Twitter @JacobNStuart

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