Entering Screenplays In Competitions – A Look Back

by Jennie Jarvis

This month on 5writers.com, we are looking at the importance of using screenplays to elevate your career. When I first posted my blog, “Make them Say ‘Yes!’ Unless They Won’t” last January, I addressed a lot about submitting to contests and fellowships. Therefore, as a bit of  throwback, I’m reposting the blog here for those of you that didn’t a chance to review it last year. Enjoy!

Make Them Say “Yes!” Unless They Won’t

Over my years as a writer – whether it be as a film/television/web writer or as a novelist – there are two pieces of advice regarding submitting my work that have really stuck with me because of how effective they have been in guiding my submission process:

  1. No one wants to be the first one to say yes
  2. Just like you can’t make someone fall in love with you, you can’t make someone fall in love with your work

They sound pretty simple right? But those two “simple” statements hit me like lightning strikes and proved time and time again to be true. I know breaking down both of these comments might make me look like a bit of a “blog hog”, but I’m going to anyway.

No One Wants To Be The First One To Say Yes

When I first started submitting my work for representation and possible publication/production, I really thought the whole thing was about me and my story. I had worked SO hard on my screenplay that I deserved to be rewarded with an agent or with a WGA credit. My story was SO good that it had to be made. I worked my butt off trying to prove to anyone that would listen (and sometimes to people who really didn’t want to listen) how much I needed to be looked at, admired, accoladed or paid.  I tried everything that I could think of to promote myself, and I grew frustrated by my lack of results.

What I failed to consider, in all of my frustration, was that it wasn’t all about me.

The film industry is a business (just like all entertainment/publication industries), and the system is a lot bigger than I can ever be. Millions, if not billions, of dollars are spent on any given film script to bring it to the silver screen. Some of those costs are on high-end celebrities and their silly requests for fresh flowers in their trailers or exotic coffees on set, but a lot of those costs also go to practical things like location fees, payroll and insurance. And these kinds of costs apply to the lower budget, “independent” films as well. For the people who work on a film set, it isn’t quite as glamorous as the general public likes to believe. People who work on set are doing just that – going to work. For them, showing up on a soundstage is equivalent to someone showing up to work in a cubicle or in a shore. Okay, I may be oversimplifying it a bit, but not as much as you might think.

I kind of knew this after a few months of working in the industry since I counted on those paychecks to help pay my own bills, but I never really applied this to my writing career. I knew that investors and studios wanted a return on the money that they put forward to making a film, but I didn’t know how that related to my script.

Until I started putting forward the money to make films myself.

When you are in charge of the money to make a film (or publish a book or put on a play or whatever), you aren’t just in charge of making a good movie. You are also in charge of people’s lives. Your decision about which film to make ultimately decides whether or not the people that you hire today will be paid tomorrow. And since the film industry is an industry of relationships, this can often mean that your decisions will determine if you have the money to pay your friends.

When it comes time to pick your next project, you have to make sure that the script that you pick will be something that has a very chance of succeeding. And as much as people love doing market research, there really isn’t a great way to look into the future and ultimately determine whether or not a film is going to do well at the box office. And this can scare the crap out of a producer or executive.

This being said, it is rare that they will pick something brand new or unproven. Yes, there was a time when this wasn’t true, but today, producers wants to play it safe. This is the primary reason why you have probably been complaining about the number of sequels, adaptations and remakes that have been showing up at your local theater lately. As much as you may have had no interest in seeing a remake of Red Dawn or Judge Dredd – people still shelled out some cash to see those movies. And the people who worked on those films were paid what they were promised as a result.

So how does an unproven writer make a name for her or him self? It’s too expensive to buy the rights to an old film or a novel to adapt or remake – and don’t you dare try without securing the rights first. Unless you have written a novel that has sold well in a traditional market, you can’t really use any of your existing IPs (Intellectual Properties).

My suggestion is Screenwriting Competitions (or any kind of writing competition if you aren’t a screenwriter).

By creating an account on the website Without A Box, you can instantly access hundreds of screenwriting competitions for free. The website lists all of the contest guidelines (rules and regulations), deadlines, entry fees and accepted genres/categories. If you missed the date of a contest, then you can add it to your “Watchlist” and be sent a notification when it pops up again next year. It’s a really great resource for all film writers – and filmmakers too, since it lists general film festivals that you can enter your completed short or feature films as well.

All that praise being said, I don’t think that anyone should just submit blindly to the contests on the site. Even though most of them are legitimate, a few of them are a bit shady. I would suggest that each writer spends as much time researching any writing competitions that she or he wants to enter before paying the entry fees for each contest. Look at the competition’s website, Facebook or Twitter and see what kinds of scripts they want. Don’t send a romantic comedy to a horror screenwriting fest, for example. If your research tells you that thousands of people enter a contest that you are considering, and you are submitting a script for the first time, maybe you should enter some smaller contests before you enter the big one. Check the prizes offered for finalists and winners. If you win, will they fly you out or just mail you a certificate (either is fine as long as you know)? Make sure that you are 100% certain what you are entering before you enter it!

Granted, some of the largest film writing competitions might not be listed on Without A Box, such as the Nicholl Writing Fellowship, but if you are just submitting for the first time, then this may not matter. Those large contests are a great dream, but I know thousands of great scripts that didn’t even place in the quarterfinals because of the sheer number of entries. Yes, you might make it, but you might also get discouraged by not making it.

Once you have submitted your script to multiple contests and competitions, and you have racked up a number of finalist or winner titles, then you can officially say that you have a good script. Sure, you could have said it before you entered the contests, but now you have proof. Remember, those producers don’t want to be the first ones to say “Yes!” to your idea because there is too much pressure riding on their decision. However, if they can say that your script was a quarterfinalist in the Nicholl and a finalist in Blue Cat, then the risk of going with you seems a lot less risky when people’s paychecks are on the line.

Just Like You Can’t Make Someone Fall In Love With You, You Can’t Make Someone Fall In Love With Your Work

The first time I heard this expression, I was moderating a panel about story pitching with film industry executives. The woman who uttered this extremely wise expression was Helen Huang, the Director of Content Acquisitions for Showtime.  When these words feel on my ears, it was like I had just been electrocuted.

Through years of receiving broken hearts and battle scars on the field of dating, I knew for a fact that you really can’t make someone love you if they don’t. Either a relationship works, or it doesn’t. Yes, you need to work at it to make it thrive, but if someone doesn’t want to ask you out on a date, they aren’t going to ask, no matter how much your “hint” that you like them. People who don’t learn this essential rule get angry, eventually turn into stalkers and are sometimes arrested as a result.

Sadly, I’ve seen a lot of writers get angry to the point of stalkerdom because a producer doesn’t like their script. I, personally, have had writers and students both who have gotten mad at me because I didn’t like their script, even though they were well written. Does this make me a “bad” person? No, it just means that I’m human.

For me, I don’t care how well-written a story is – if it’s a mobster tale, I’m just not going to like it. I don’t know why, but the whole violent Italian thing – I just don’t get it (Yup, that includes The Godfather). I also can’t stand Westerns (except for Firefly, of course). I don’t know why, but men in the desert, shooting guns and talking in slow drawls just doesn’t do anything for me. I’m sure that I’ll get dozens of messages saying – well, you really should watch this because I KNOW you will like it – but I probably won’t. I’m not negative. I just know what I like.

It’s like people who try to convince me to like Twilight. It’s just not gonna happen people. Stop trying.

And many other people know what they like as well – including you. Ask yourself this: if you were going to the movie theater, and you had to pick one film to see that night, would you go to see a romantic comedy? What about a horror? How about a gritty drama? Or a super hero film? Some people would say yes to all of them, but many people might respond with a simple “Well, horror’s just not my thing” or “A romantic comedy? That’s chick crap”. And that’s totally acceptable.

The same is true for the decision makers who are reading our stories and deciding whether or not they want to represent us or buy from us. When they go to the theaters, they have every right to just buy the ticket for the film that they want to see. So, when it comes time to submit your work – to an agent or a producer – make sure that the film that you wrote is the kind of thing that they want to make. Sure, that long list of awards that you got from those writing competitions might make you more desirable, but if they don’t like fantasy, they aren’t going to like your boy wizard story (Take it from JK Rowling who was rejected multiple times before finally landing a publisher)!

If you are submitting to a producer, it’s pretty easy to find out who you need to be submitting to (or who your agent or lawyer is submitting to since producer’s rarely accept unsolicited work).  Watch movies that are similar to the one that you wrote – same genre, same kind of characters, etc. – and then see who produced it. Go to The International Movie Database and see what other films those producers have made. By looking at their credits, you can decide who would be the most likely to be interested in our story.

If you are submitting to an agent, then you want to find out what kind of materials what they represent (since an agent might like crime stories, but might not necessarily represent them). You don’t want to submit a query to an agent that only represents family film writers or animation writers if you are trying to write live-action fantasy or raunchy comedies. Do your research. Attend Pitch Fests. Find out what the agents want and then only hand your work over to the agents that want it. Because at the end of the day, no matter how good your work is, they aren’t going to buy a sirloin steak if they are a vegetarian.

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  1. #1 by krystolthewriter on February 9, 2014 - 3:47 pm

    Wow! This is wealth of information. Jennie, I must say that I really enjoyed reading this blog. Although I’m fresh out for film school, I still research a lot. Still on the hunt to finding an agent, although a legal consultant told me that I didn’t one because I’m my own agent. To an extent I understand that but I was taught by you and other teachers that an agent is needed. I have entered two screenplay competitions and hadn’t heard back yet. Hmm…patience is a virtue, right? As always thanks for the sounding advice for us screenwriters that are striving to make it and break out in the business.

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