In case you missed it in the comments section of my last post, reader Matt kindly gave the heads up on a contest I’d never heard of before:

“Also, a little shout-out: I am never a proponent of contests, but this is kind of an insider one.

A guy who won honorable mention is repped by my agency now, and I’ve heard good things from managers about it. Might be of some interest to your readers.”

There you go — it sounds like it might be a good one to try, so sharpen those specs, folks!  (Yes, I’m thinking about entering if I can get the new spec done in time.)

I haven’t actually entered all that many contests in my long slog toward a writing career — over the past 11 years I entered the Nicholl Fellowships twice (didn’t place the first time, became a quarterfinalist with my next script) and on a whim entered Creative Screenwriting’s AAA Competition once (made the semifinals with the original incarnation of the Wedding Comedy).  I was also one of the winners of the the end-of-year screenplay competition when I took the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting. 

Did any of it actually do me any good?  Actually, yes.  The UCLA award got me my first manager and my first taste of the biz when I got my name in Variety, prompting dozens of production companies to request my script — out of that batch, I got about 15 or so meet-and-greets, which was tremendously exciting to me and taught me the joys of the drive-on studio pass.  Placing in the Nicholls got me a few more meetings and contacts.  Placing in the Creative Screenwriting contest got me goose eggs, though it gave me a nice little boost to my self-esteem at a time when I really needed one.  I suppose that counts for something.

Okay, you might ask, that’s all well and good, but did it REALLY make a difference?  Well, objectively speaking, I guess not, considering that I’m still rocking the day job.  The mention in Variety was ultimately nothing, though it impressed the hell out of my mom and dad.  But there’s no question that the exposure got me in the game at those moments — the fact that I was unable to capitalize on that momentum may very well be my fault entirely.  Maybe I just wasn’t ready for the big leagues back then; I wouldn’t be the first writer who takes a long time to come into his own.  Look at Larry David, the patron saint of late bloomers — for the first 40 years of the man’s life?  Aside from brief stints on the writing staff of Fridays and later SNL, looooser.  And then he co-creates SEINFELD.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere, aside from the fact that it pays to be friends with Jerry Seinfeld.

ANYWAY, talk to a dozen writers and you’ll get a dozen different opinions on whether contests are a waste of time.  I believe that the big ones are certainly worth entering: the Nicholls, the Goldwyn Awards if you’re still a student, the Disney Fellowship.  If you can win one of those, you get the keys to the kingdom, or at least you get to hold the keys for a few minutes before they’re snatched back out of your hands if you don’t move fast enough.  This new one, the competition, definitely looks promising — it’s not like you’d be submitting to the Milwaukee Senior Citizen Screenwriting Club’s annual contest or something.

Writing a script that wins a contest isn’t necessarily the same as writing a saleable script — most Nicholls winners never see the inside of a movie theater, and something makes me suspect that BALLS OF FURY wouldn’t make it past the first round of Disney (though you never know) — but placing in a big contest can do wonders for your confidence.  And maybe the right person will see your name on the list of quarter-, semi- and finalists, ask to read the script and things will build from there.

For me, that’s worth shelling out fifty bucks or so every once in a while.  You don’t want to go broke spinning every single one of those those roulette wheels, but it’s like the old New York State Lottery slogan: “Hey, you never know.”

ADDENDUM:  Matt (a pro screenwriter) had this to add: “ is a subscription-based pseudo-tracking board. Pseudo because the comments are anonymous and anyone can join. My sense is that it’s populated by low-level execs and assistants.

That said — the judging panel is great for a rookie. Adam Marshall, Caren Bohrman, Justin Killion, any new writer would be lucky to have any of these guys represent him, which makes me think (I have no experience with the contest, a friend just happened to forward me the info) that, at the price, it’s probably one of the best contests around.”

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12 Comments on “Contests”

  1. Matt Says:

    Also this link:

    A little background (maybe you want to add this to the post): is a subscription-based pseudo-tracking board. Pseudo because the comments are anonymous and anyone can join. My sense is that it’s populated by low-level execs and assistants.

    That said — the judging panel is great for a rookie. Adam Marshall, Caren Bohrman, Justin Killion, any new writer would be lucky to have any of these guys represent him, which makes me think (I have no experience with the contest, a friend just happened to forward me the info) that, at the price, it’s probably one of the best contests around.

  2. WriterDad Says:

    I couldn’t resist plugging my own name into the search engine on the site, and discovered that my 2006 spec — the one that almost sold — got a “concept of the week” mention. I know — horseshoes… hand grenades… *sigh*

  3. William Says:

    Contests are a strange thing. When I was getting a script of mine ready for the Nicholl I was caught up in the frenzy of fine tuning and waiting for the letter in the mail. I know it is a better screenplay for getting it ready for the Nicholl but is it a better screenplay? Meaning, I made it contest ready but is it real world ready? How will you ever know?

    Matt — thanks for the tip. It might come in handy in the future.

    WD — Hope you don’t mind me dropping this in, some might find it interesting and relevant:

  4. WriterDad Says:

    William — no problem. Thanks for the link; that’s a great post. It’s true — the Nicholl isn’t always the golden ticket. I knew a guy from UCLA who went on to win the Fellowship five years ago who completely dropped off the face of the earth eventually. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got guys like Ehren Kruger. Goldman’s adage “Nobody knows anything” lives on…

  5. Matt Says:

    It is odd how many Nicholls flame-outs there are; without Susannah Grant and Kruger they would be having a tough time selling themselves as a talent-finder…

    I think part of the problem is that one of the most important attributes of a pro writer — speed — is made irrelevant by contests. It’s one thing to spend nine months writing your Nicholl winner, but can you write an original in three months, with an outline in three weeks? I’ve thought about this a lot (from my days of pinning all my hopes on contests) and that’s the best reason I can give for the reason Nicholl people don’t do well in Hollywood.

    I am down with a terrible cold, which means no writing except for commenting on blogs!

    • Sorry, but as a Nicholl winner I find it annoying when people say completely uniformed things about the Nicholl. I think it usually comes down to sour grapes.

      MOST of the Nicholl winners I know are working screenwriters. Quite a few of them have never been produced, but they sell a screenplay and get hired now and then. They can cold call almost any producer and say “Hey, I’m a Nicholl winner and I have a new idea I’d like to pitch you,” and they’ll get a meeting. If you only define “success” as being A-list or getting nominated for an Oscar, you are going to be very disappointed by the reality of Hollywood.

      As someone who made tens of thousands of dollars from screenwriting contests (NOT counting the Nicholl), I find the whole anti-contest viewpoint bizarre. It sure as hell beat a day job while I was struggling!

      • WriterDad Says:

        Well, I think sour grapes can certainly be a factor in the contest debate. I think it can also be a matter of personal experience that’s not necessarily negative. It’s like the whole “should I move to Los Angeles” question — for example, I’d answer with a resounding “HELL, YES”, based on what happened to me when I took the plunge. But some dude in Michigan who made a sale after cold-calling an agent, sending him a script and getting signed without stepping foot in California would have a completely different opinion.

        To each his own, I guess. I certainly wouldn’t disparage submitting to Nicholl…

  6. WriterDad Says:

    Susannah Grant! I was trying to remember who the other big success story was… Good point about the whole speed thing, too

    Sorry to hear about the cold. (My sick daughter is infecting me and the Missus as I type this.) Bummer for you — but good for the blogs! 🙂

    Hope you feel better —

  7. William Says:

    Anybody know anything about CineStory?

  8. WriterDad Says:

    I’ve heard of it, but I don’t remember what the context was.

    I’ve always fantasized about what a writing retreat would be like, but with my luck I’d settle down in my little cabin and then pull a Barton Fink…

  9. Leena Says:

    I think contests can be a mixed bag. I mean, if you’ve won a contest, you’ve done just that, won a contest. It takes so much more to get a movie made. I’ve been in this process of making an indie feature for a couple of years now, and I realize that in order to get something made, you have to have a few, really dedicated people who love the work. Those people get excited and they bring more people in. Even then, it’s still so hard. I guess the contests get you meetings and “out there”, but if the goal is to make movie, I don’t know… I think this idea of “writer’s retreats” can be helpful. I did something called the Squaw Valley Community of Writers a few years back, where you spend a week dissecting your script and talking through the places where it needs work. Found it very helpful…

  10. WriterDad Says:

    Leena, it’s a good distinction you make, and I think it’s true — contests are definitely more about establishing a name for yourself. Actually trying to make a movie is a whole other issue, and it’s funny: I’ve been trying to work the Hollywood system for so long now, I wouldn’t have the first idea of how to try to find money and resources for an indie.

    I’ve read a lot about Squaw Valley — glad to hear it actually helped you…

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