BREAKING IN: Congrats! You Won a Screenwriting Contest – Now What?

Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. Her new photo-illustrated book is the long-awaited autobiography of the Yankees’ famous Double-A affiliate (Trenton Thunder) Bat Dog: DERBY! My Bodacious Life in Baseball. Staton is available for script reading/analysis and consultations and can be reached at Cutebunion@aol.com. Follow Staton on Twitter @StatonRabin.

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From time to time, my clients report back to me that a script I evaluated in their previous draft has now won (or been a finalist in) a major screenwriting contest. I’m always happy to hear that their hard work has paid off, and that my comments apparently helped them during revisions.  But after congratulating my client, I always provide additional advice: get going and take full advantage of your accomplishment.

screenwriting contestA contest win should never be seen as an end in itself but, rather, as an opportunity.  After all, even American Pharoah may be planning his next race, after his historic achievement of winning the Triple Crown with jockey Victor Espinoza aboard.  So, if you are a winner or finalist in a screenwriting competition, instead of just standing there as the crowd cheers and the screenwriting sponsors drape you with a garland of roses, you too should be planning your next career move.  Whether you win, place, or show, doing very well in a screenwriting contest can be a stepping-stone to even greater success–  provided that it’s a contest with a good reputation and you know what to do to make the most of the opportunity.  When you get that “Congratulations!” letter from the contest organizers, here’s what you should do next:

1) Never assume that the contest organizers will do all the work for you.  Even if your contest prize includes “access” to top people in the film industry, consideration for representation by an agent or manager, distribution of your “pitch” or logline to industry bigwigs, or similar kinds of help, you should still contact film producers on your own, by sending out query letters.  And what is the first line of that query letter?  News of your contest win, of course!  And it goes almost without saying that the script you “pitch” to them in your letter should be the same one that just won that contest.

Keep in mind that if you win or place in a very prestigious screenwriting contest, such as the Nicholl Fellowships (sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences–  the folks who also award the Oscars), you will be hearing from film producers and agents eager to read your work, even if you never lift a finger to contact anyone yourself.  But very few contest wins get that level of unsolicited attention for the writers who win them.  If you win a contest, make sure you use this to reach out to film producers via query letter.

2) Attend the awards ceremony.  This is a golden opportunity to network. The room may be filled with agents and film producers looking for clients or projects.  It gives you a chance to meet them in person, so you can decide if any of them might be people you want to work with.  The fact that you and your script are being celebrated at the event greatly increases the chances that you will get to meet the industry folks there who can do your career the most good.  So, even if you have to travel to the awards ceremony at your own expense — or it’s located in Dubai — it’s probably worth it to go there to pick up your award in person.  Before you go, do research on which agents, managers, and producers are expected to attend the event, and learn everything you can about them.  Figure out which ones you want to meet, and when you talk to them in person show your knowledge of their work.  And be nice.  Niceness counts.

3) Don’t wait. Screenwriting contest wins don’t age well like a good Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.  If your script wins a screenwriting contest this year, in a year or two that contest win is going to start tasting pretty flat, or even go sour.  Producers and agents, who may look up the date you won the contest even if you don’t “announce” it, will start to wonder why you weren’t able to sell your script in the interim.  As soon as you learn you won or were a finalist in a screenwriting contest, start writing those query letters. Don’t be one of those writers who collects screenwriting contest wins like Boy Scout merit badges, but never does anything with them to actually start selling their scripts.

Script EXTRA: Which contest shoud you enter? Take a look at our
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4) If the contest sponsors connect you with a film agent or manager who offers to represent you, or a producer offers to option or purchase your screenplay, never give an immediate “yes.”  Meet them, or at least talk to them on the phone first, if you can.  Contact a qualified entertainment attorney and have them review any contracts before you sign anything.  When you entered the contest in the first place, I hope you reviewed the rules carefully before sending in your script, to know whether winning obligates you to work with any particular producer, manager, or agent. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that you waste time — and don’t sound like an ungrateful prima donna if the contest organizers are offering to help you.  By all means, let them help you. You should make a decision quickly, while your script is still “hot.”  But don’t feel obligated to make a decision about representation or selling/optioning your script in the first 24 to 48 hours.  Most likely, the agents, managers, or producers the contest sponsors connect you with are just fine, and you’ll be lucky to have them.  But you should always do your own “due diligence” before you say “yes” or sign anything.  And if you win one of the major contests, such as Nicholl, you will be approached by many different people and top film companies, and will have choices to make.

For most contests, the agents who sponsor or are directly associated with the contest and offer to represent you may not be top ones like CAA, WME, ICM, or UTA, but they are probably going to be far better than you could ever get on your own at this stage of your career.  What they offer you may be exactly the agent or manager you need to launch your career —  especially if they’re powerful in the film industry and also love your script.  And they’ve probably been vetted, at least to some degree, by the contest organizers if the contest people recommended them to you.  But before agreeing to anything, also do your own research on the contest organizers, and the agents, mangers, or producers to whom they give you direct access —  ideally, even before you enter the contest. Check out their clients, their track record of success in making movies, and their reputation.  For agents and producers, they should be WGA signatories.  Contact the Writers Guild of America or visit their website, wga.org, to find out.

5) Not every screenwriting contest is prestigious enough to do your career much good, even if you take the Grand Prize in it.  Truth be told, there are only a handful of screenwriting competitions (Nicholl, Austin, Sundance, Final Draft’s Big Break; etc.) for which a win or being a finalist is a “slam dunk” to help your career.  Still, if you have nothing else to put in your query letter when trying to persuade film producers to read your script, even a win in the “Podunk Screenwriting Contest” (which I just made up) can be helpful to mention.

But, you may ask: “What if I did well in a screenwriting contest, but didn’t win and wasn’t a finalist?”

Writers often ask me whether being a semi-finalist or quarter-finalist in a screenwriting contest is something worth mentioning in a query letter when pitching their script to producers.  With rare exception, my honest answer is “No.”  These days, with so many contests out there, even winning the less-prestigious contests is not all that impressive to agents or producers.  Certainly, you should feel a sense of personal accomplishment if you are a semi-finalist or even a quarter-finalist in any contest.  This is not easy to achieve, and you should feel proud of what you’ve done.  But as for mentioning this accomplishment in a query letter, in most cases it will just look like you are really “reaching” to mention it, and I think doing so does more harm than good.

What’s worth mentioning in your query letter? Any level of achievement above the first round in the Nicholl Fellowships screenwriting competition (and, debatably, in a small handful of other top, very prestigious screenwriting contests).

For most other, less prestigious contests: mention any level from finalist or above.  This means: mention it in your pitch/query letter if you are a Grand Prize winner, won first, second, or third place in any screenwriting genre/category, or are a finalist (but not semi-finalist or below, in most cases).  If your contest win is from a previous year, don’t mention the year (and definitely don’t put the date you wrote it anywhere on your script, and never indicate which draft it was).  And then hope they don’t look it up!  But don’t lie.  Never lie.  That’s good advice for a screenwriting career —  and for life.

If you are a semi-finalist or quarter-finalist in the Nicholl Fellowships competition, this would be worth mentioning in your pitch/query letter.  In fact, even if you are “just” a quarter-finalist or semi-finalist in Nicholl you may still hear from producers or agents interested in reading your work after contest results are announced.

Keep pitching.  See you next month.

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