BREAKING IN: Winning Screenwriting Contests Using Psych 101

Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. Staton is available for script reading/analysis and consultations and can be reached at Follow Staton on Twitter @StatonRabin.

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My favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, supposedly said: “Baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical.”

The same could be said of screenwriting.  As in baseball, winning at the game of screenwriting depends partly on talent and stamina– but even more on having the right mental attitude and understanding the way people think.

screenwriting contests 3When it comes to screenwriting contests, you’ve probably read lots of advice on how to write a script that will get noticed by the judges.  But if you want to have a leg up on the competition, you can increase your chances of winning by having a good understanding not only of screenwriting itself, but also of what makes screenwriting contest judges tick.

Of course, I’m taking it for granted that you have a great script.  That’s absolutely necessary.  But there really is such a thing as “contest psychology.” You can master it and gain an edge when you enter screenwriting contests.

Contest psychology applies to all contests that are skill-based, not just screenwriting contests.  When I’m not evaluating other writers’ screenplays, I’ve been entering (and doing well in) skill-based contests for my own creative projects, all my life.  I’ll never forget the first writing contest I got published in.  It was a competition in a popular, macho, now-defunct men’s magazine.  I’m sure the contest judges didn’t know it, but I was just 12 years old back then. And I was a girl! (Still am a girl, just a lot older now.)  For the magazine contest, I was competing against guys three or four times my age.  While I was still begging my parents to let me stay up till 8:30 p.m. so I could watch “Bewitched” on TV, the readers of that magazine were probably out drinking beer and playing pool.

But, somehow, even though I was just a kid at the time, I instinctively understood what contest judges are looking for and how to “psych out” the contest.  And now that I’m a writing contest judge myself–  and though it’s been many, many years since I was knee-high to Mrs. Kravitz– I’ve discovered that what I concluded about “contest psychology” back when I was a kid, all still holds true today.  Here is what I’ve learned, as it applies to screenwriting contests:

1)  ENTER EARLY.  In their own heads, contest judges start choosing their favorites in contests as soon as they find the first script they love.  Sure, if a better script comes along, it’ll unseat their favorite.  But nobody likes the feeling of being “unsettled,” so judges tend to stick with their first favorites as long as they can.  And it’s a lot easier to earn a contest judge’s love in the first place than to knock one of their favorites off of its perch.  So, make sure you don’t dilly-dally.  Send your script in as soon as the contest opens its doors to entries each year.

2) BE DIFFERENT.  If you write a script that is different from what everybody else is sending in, that certainly can help.  How do you know what’s different?  Write a story you’re genuinely passionate about, and make sure it’s got a good plot concept that is also unique in some way.  If you really do that, and write with emotional honesty based on your own understanding of human beings and your own way of seeing the world, it will automatically be unique.  Contest judges are like anyone else.  After reading hundreds of screenplays in a relatively short period of time, judges like to see something that isn’t just another case of “Been there, done that.”  Decide what kind of script everyone else will be sending in that year.  And then don’t write that same script!

3) CHOOSE YOUR CONTEST CATEGORY CAREFULLY.  Make an assessment of which genre categories in the contest are likely to have the strongest and the most entries, and try to avoid those categories where you’ll have the toughest competition.  If your script could be submitted in more than one category because it combines genres, choose the category you are most likely to win.  For example, if your script is a comedy that might also be considered a family film, you might want to enter it in the contest’s “family film” category, instead.  Why?  Because most scripts I’ve read in that contest category are really terrible —  and unless that’s the whole focus of the contest, they also tend to get fewer submissions in that category than in others.  So you will have less competition, and are more likely to do well in that category.  The contest judges will be so relieved to finally read a good family film script after reading so many bad ones that they’ll probably like your script even more than it deserves!  Also, if your script is a comedy, consider what type of comedy it is.  If it’s not (and wasn’t intended to be) a gut-busting, rolling-on-the-floor-laughing type of comedy, then enter it in another appropriate category instead of “Comedy”– so it won’t be competing against scripts written by the next Judd Apatow.

4) ENTER “NARROW NICHE” CONTESTS. If there’s a “narrow niche” or regional screenwriting contest for which your script is an exact fit due to its unusual genre, subject, or setting, your chances of winning there might be better there than elsewhere, so enter that contest.  A contest’s overall announced theme might (to give a hypothetical example) be stories “Set in Mongolia.”   So if you have something that fits, try that contest. After all, how many great scripts are they likely to receive that are about Mongolian yak herders?  Keep in mind, though, that if you enter a contest focused on a single, broad genre that will attract a great many entries —  such as “Horror” or “Comedy,” for example —  your chances of winning are probably lower than they would be in a contest that accepts material in many genres.

5) IS THIS THE RIGHT CONTEST FOR YOUR SCRIPT?  Before deciding which (if any) of your scripts to enter in that contest, consider doing a little Google research on the contest to see if there are any patterns in the types of scripts they choose as winners.  Though contest judges often change from year to year, screenwriting contests do tend to have a certain philosophical approach or “personality” when deciding what kind of scripts they will choose as winners.  Some contests tend to look for highly commercial scripts, others like the type that are really meaningful and could win Academy Awards, and still others look for scripts that have merit but are also commercial.  So, “Know your contest.”

6) DON’T BE A JERK.  Keep in mind that you never know who will be reading and judging your script in contests, or when you send it to film producers.  While I’d like to think that every screenwriter is also a reasonably decent and sensitive human being, perhaps for some writers it’s helpful to be reminded that screenplay contest judges (and script readers who work for film producers) can be of any race, nationality, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, social status, or anything else.  So if your own point of view, as reflected in your script, is racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic, xenophobic, or is gratuitously and gut-churningly violent (especially against women or children), keep in mind that —  aside from all the other reasons one shouldn’t write stories that actively promote hatred — you may offend or turn off the contest judge.  And offending the judge is never a good idea.  Your script’s characters can certainly be guilty of all of the above without any problems, as long as you’re not expecting your audience to root for them and their behavior.  But is it okay to be offensive when writing a comedy?  In general, absolutely.  But as I always say, the more offensive the script is, the funnier it better be.

7)  HAVE “SOMETHING TO SAY” (BUT DON’T BE “PREACHY”).  If your script is “just” commercial, and has absolutely nothing of value besides that, it’s unlikely to win one of the better screenwriting contests.  Screenplay contest judges often view the contest award(s) as an important “seal of approval” that reflects on them as individuals.  Judges really rather not give awards to meaningless “junk.”  They like scripts that have something else to them —  perhaps something of value to say about the human condition — besides being “commercial” and slick (but remember: judges really hate scripts that are “preachy”).  Judges also see the contest awards as a way to give a “boost” to a great script that otherwise might get overlooked in the marketplace.  So the best contests tend not to choose as the winner a script that is so commercial that it doesn’t need that kind of help.  By the way, “commercial” isn’t a dirty word.  Every screenwriting judge dreams of finding a script that’s great and meaningful, and also commercial.  I know I do.  But the truth is, you rarely if ever find both in the same script, to the same degree.

8) MAKE IT FUN.  You don’t have to write a comedy, but your script should be “a fun ride.” Don’t make it a miserable and depressing emotional ordeal for the reader, even if it’s on a serious subject. Make sure we’re strongly rooting for the hero.  And whatever you do, don’t be boring.

Keep pitching.  See you next month.

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