Legally Speaking, It Depends – Screenplay Contests

There are about as many different variations of screenplay contests as the screenplays that are entered in them. Each has its attractions and detriments, risks and rewards. With so much variety it is hard to make generalizations as to what contests a writer should enter and which ones should be avoided. This article will attempt to set out the parameters to allow each writer to make her or his own, informed decisions using their own needs and goals as a guide.

screenplay contest readerVariations from the Norm

First off, there are variations of every type for screenwriting. And so there are nearly as many variations in what form and/or format screenwriting contests will accept as entries. Some of these variations hold benefits that general screenplay contests lack. Here’s a short list of types to consider.

Short scripts – This is a growing popular contest type. Variations can be for pre-existing works or new works specifically created around a theme. These are complete stories and so represent a finished work. Because of their brevity, they can often be produced relatively cheaply and such a production might be part of the awards in the offer. One thing to consider is whether the contest provider actually has the wherewithal and talent to pull off a successful shoot of your winning script. Winning a screenplay contest that results in a poor quality short film might not be beneficial to your career. Still, a winning short screenplay can lead to a legitimate production which can garner eyeballs within the industry that wouldn’t have read the script.

First X pages – This contest type is sort of a trial run for a full script. They ask for just the opening section of a screenplay, often providing a logline of the film to get you started. With these types of contests the amount of time invested on both sides is shortened. The writer doesn’t have to slave over a full script before getting evaluated. And the contest readers don’t have to read through tons of full scripts to evaluate whether a writer has talent. Seems like a win, win, but, there can be hidden difficulties if not spelled out in the contest details. Questions like, who owns the entry after the contest? Can you take your initial pages and go and write your own script or is the premise and resulting derivative script entries owned by the contest runners? This needs to be stipulated in the contest rules and you need to be aware of whether your potential benefits of participating are limited to wasting time on pages for a project you are prohibited from completing. There is also the potential feeling like the writers are being exploited by the producers getting many variations on the premise tried out without having to pay for them. If this makes you uncomfortable then this type of contest isn’t for you.

Pilots for TV shows – This type of contest has become prominent of late. They are usually sponsored by a company with the wherewithal to take the winning pilot to the next stage, pitching a series to a network. As long as the terms are legitimate and the company’s on the up and up this is a route for a TV idea to get seen by people who could make things happen. But most writers I know who have a TV series idea want to shepherd that idea long past the pilot stage. Whether the writer retains the opportunity to stay with the project has to be negotiated if it isn’t clearly stated in the contest rules. And a pilot contest winner that goes nowhere is still an unfilmed pilot. With these contests it is important you read the terms, especially how long the contests runners or company get to keep the exclusive option for the series.

Full screenplay contests have their variations as well:

Segmented (e.g. underwater, left handed, basket weaver protagonists that speak with a lisp focused) – These types narrow the entry field by stipulating a specific type of script they’re looking for. These can be very specific or broadly themed, but, there is often an agenda to their makeup and scripts that further that agenda are accepted. There are considerations to keep in mind, though. Like, what’s behind the agenda? If they’re pushing to award a certain type of script that isn’t currently championed in the marketplace, do they have the wherewithal to get it in the theaters? Winning one of these contests could be a pyrrhic victory, not furthering your career as a writer in the long run. But, if the theme is one that resonates with something you’ve written, this type of contest will have less competition and there might be industry types with like minds who could notice your script. Take your legitimate contacts where you can find them.

Staged Readings – Some contests offer a staged reading of the winning script. I list these out separately because they provide both unique benefits and potential liabilities. If the reading is done by professional actors and in a well publicized and accessible venue, the reading can bring exposure to your script that you couldn’t get on your own. And it’s always good to hear your script read aloud to get a sense of how it breathes off the page. But a screenplay is not written like a radio play and so there are differences that might affect the listener’s reception of the script that wouldn’t have been an issue if they had just read it themselves. (I know this issue first hand, having won one of these contests.) Industry people should be able to make the adjustments, but, should doesn’t always translate into do. Also, there is the issue of a winning staged reading being a public performance of the script, which puts minor but not insignificant copyright issues into play for future sales (no longer possible to claim it’s a work made for hire, for example), as well as the ever potential, though highly unlikely, theft of the script by someone who hears it. Still, hearing your work performed by professional actors might be enough of a benefit to an interested writer to risk it.

What do you risk?

In all these contests you are placing your script into the world, so, there is the usual risk of having your script ripped off. Is it likely? No. Not with reputable contests. But there have been contests where the whole goal was to get viable screenplays for less than they would pay on the open market. This is why it is important to check out who runs the contest. If they’re a production entity or have ties with one who will “make your movie”, realize that whatever deal is stipulated in the entry rules will be binding for your sale price. If they only offer a pittance for the winner, but take ownership of it and go off and make a movie, you’ll have a credit (hopefully) but not the money you might have earned and you are beholden to their quality of filmmaking, which might not be that great. (Ask yourself why can’t they get their scripts through proper channels?)

Not every contest that promises a movie will get made is bad. There have been some unique ones that bring opportunities that you couldn’t achieve as a writer or writer/director – big name cast, financing or facilities that are out of your reach. You just need to evaluate the reputation of those involved and the realities of what is being offered. If it seems too good to be true, it isn’t. It if seems plausibly reasonable, it might be worth taking a shot.

There is also the question of entry fee. There have been contests that took entry fees and disappeared. There have been those that took your fees and only gave lip service to what they promised, not reading your script, not providing the opportunities they “guaranteed.” (I’ve personally suffered both these fates.) The only real thing you can do is be diligent and research the reputation of the contest prior to deciding to enter. It is always a gamble to some degree. Even well respected contest names have lost their luster and carry on as shells of themselves for a while before they’re true nature catches up to them. Evaluate with the information available to you. If the cost is high or the risk seems unwarranted, you know there’s always another contest.

What do you get?

– Whatever is defined, if the contest is on the up and up.

Whatever they promise they have to deliver. But read carefully. If they promise you will be considered for representation by a Hollywood agency – they are not promising you will get representation. It should be a valid consideration, but, there is likely no guarantee.

– Your reputation boost

It is true that most of the industry doesn’t follow or care about contests. There are so many contests out there that everyone can achieve an award winning accolade, so, there are very few that raise an eyebrow. If you are a winner of one of the very few big contests, it might get you a meeting. There are many big name contest winners who never sold a script from that win. But they have doors opened that have given them the opportunity to start a career.

But direct reward isn’t the only benefit. If you are a consistently good writer, and you can show it by well placed contest entries, you might get others to read your work who might not have otherwise. Some contests have as their readers industry executives who actually might contact you from what they’ve read of your work even if you didn’t win. And the people you meet at the awards banquets/ceremonies are always networking potential.

What do you give up?

It depends on the contest. It could be not much. It could be everything you hold dear. Here are where the details matter. EVERYTHING should be in the fine print.

Rules? We don’t need no stinking Rules (Well, yeah, we do)

Some contests establish their rules and stipulate them clearly every year. Some contests fly by a less rigid cloth and change the rules along the way. I’ve entered contests where the rules were changed after I submitted and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Was there anything I could do about it? Not realistically. But would I recommend that contest to others? Definitely not.

Reputation is everything

Your best protection as an entrant is the reputation of the contest that would be damaged if the contest runners screw things up. Contests earn their respect by years of being a benefit to writers. The reputation of not only the contest, but, also the organizations that put them on hang in the balance. If they plan on being in the industry for any period, they’ll do their best to protect that reputation which means the contest will likely be as good as they can manage it.

How do you pick?

Everyone has different needs and different goals and so what makes a good contest for one writer to enter completely depends on where his or her specific answers to specially tailored questions. First, read ALL the rules and descriptions about the contest. Is it asking a lot and not promising something you’d value? Is it a prize that could help your career with a legitimate shot at attaining it? Does entering the contest achieve or set you further along toward your goals as a writer? Is the time allotted to participate in balance with the benefits you will actually achieve? Are you precluding other potential avenues by entering this contest that might be advantageous to keep viable?

If the writer evaluates all these questions and any others that are specific to his or her own needs and still feels the contest has merit, then the decision is clear. A perfect contest for one might not be for another, but, as always, it depends…

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