PRIMETIME: Why Winning a Contest Rarely Gives Your Script an Edge

Before getting to this week’s question, I want to take a quick moment for some shameless self-promotion…

The new series I’ve been working on for the past few months, After Lately, premieres this Sunday night on E!… so please check it out!

A spinoff of Chelsea Handler‘s talk show, Chelsea Lately, it’s a half-hour comedy following the behind-the-scenes antics of Chelsea After Lately Chelsea Handler E!and her staff, starring all the regulars of Chelsea Lately: Brad Wollack, Chris Franjolla, Heather McDonald, Sarah Colonna, Chuy Bravo.  It was a blast to work on… unlike any other show I’ve done… and while I’m clearly biased, I have to say: it’s funny as hell.

After Lately premieres this Sunday, March 6, at 11/10c on E!… so please take a look—and lemme know what you think!

Now, moving on…

Today’s question comes from Greg, who responded to my January 7th post (“Rebuttals & Smackdowns… Cool Websites… and a Question for YOU“) about the uselessness of most screenwriting contests.

In that post, I talk about how agents, execs, and producers organize script submissions into piles. Top priority scripts—those from high-level colleagues (agents, producers, etc.)—go into one pile. Scripts from important friends and family go in another. Contest-winners often go in the lowest-priority pile… a pile which, unfortunately, usually collects dust until, finally, it gets chucked in the trash.

Greg responded with the following question

In the “priority piles” section, you say material recommended by professional colleagues goes into pile #1 and contest winners end up in the “stuff-I-will-never-have-time-to-read” bottom pile, #4.

Now, the contests are not judged by just anybody, but by trusted professionals, no?  You, for example, judged the Writers Digest contest.  Aren’t you, by doing this, endorsing the winners of that contest and automatically elevating them to pile #1?

I love this particular question… not only because it’s a fair, astute question, but because it’s an interesting reveal of the mindset of writers entering contests.  It made me think about contestants’ perspectives and expectations in ways I previously hadn’t.

First of all… “Aren’t you… endorsing the winners of that contest?”

Absolutely NOT.  NO NO NO.

My job, as the judge of Writers Digest‘s or any other contests, is NOT (repeat: NOT) to find scripts worthy of production or development and give them my endorsement.

My job, as the judge of a writing contest, is to read, rank, and find the best scripts of those submitted.

He has one job... and it's not to buy, develop, or "endorse" your screenplay.

This does not mean I believe the number-one script is worthy of being bought, developed, produced, or even recommended to agents and executives.

It simply means that of the scripts submitted—whether that’s ten, one hundred, or five thousand—it was the best.

If a winning script is absolutely brilliant, I could endorse it… but I don’t endorse something just because it’s the best of a select group of submissions.

After all, I read scripts regularly as part of my job; if I read eight scripts this afternoon, one of them will be the best of those eight; that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good enough to “endorse” or recommend.

I “endorse” something only if I believe it’s good enough to get made or make me want to meet the writer: if it moves me, tells a great story, has a unique voice, etc.  A contest’s winning script might do all those things… or, more likely, it’s simply the best of that particular group.

Which brings me to an unpleasant truth about writing contests…

Most of the scripts are terrible.

I don’t simply mean “not good,” I mean downright, painfully unreadable.  And—quite frankly—you can often tell within seconds—usually a page or two—if something is readable or not.

Here’s a breakdown by numbers:

If I’m judging a contest with 500 entrants, usually only about ten or fifteen of them are good enough to warrant reading past the first few pages.

(Having said this, I try to remind myself that even the most horrible script is somebody’s baby.  No matter how bad it may be, someone spent weeks, months, or years trying to tell their story.  And while that may not change how I read or evaluate it, I have to respect people just for trying.  I have much more admiration and respect for someone who puts pen to paper and tries to tell a story—even the world’s worst story—than for someone who never bothers to try at all.)

Of the top ten, only five or six have some semblance of real voice, character, or storytelling.  That doesn’t mean they’re good, it just means the writer has some idea what she’s doing.

(The others in the top ten, the bottom four or five, usually make it there because something in the script is strong enough to catch my eye.  Maybe the story’s weak, but the writer has a unique voice.  Maybe the opening scene has a great action sequence, then falls apart.  Maybe there’s no story, but some wonderfully witty jokes and lines.)

Of the top five or six, the winner is—obviously—the best.  But this doesn’t mean it’s ready—or even close to ready—for production or development.  It’s simply the best script submitted to that particular competition.

trash garbage can

Sure, one of these scripts is the "best." That doesn't mean it deserves to be bought or developed.

In fact, as much as I hate to say it, most contest-winners are far, far below the quality of the scripts that get bought, sold, developed, or produced in Hollywood.

They pale when compared to the professionally written scripts being traded amongst the industry’s top agents, writers, producers, and execs.

People hate hearing that, but most screenplays that sell are REALLY FUCKING GOOD.  Like, outstandingly good.  This doesn’t mean they make great movies—a lot can happen between development and distribution—but they tend to be mind-blowing reads.

This shouldn’t be shocking: most purchased scripts come from professional writers… men and women who spend eighty hours a week writing, reading, pitching, storytelling, working in writers rooms, punching up jokes.  They’re experts… just like first-year lawyers aren’t usually as strong as thirty-year veterans, residents aren’t usually as skilled as long-time surgeons, and cashiers aren’t usually as capable as regional managers.

(Also remember—most movies that get greenlighted don’t come from purchased scripts; they’re sequels, adaptations, or generated internally at studios.  In other words, most films at the multiplex don’t exist because a writer wrote and sold something; script sales are few and far between—even for pros.)

This is why, in answer to your other question, Greg, even winning a contest doesn’t “elevate a script to Pile #1.”  Professionals who read for a living—and that’s basically what producers and agents do: read for a living—know the odds of a contest-winner being as good as something submitted by Richard Weitz at WME… or Andy Richley at Lionsgate… or a writer on staff at The Good Wife or How I Met Your Mother… are pretty slim.  They also know there’s not a clock ticking on a contest-winner; even if it’s brilliant, you’re not racing to read it and call back the agent before thirty other executives.

I don’t say all this to be discouraging.  I say all this to be encouraging.  So you know what you’re up against.  So you can evaluate your work and strategize accordingly.  So you can face the realities of your own writing and WORK HARDER.  So you can adjust your expectations when submitting—or winning—contests.  So you can be a BETTER WRITER.

And most importantly, so you can understand the industry and approach screenwriting like a professional career… not as a contest to be won.

I hope that answers your question, Greg!  If you… or anyone else… has questions or thoughts, please feel free to post them below… or email me at chad@chadgervich.com.

Now quit reading this blog… get out some paper… and write something better than the last thing you wrote.

(But first watch After Lately… or at least set your Tivo…)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifbNBN0G_80

8 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: Why Winning a Contest Rarely Gives Your Script an Edge

  1. Mia

    I know this comment is months late, but I just had to say this: I find it hard to take advice from a guy who thinks that anything starring Chelsea Handler is funny.

    That being said, I’m not writing a script. I was searching for info on past Writer’s Digest contest winners (I’m writing a short story for the contest next year) and this came up.

  2. Derek

    I think you’re being too kind in your article. The level of self delusion by amateur writers is incredible — as evidenced by comments 3-5. They think some book, some course, some website, some script consultant, some contest, some screenwriting degree is going to make them a writer. No, it ain’t. Being a writer is going to make you a writer.

    Placing in a screenwriting contest is an accomplishment. But it’s like winning a game of quarters with a bunch of other drunks in a bar — it’s not an accomplishment that will benefit you in the real world. Except among those drunks.

    I was interviewing a writer for a position, and during the entire interview she never mentioned she won Scriptapalooza. When someone mentioned something about her winning a contest, she was instantly dismissive of it and glossed over it — because she was savvy enough to know that contests are for amateurs and she wanted to be taken as a professional. (The only reason we mentioned it was because we’d never met a writer before who had won one of those who was actually any good.)

  3. A.

    I have to say that I find parts of this article somewhat insulting — I see (well try to avoid) PLENTY of stuff on Network TV and in Theaters that is utter CRAP. Possibly more than I do that employs witty, well-structured, emotionally moving story telling. This CRAP is supposedly written by professionals in the industry that are better writers than I am, Even though my work has won multiple contests and even made the quarterfinals of the Nicholl Competition. To imply that what I (and other contest winners) have accomplished is not worth a hill of beans is not only an INVALID GENERALIZATION, but also belittling and CRUEL.

  4. Anthony Falcon

    All right, I have a question. Let’s say a writer takes things seriously and is really trying to absorb everything you guys write and say. He studies the books: Trottier, Synder, Field, Densham, Chitlik, Flinn. Signs up for Script Mag and Creative Screenwriting. Lives on the web site. Maybe even signs up for a few classes on the Writer’s Store to be evaluated by professionals.

    Writes a screenplay, takes it very seriously. Sends it in for coverage from a professional coverage service like Scriptxpert. Revises it based off their notes, sends it in again and get a \recommend\ grade. He has realistic expectations of not selling this script but using it as a writing sample. Maybe he even pays scriptxpert to develop a killer log line.

    Now, he has a few contacts in the industry, not many, lives in LA, has his Hollywood Creative Directory — How does he let people know that this is a writing sample that he is trying to use to get more work? Who does he contact? Agencies, production companies, managers? Once you have written something that a professional service considers great, how do you get people to know this is your writing sample and you are a writer.

    And lastly, if you are mailing query letters, do you mention that the script has received a grade of recommend if you are using a reputable service like scriptxpert?

  5. Gino Balcacer

    In the contexts of this article, what are you defining as a bad script that wins a contest but is not ready to be sold? For instance, can someone right a great story, with great dialog but maybe structure or format is off. Would this be the type of story that would be ignored?
    Anyone who enters a contest would by the rules of the contest not be a professional scriptwriter, but, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t come up with and write a better story than any professional. If I was a producer, I would think that it would make since to buy a script like that, and then have a professional fix it.

  6. Kathleen

    Thank you! I’m an assistant in charge of fielding submissions for a lit agency, and I have so many people calling me in disbelief because we haven’t read their shitty ‘award winning’ script yet. I hope they read this. But they probably won’t because they’re too busy entering other shitty work into shitty contests.

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