Confessions of a Screenwriting Contest Judge: The Difference Between Semifinalists & Winners

Danny Manus is an in-demand script consultant and founder of No BullScript Consulting and author of No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective. Follow Danny on Twitter @dannymanus.

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The last couple weeks I have been judging the semifinal round of the prestigious PAGE Awards in the Horror/Thriller category. It’s my fourth year as one of their judges and I have had a pretty darn good track record in choosing the top scripts, picking the winners 2 out of the last 3 years (this year’s still being decided).

I know screenwriting contests can sometimes feel like this vague guessing game to writers. They’re subjective, often inconsistent, some have anonymous readers and judges, and there are SO many out there, each with their own lofty promises and prizes, that it’s hard to know which are worthwhile and which are a waste of $40. And with every year, there are more submissions and increased competition to overcome.

gold-268640_640When I started reading for PAGE just 4 years ago, there were 4,500 submissions. Now, there are over 6,000. Six thousand scripts vying for 31 prizes, including the grand prize of $25,000 and of course all the access and accolades that go along with that. But those are some daunting odds – 31 out of over 6,000. THAT’S how good your script needs to be. And those are better chances than most other contests which only have a couple prize winners and don’t break it down by genre. This is also why submitting to nationally (or worldwide) recognized, prestigious contests have become a launching pad for new talent – because you have to be better than SO many other writers that Hollywood is almost forced to take notice.

Yes, some good scripts don’t get through that should. And that goes for EVERY contest. I have a couple clients that won or were finalists in one prestigious contest that didn’t get to the quarters of another with the same exact script. It happens. Sometimes it just comes down to the reader and there’s nothing you can do but brush it off and try again next year.

Contests aren’t a shortcut to getting discovered, but they are one major avenue that didn’t really exist 10 or 15 years ago that writers can use to break in. The prestige and results that winners of the PAGE Awards find, and the level of writing in the semis, is the reason I continue to judge for them (I’ve judged for other contests as well over the years).

However, the reason I wanted to write this article is to share with you some lessons and trends that I have noticed, especially this year, as well as give you some insight into what judges are looking for when they read and why, perhaps, your script has been a consummate quarter-finalist or semifinalist, instead of a winner.

A script wins when the right story, writing, character, commerciality, voice, timing, and reader all come together. And you only have control over a few of those, which I know is frustrating. You could write an amazing script, but if it’s exactly like the film that just came out 2 weeks ago, you’re probably not going to win. Semifinalists are scripts with really strong writing and story and resonance for a reader. Winning scripts just have that something extra. They don’t read like a contest script – they read like a professionally written Hollywood film that just hasn’t been made yet. There are a LOT of GOOD scripts out there. Winning scripts feel like films.

I can’t speak for other categories, but every year in the horror/thriller section, there are clear trends that stand out. This DOES NOT mean that judges or readers are looking for any specific type of story – especially since there are so many different readers involved before the 25 semifinalist scripts make their way to my desk. Some of it may relate to what is commercial in the marketplace, but it really just comes down to the writing and hook on the concept.

My first year, the trend was clear – zombies, vampires and werewolves. Those 3 types of stories made up for at least 10 of the 25 semifinalists (the winner that year, by the way, was MAGGIE which comes out this November and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin).

The following year, there was an increase in creature features of the non-vampire/werewolf variety and that seemed to be the trend. Last year there were more supernatural projects and found footage stories, as well as a higher number of thrillers than horror.

This year, the trends were glaring and possibly clearer than ever before…

By FAR the biggest trend this year…was children. 13 out of the 25 scripts were based around kids being kidnapped, murdered, brutalized, and/or needing to be saved from something. Add three MORE to that list if including the unborn, older teens, or adult children of the protagonist.

That is a HUGE number. And I think the reason is pretty clear. It’s not because the judges are sadistic or enjoy reading about murdered children – believe me, that’s NOT the case as some were very hard to read no matter how well-written. The reason is because what could create higher stakes or more fear or emotional resonance than a missing, abused or murdered child? What could make for a stronger and more relatable motivation for a protagonist than trying to rescue their child or seeking vengeance for their death?

There have always been “evil child” movies and they’ve always done well. But after the success of films like Taken (and its sequels), Prisoners, Gone Baby Gone, Lovely Bones, Insidious, etc., films about children as victims instead of being the evil entity themselves, are also succeeding. And this year, they have clearly succeeded in this category.

Along the same lines, the second biggest trend this year was REVENGE. It was the guiding motivation, theme or driving force behind 12 of this year’s semifinalists. In thrillers and horror, revenge is always popular, and it was exploited in different ways in this year’s offerings. Revenge by the hero, revenge by the antagonist, revenge by society. It’s an emotion everyone can grasp and get behind. What makes it stand out is HOW it’s used – not why.

Trend number 3 was a massive increase in the brutality of the action and gore contained in this year’s scripts. In a year where 15 scripts involved children or teen victims, the amount of sheer brutality and detail involved was sometimes a bit shocking.

Brutality is different than “torture porn,” however, which hasn’t been selling for a few years. The difference between brutality and torture porn is purpose, context and literary quality, which can often bring out one’s voice. Torture porn is about finding new disgusting, extreme ways of torturing or killing people or ripping off their body parts for gruesome shock effect. It’s about resonance on a visual scale.

Brutality is often about resonance on an emotional scale. It often makes you uncomfortable or makes you cringe – but not scream. It could be the same repeated simple action – a punch to the face – but when done 15 times, the description of the consequences of that punch become increasingly brutal and visceral. That being said, I feel like many writers were trying to get their Tarantino on this year – and for some it paid off, and for others it really didn’t.

The final two story trends aren’t new, but combined made up for about 6 of the 25 scripts. These are – Military experiments gone wrong; and haunted locations. What’s odd is that the haunted locations were all the same type of location, and the “creatures” were all somewhat similar, which for me, made the scripts harder to stand out despite some very nice writing.

When it comes to similar concepts, what makes them stand out is the originality in hook and voice. Sometimes the hook is related to the location or time period, sometimes it’s what the characters must accomplish or how or why they must accomplish it, sometimes it’s the characters themselves, and sometimes it’s the combination of two hooks that really elevate a project and make it different than the others. That was definitely the case with some of the stronger scripts this year.

Another very interesting trend this year wasn’t so much story related, but story structure. It felt like some writers hoped that judges would only read the first 20 pages and the last 10, and that is NOT the case. We read every word. There were a large number of scripts that had an AMAZING first 15-20 pages – but just couldn’t keep up that level of skill or consistency in tone, voice or plot throughout the rest of the script. You need to make sure that you’re not just starting strong with a great set-up, but that you have an EQUALLY strong execution and pay-off throughout the script. Keep in mind, writers – EVERY sequence needs to be as strong as your opening and closing sequences.

At the end of the day, it comes down to the X-Factor. The voice. That THING writers have where you know it when you read it, and it just jumps out at you and grabs you (often) immediately. It’s a gut reaction and connection I get to scripts and the writing, and after doing this for over a decade and reading and evaluating many thousands of scripts, my instincts on voice and story are pretty darn strong.

Sure, I look for strong complex characters with strong goals, motivations, and deeper needs and flaws. Sure, I look at the originality of the concept and hook on that concept and how that is brought out in the story. Sure, I look at the dialogue and if it flows and feels natural and genuine and tight and powerful and if it’s full of personality and DISTINCT character voices. Sure, I look at transitions and themes and structure and if the script moves well and is an easy, enjoyable read. And sure, I take into consideration if it’s something that could sell or garner attention in the marketplace or by a manager or agent. But then there’s the X-Factor. The question I ask myself is – if you had to stake your name and reputation on a handful of these scripts, which ones would they be? Those are my top choices.

The past two years have been MUCH harder to judge and pick a winner than the first two years where it was pretty darn obvious (to me) who the winners were. Why? Well, with the increased number of submissions, it really is the cream of the crop rising to the semifinals. My first two years, I was scoring scripts in the 50s and 60s. This year, 73 was the lowest score I gave.

For the first time, I could probably count on two hands the number of typos I found between ALL 25 scripts! That was NOT the case 3 years ago, believe me! It’s certainly not the MOST important thing, but if you’re not meticulously proofreading your scripts and making sure your formatting is professional, it may be the thing that keeps you from advancing to the later rounds. I’ve got 2600 pages to read – your job as a writer is to make reading them easier and fun!

This year, it was a hard choice as all of the top scripts were executed well, but I am very content with my picks. I was so pleased with the quality of the writing this year and I look forward to seeing what takes home the big prize.

In the meantime, good luck and keep writing!

***If you are a perennial quarter or semi-finalist, or not even getting that far, I encourage you to check out my consulting services at www.nobullscript.net and Register for my 4-Week online course “Create More Compelling, Castable Characters” – guaranteed to help you create stronger, more elevated characters and stories to help get your scripts to the next level. Begins Sept 26th!

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3 thoughts on “Confessions of a Screenwriting Contest Judge: The Difference Between Semifinalists & Winners

  1. Johnny Romeo Bleeds

    Thanks Danny,

    It’s nice to hear the confessions of a contest Judge even if you are not in my genre. I am a semi-finalist in the 2014 PAGE Awards in the family film category. I am familiar with you from Stage 32 and like what you had to say. It takes some of the mystic out of not knowing who is judging the screenplays. Bravo!

    Thomas Mazzola

  2. Christopher Phillips

    Thanks for the great insight. You would think that the top scripts would be all different and not following trends, but I guess writers are all keying off of recent movies or events. I’m sure after Django there are more westerns being written…

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