Screen and television writer Amanda Parham earned her MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, where she was two-time winner of the Screenwriters’ Showcase competition. Amanda’s work has been recognized in the Nicholl Fellowship (Semifinalist, top 2%), the PAGE Awards (Finalist, top 1%), the Austin Film Festival (Semifinalist, top 1%), the StoryPros Awards Screenplay Contest (3rd place winner), and the ScreenCraft Fellowship (winner). Twitter: @aparham
Hollywood is an incredibly difficult industry to break into, and with thousands of writers hoping to enter the field every year, emerging voices need to do everything they can to stand out and grab the attention of industry decision-makers. But with agents, managers, and producers inundated with scripts, many new writers face a catch-22: they can’t get a manager, agent, or producer to read their script without a referral, but they can’t get that referral or representation without a proven track record or someone viable vouching for their talent. This catch-22 drives thousands of writers each year to enter screenplay competitions, labs, and fellowships.
As a writer who has gone through the contest route and gained representation, I want to share some advice that I wish someone had given me prior to my first contest win.
First, if you’re lucky enough to have won or placed in a major screen or television writing competition or fellowship, congratulations! Celebrate that win. Given how incredibly competitive these competitions are, particularly big ones like the Nicholl Fellowship, placing is an outstanding accomplishment and a well-deserved validation of your talent and craft.
Okay, now that you’ve taken a moment to celebrate, it’s time to get to work.
The biggest misconception about screenplay competitions is that winning one will automatically launch your career and turn you into the next Mickey Fisher. Just as Hollywood loves to perpetuate the myth of the overnight success, so too do many early career screenwriters buy into the myth that contest wins automatically guarantee read requests, representation, options, or even a sale. I’m sorry to say, for most contest winners, they don’t. A contest win or placement can certainly help launch your career, but every contest winner who succeeds does so with a lot of hard work and hustle after the win.
So how does one make the most of a competition win or placement?
Choose the right contest for your goals.
Before you enter any screenplay competition, ask yourself what you hope to achieve, should you be lucky enough to win or place. Although prize money is a great thing to win, prize money does not a career make. For my hard-earned entry fees, the best contests are those that get you industry access and connect you with advocates for your work.
The trouble is, in recent years, hundreds of screenplay competitions have sprung up promising to discover talented emerging screenwriters and introduce them to the industry. While many of those contests offer enticing prizes, few are well-known or connected enough to get you the industry access you need to launch your career. Choose wisely. If the industry doesn’t know the contest, a win may not turn out to be career launchpad that you’re looking for.
Don’t wait for the industry to come to you.
Hollywood loves projects with heat. One common mistake first-time screenplay contest winners make is to let the heat fade from their script while waiting for read requests to roll in. Don’t. Read requests certainly can follow contest placements, but they are not guaranteed. You cannot afford to sit back and wait for requests that may or may not come. Use the momentum from your win to connect with the manager, agent, or producer you feel might be the best fit for your career or your material. In other words…
Be your own advocate.
Start with who you know. If you have contacts in the industry, reach out to them and make sure they hear about your win. Your contacts may ask to read your winning script, or better yet offer to pass it along to one of their industry contacts now that it has been vetted by a respected contest. Did you go to film school? If so, contact your favorite professors and let them know about your contest win. Not only will they be happy to hear about your success, they may share your win with their social network, which likely includes industry contacts.
Don’t underestimate the power of social media.
Social media platforms are becoming a great way to put your name out there and promote your work and contest wins. When I was initially looking for representation, an agent from ICM told me that she actively vets all potential comedy writer clients on Twitter before signing them. If those comedy writers didn’t regularly tweet funny jokes, she moved on to another writer who did. That’s a specific case involving one agent, but it speaks to what a powerful tool social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be for promoting yourself, your writing, and your contest placements. Use them!
Take advantage of mentorship opportunities.
Many screenwriting contests, fellowships, and labs offer the opportunity to be mentored by industry professionals and develop strong relationships with produced writers, producers, and studio executives. Not only does mentorship expand your professional network, but it can also help you gain a deeper understanding of both the craft of writing and the business side of the industry. NYWIF/IRIS Lab Participant and ScreenCraft Fellowship Winner Nancy Duff shared this about her fellowship and lab experience:
“I’ve found that participating in fellowships/labs, where I work with mentors on both an individual and group basis, have been transformative both personally and professionally. Having the encouragement of fellow writers helps me push forward and continue working on my craft.”
Get to know your fellow winners and finalists.
Hollywood is an industry built on relationships. Whether you win or place in a contest, lab, or fellowship, get to know the other winners and finalists. Arrange a meetup. Swap scripts. Form long-term relationships because these are the writers who will be breaking in and rising through the industry ranks with you. They also are extremely talented writers, many of whom may have different strengths and weaknesses than you. You might find that you could learn something about the craft from one another.
If all else fails, query.
If you don’t have industry contacts or you live outside Los Angeles, you can still make a contest win work for you. Query letters, although a more difficult path to representation than referrals, can still be a way to get industry eyes on your script. While it’s true that many agencies, management companies, or production companies don’t accept unsolicited queries, there are still those that do. The key to making this approach work for you is to do your research and be sure to lead your query with the contest placement. Prior to signing with my representation, I played the querying game, and mentioning my contest wins in my query significantly increased the number or read requests I received.
Be ready when opportunity knocks.
Probably the most important thing you can do to increase your odds of capitalizing on a contest win or placement, particularly if you are at the stage where you are looking for representation or taking general meetings, is to constantly be writing and cultivating a compelling body of work. Every general meeting or rep meeting I’ve taken as a result of a contest win or placement has led back to the same question: “We love your work. What else do you have?”
In my case, I was fortunate that I had a two-month window between learning of my Screencraft Fellowship win and the whirlwind week of meetings that Screencraft would later set me up on. While Screencraft’s John Rhodes and Cameron Cubbison were sending my script around town and setting up meetings with interested managers and producers, I used that time to review my body of work, revising and polishing each script. I developed elevator pitches for each of my completed scripts, as well as for projects that I was currently working on. I also researched every individual and company that I would be meeting with, made sure I knew who they repped (if an agent or manager), familiarized myself with the company’s slate (past and present), and determined which of my projects might be a good fit for that company if asked (and several did). Had I not come to each of those meetings with a solid body of work behind me and an elevator pitch ready for every script in my portfolio, the meetings likely would not have been as successful.
I cannot stress this enough. Be prepared. Contests can land you meetings and read requests, but you have to deliver in the room and on the page.
Take every meeting.
If you’ve ever read screenwriting message boards, you’ve probably come across contest winners who were disappointed because they felt the individuals who contacted them as a result of their win couldn’t immediately help launch or advance their careers. Although I understand their frustration, I think that perspective is short-sighted. This is an industry where assistants are the gatekeepers and people with an eye for talent can succeed quickly. After one of my contest placements, I was contacted by a judge who happened to be between assistant gigs at the time. I took the meeting, and he was kind enough to offer to help me in any way that he could. We’ve kept in touch, and he is now a development executive.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t do your due diligence and know who you are meeting with (you absolutely should). However, if an industry professional contacts you because they read your work and enjoyed it, take the meeting. Hear them out. At worst, it’s a free cup of coffee. At best, it may turn into a mutually beneficial relationship that pays off for you both at some point in your careers.
Realize that not all benefits of a contest win are quantifiable.
As much as emerging writers focus on how a contest win will measurably change their lives and advance their careers, it’s important not to overlook the more subtle benefits of a contest win or placement. Contest wins can provide much needed validation and motivation, and they can even reframe your perspective on your work or shape your writing going forward.
For Austin Film Festival Comedy Pilot Winner Julie Cross, her win helped her reach her goals as a professional writer, just not in the way she expected.
“At first, it didn’t seem to make much difference to me. I knew my script was being read around town, but everyone said no to it. So there was no discernible difference in my life at all. Looking back, it was a more subtle thing that changed. I felt like more of a professional. Now I’m writing professionally, and I’ve sold a couple pitches on very small projects…and I think that contest win changed me internally and made me more serious.”
Heidi Willis, Screencraft Fellowship Winner, Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Competition Winner, and Austin Film Festival Finalist, said of her contest placements:
“Contests have been excellent not just for opening up avenues to contacts, but also for validation. It shows that I am making progress and am on the right track…Each contest I’ve placed in was different, but had its own benefits. Austin was excellent for getting my name out there and having people contact me. The trip to Los Angeles with Screencraft showed me what general meetings were like and gave me a better idea of the life of a writer. Atlanta was less known, but the prize was amazing. They flew us out to a beautiful sanctuary to meet with mentors who gave us excellent notes, and provided us time to really delve into our scripts.”
Persistence is key.
The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from my experience with screenwriting competitions is that success in this industry is all about persistence. If you don’t win or place one year, revise your script significantly or write a new script (preferably both), and try again. If a contest win doesn’t lead to representation or the outcome you are looking for, enter another contest that will. If the contest route doesn’t work for you, find another way to get your work out into the world. But most importantly, keep writing.
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