Things You Should Know About Script Readers and Contests

One key to marketing your script successfully is being able to trust that “the system” is fair and that the readers know what they are doing. When you submit your script to screenwriting contests, you count on it getting the careful consideration it deserves. And then you find out– horror of horrors!– that a typical contest reader evaluates over 100 scripts for a single contest. How, writers ask, can these busy readers possibly be giving my script a fair shake? It doesn’t seem possible!

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not only possible, it’s a piece of cake for any professional “reader” to evaluate that many scripts (or more!) in a short period of time, and do it well.

When you walk into an ER, the doctors can usually tell the difference between a case of indigestion and a heart attack. They know what tests to order. Well, professional script readers are like ER doctors. They know how to “triage” large numbers of scripts and make a quick and accurate diagnosis for each one. How? It’s called “experience.”

If you’re worried that your scripts may not be getting careful consideration from contest readers, here are some things you should know:

  1. Most contest readers are story analysts for film companies and agencies, where deadlines are just 24 to 48 hours. Hand me a thousand-page book and you want a five-page report, with an accurate synopsis, by tomorrow morning? No problemo! Frankly, having months to read, say, 200 contest scripts, where all I have to do is write a very brief summary of each, check off a few ratings, and then vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, feels like a nice, relaxing vacation in Barbados compared to the detailed reports and tight deadlines I’m used to. Of course, I’m exaggerating. But no story analyst worth his salt will even break a sweat at having to read large numbers of screenplays and make decisions rapidly. We know what we are looking for. It’s lots of experience reading scripts that enables us to do this job efficiently and accurately. THIS IS WHAT WE DO.
  2. Contrary to myth, contest readers do NOT read scripts quickly. We only read the bad scripts quickly. Having read thousands of scripts over a period of many years, we know how to spot potential excellence right away. Once we do, we SLOW WAY DOWN and read even more carefully.
  3. Once we start figuring out which scripts are the best ones we’ve read so far in a contest, and set aside a few as potential winners, our job is to compare each new one we read to those “best” scripts. The evaluation is no longer merely hypothetical– we have something specific to compare each script to. If we start reading a script, and it quickly becomes clear that it is not as good as any of the best scripts we’ve already read for that contest, it’s no longer a contender. If the first ten pages are terrible, yes, we will keep reading to make ABSOLUTELY SURE we give it a fair shot. But, frankly, the goal of reading for a contest is not to see if your ailing script “gets better as it goes along.” The job is to pick the winners. Why should we pick scripts that start off terribly (and stay terrible for pages and pages), even if they improve in Act III, when there are others that are excellent on every page?
  4. All good professional script readers know when to take a break. If I’m reading, say, five or ten scripts a day for a contest, and know I’m getting tired, I quit reading for the day so that I won’t make any errors of judgment.
  5. Our job as contest judges is not to pick out good scripts, but rather the BEST scripts submitted to this particular contest, this year. If you entered the Big Break™ contest, and didn’t make the final cut this year, I’m convinced that if we showed you the top five scripts, you’d say, “Well, I gotta admit. As much as I liked my script, I can see how you chose these, instead. Wow, these guys (or gals) can write!!”
  6. If you are not a winner or finalist in Big Break™ or any other screenwriting competition, it does not necessarily mean that the contest readers thought your script was bad. It’s possible that several readers thought your script was quite good, and passed it up the line for further consideration, where it got axed in the final round due to stiff competition. To win a major screenwriting contest, your script can’t be just “good.”  It has to be great– and better than 99% of the other scripts in the competition. Your script could even be salable, and still lose the script contest. In fact, for every contest I judge, there are always “the heartbreakers.” Those are the scripts that I really liked, but for one reason or another didn’t quite make it past the final round. Yours might be among them!
  7. For Big Break™, your promising script goes through many layers of readers on its bold quest to reach the top. The final “top choices” are read by a small team of vastly experienced professional readers who debate all the pros and cons of each potential finalist and lobby for their favorites. We take this decision very, very seriously. In fact, they had to take sharp objects away from us before we entered the conference room. I’m just kidding. But it was intense. And with all these layers of redundancy in evaluating scripts, the chances that your “great” script will slip by readers without getting noticed are about the same as my chances of getting chosen for American Idol playing “Swanee River” on the kazoo.

So, to sum up, if you don’t make the final cut in Big Break™ or another screenwriting contest, it isn’t because your script was read too quickly. But being “left off the list” also doesn’t necessarily mean that the readers thought your script wasn’t good.

Try again next year. Keep pitching!

6 thoughts on “Things You Should Know About Script Readers and Contests

  1. Barak

    This is a reassuring article, but then you realize that it was due to people worrying that the judges have too many scripts to read. Even though I’m satisfied the judges are giving each fair consideration, there are still tens of hundreds of thousands of writers at each contest to be compared with. So thanks for the peace of mind, but I hope nobody thinks this means they can slack on their writing!

  2. susan

    This was a great article! The insights you’ve shared here from behind the scenes is real and inspiring. We tend, as humans, to need to “create” our own stories when we aren’t privied to the real information. We need to justify things and usually ere to the negative side as we are most conditioned to. You’ve renewed my hope, THANK YOU!

  3. Pingback: Why your screenplay didn’t advance in that competition « 1st 10 pages

  4. Laurie

    Thanks for posting this – I am going to share it on my site as well.

    There has been some recent turmoil about this very topic online, and I am glad to see that Big Break follows rigorous reading milestones just as some of the other well known competitions.

    Do your research writers, stick with a reputable competition that also suits your style and objectives as a writer.

    Best of luck and keep writing!