The entertainment industry’s success is only made possible by the collective effort of talented and hardworking creative professionals who are passionate about the craft of storytelling. But before the wave of notable accolades and laurels come rushing in, the journey begins with the writer and their screenplay. It would create a domino effect across the board in such a way that if you remove the writer, there will be no screenplay, and without it, the film wouldn’t exist. In Hollywood, a screenplay is sacrosanct as it is the blueprint that contains the story elements that set up motion pictures for success and serves as an invitation for collaboration.
Christmas came early for cinephiles, especially for screenwriters, since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has released their most anticipated annual list of Top 50 Screenplays from this year’s Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, as well as Black List’s year-end list of unproduced screenplays. While Hollywood is a tough industry to break into with all the competition, politics, and everything in between, it is certainly not impossible. Let’s take an in-depth look into the labyrinth of screenwriting contests and how they could help get one’s foot in the door.
Bringing Your Final Draft to the Big Leagues
Sometimes having big dreams comes at a price – literally. For writers, screenwriting competitions could be heavy on the pocket, which stirs a lot of debate in the writing community whether entering competitions is worth the investment or not. Although, from an industry perspective, there are strong arguments as to why competitions could make you a better writer and put you on the fast track to becoming a working screenwriter.
Writing is not for the faint of heart. It is a job that requires solitude, isolation, discipline, thick skin, resilience, and a whole lot of patience. Procrastination, lack of motivation, and the absence of deadlines are fatal to a writer’s creative process and success. This is where screenwriting competitions come in to play to ensure that writers treat their craft as a serious day job by providing deadlines, incentives, and a clear goal to accomplish.
A finished screenplay is an achievement in its own right, but the real work only begins in the rewriting phase. Oftentimes, writers are protective of the work they shed blood, sweat, and tears for, which makes them sometimes defensive when their work is criticized. However, feedback or notes are crucial factors that give the story a fresh perspective as well as aid the writer in determining the important elements or scenes that stand out or should be omitted. Besides, professional readers are only in the business of helping writers get the script in its best shape for the screen. These development or evaluation services are sometimes included when you enter your script to a competition, and should be taken advantage of if you want your screenplay to get the recognition it deserves. On another note, not securing a place in the competition is also an indirect form of feedback that indicates that more work needs to be done.
The most obvious benefit of competitions is putting added value and distinction to your work. Whether you placed as a quarter-finalist or a winner…
The most obvious benefit of competitions is putting added value and distinction to your work. Whether you placed as a quarter-finalist or a winner, the mere fact that your script stood out from the pile and captured the attention of tough readers and executives only proves that you possess the talent, unique perspective, and powerful voice that has a place in the world of entertainment. Key professionals in the industry who are looking for quality material to produce usually have working relationships with screenwriting competitions, and they request the scripts of those who made the cut. This is also one of the proven ways to secure representation from agents and managers from top agencies, which is a basic and essential need if you want to make a name for yourself in the industry.
There are countless screenwriting competitions that claim to be the best, most effective, and have all that jazz. Some of the established, long-running, and worth submitting to are Austin Screenwriting Competition, Slamdance, Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab, Scriptapalooza, and Final Draft Big Break Contest. Although, the most prestigious, respective, and competitive is none other than the creator of the Oscars, the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Five winners from all over the world are given the opportunity to go to Los Angeles, participate in the awards ceremony and seminars, and rewarded $35,000 fellowships from the Academy. Even if you didn’t make it to the Top 5, being recognized by the Academy is an impressive feat that adds a huge currency to your career as a screenwriter and helps you land great opportunities you wouldn’t normally have access to.
One of the most awe-inspiring success stories is 2012 Nicholl Fellow, Michael Werwie, who endured countless rejections until he entered his 29th script into the competition about serial killer, Ted Bundy. Netflix acquired his script from the Academy and produced it into a masterpiece most of us have probably fixated on at one point, called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019). In this interview, Werwie elaborated on his writing process and how the competition gave him the kind of validation he needed at the time as well as how it jumpstarted his screenwriting career in Hollywood.
The Black List, in particular, is a prominent online community that provides a platform for screenwriters to get their work into the hands of industry executives. At the end of every year, they release a list of unproduced screenplays that piqued the interest and garnered the most likes or votes from film executives in Hollywood. While a monthly hosting fee is required, it is still worth every penny as some of the featured screenplays from the list became Oscar-winning films such as Juno (2007), The King’s Speech (2010), and Argo (2012).
Depending on your placement in the competition, these companies champion your screenplays by circulating them all year round to studios and production companies who are looking for quality material. That in itself is a huge advantage and compelling reason to invest in competitions instead of letting your screenplay sit in the dark.
The Path to Success Is Not A Straight Line
Screenwriting competitions effectively bridge the gap between writers and industry executives. Whether a writer is looking for validation, representation, notes to improve their craft, or connecting with industry executives, entering competitions is a highly-recommended endeavor and investment. While most require an entry fee, there are also reputable competitions that offer free submissions from time to time, which leaves you no room for excuses. Do not be discouraged if the rejections keep piling up as it is an integral part of the process to help you become a better storyteller, and you will eventually get your big break as long as you continuously hone your craft, remain authentic, and be proactive in knowing the market as well as networking with the right people.
There is no guaranteed way to success, but grabbing every opportunity to get your material out there and into the hands of key people in the industry could instantly jumpstart the screenwriting career you’ve been dreaming of and building all your life. Writers are the unsung heroes of the entertainment industry and it’s about time to get that recognition you truly deserve.
We had the privilege of chatting with the remarkable Joan Wai, Director of the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, to share insider knowledge as well as answer your burning questions about the program, screenwriting competitions, and tips on how to successfully navigate and break into the competitive world of Hollywood in pursuit of becoming a working screenwriter. You can check out the interview here.