Once upon a time before becoming a literary manager, I was the Director of Script Competitions at Austin Film Festival and I was fortunate to interact with countless wonderful writers – reading their scripts, sharing in their excitement if they advanced, connecting them to industry professionals, and perhaps seeing them get one step closer to making their dreams come true. Seeing all the hope that screenplay competitions can provide led me to pursue management as a way to further help writers thrive in the real COMPETITION presented in Hollywood. And, as in the nature of that word, many will enter and few will win. As a former screenplay competition director turned literary manager, I am here to share some key lessons I’ve observed from being on both sides that could be helpful to writers looking to competitions as a way to launch a writing career.
LESSON #1: KNOW WHERE TO SUBMIT
Before shelling out money on entry fees, do your due diligence and review the program’s track record and see if what they’re offering is worthwhile for you. The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting is widely considered the gold standard – they receive more feature script submissions than any other program so keep that in mind before submitting but a win there provides invaluable widespread industry attention. Similarly regarded is Austin Film Festival (yes, I’m biased but also a true believer) which is, along with the Nicholl, one of the longest running OG screenplay competitions around and has the added incentive of providing advancing writers special opportunities at their Writers Conference. And I would undoubtedly vouch for ScreenCraft‘s programs, which has an a la carte menu of genre-specific writing competitions to enter throughout the year and has a great track record with writers. To help with your research, check out Coverfly.com (you’re here!) and Moviebytes.com as it has perhaps the most comprehensive listing of screenplay competitions out there with reviews and ratings.
LESSON #2: WINNING/PLACING DOESN’T GUARANTEE ANYTHING
Well, aside from the guaranteed prize amount which you also might be guaranteed to pay tax for, there is no guarantee that winning a competition will land you your dream manager or sell your script. Competitions are invested in the success of their top writers, so take full advantage of the opportunities they provide but that can only go so far. Ultimately, you’re steering the ship and it’s really about the work YOU do with leveraging your win/placement. What that recognition represents at the very least is that you’ve been vetted and have people who can vouch for you. If you’re inbox isn’t blowing up with requests to read your script, it’s up to you to put yourself out there and strike while the iron is hot. Send query e-mails to promote your recognition if you need to but be smart about whom you send them to and how you write them. Even winning is still the result of the subjective opinion from a set group of individuals so not everyone may end up vibing with your winning script so it’s important to be prepared for the inevitable question of “what else you got???” which brings us to…
LESSON #3: YOU ARE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR NEXT SCRIPT
You may have received recognition from a major competition but, if that script is the only thing of note you can share, it’s likely going to be a red flag for a rep. Talent, consistency, and longevity are traits of successful professional writers. Winning a competition gives you a great platform but it’s not the main stage just yet – it’s more of a dress rehearsal to see if you have the mettle to be a working writer and consistently generate material. Even if you’re in the middle of writing your follow-up script and not ready to share it just yet, at least be ready to talk about it as well as your slate of ideas for new projects.
LESSON #4: BE SMART AND KNOW YOUR WORTH
I have seen many writers sign with the first and only manager that reached out to them after a top placement without even doing their due diligence. Not all managers are created equal so ask questions and make sure the person is a perfect match for you creatively. You need to find the right creative partner who understands your voice and will always have your best interests in mind. If you only received interest from one manager and that person isn’t a right fit, don’t settle. It’s like dating so would you really want to get married after the first date? As one of my colleagues always says, “Be hungry, not thirsty.” Just be smart about it.
It’s also important to know your worth, who you are as a writer, and what you bring to the table. It really is essential to recognize what your unique super power is among many other talented writers because, at the end of the day, that is what reps are also going to be asking themselves about you. The better you know yourself as a storyteller, the easier it will be for you to know who the right rep is for you.
There are endless lessons to be learned and as William Goldman once said, “Nobody knows anything.” As frustrating as that may sound, it’s also incredibly freeing to know you can set your own path. What may or may not have worked for another writer may not even apply to you. Ultimately, it’s always going to be about trying, not giving up, and learning as much as you can along the way. Because after all, you can’t win if you don’t submit.
Matt Dy is a Literary Manager at Lit Entertainment Group. Formerly Matt ran the Austin Film Festival’s Screenwriting Competition. Lit Entertainment was founded by manager-producer Adam Kolbrenner who produced the Oscar-nominated film, Prisoners, for Warner Bros/Alcon Entertainment, written by Lit client Aaron Guzikowski. Lit Entertainment’s next film is Fox’s Free Guy, along with Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter. The film, starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Shawn Levy, is an original spec from Lit client Matt Lieberman.