How do you win screenplay competitions? Well, unfortunately, there is no magic formula. (Sorry to burst your bubble!) However, throughout my years of contest reading, I’ve noticed some crucial things writers can do to increase the chances of their scripts scoring well and advancing, and yes, possibly even winning!
Before we jump in, it’s important to understand how scripts are generally scored in competitions. Many competitions use a numeric rating system for various categories, which may include plot, character, writing style, theme, narration, spelling/grammar, presentation, marketability, etc. Readers assign point values for each category, and the scripts that score above a certain number advance to the next round. Generally, the contest judges read the highest-scoring scripts and then choose finalists and winners.
Now that we're up to speed, let’s dive into how you can increase your score and your likelihood of winning.
Submit to the Right Competitions for Your Script
Not all screenplay competitions are created equal. Some are more high profile than others. Some focus on finding underrepresented voices and stories, while others are looking for the next commercial blockbuster. Some focus on specific genres, such as horror, action, or comedy. Some are only looking for spiritual, religious, or uplifting content. Each competition is looking for something different.
An important first step in winning a competition is to determine what contests are looking for your type of material. There’s no point in entering your high-concept horror script into a contest looking for heartwarming, spiritual stories. That's why it's so important to do your research: so you don’t waste time or money submitting to contests that aren’t the right fit for your script.
It’s also helpful to find out what each contest’s judging criteria are before submitting. Some competitions, such as The Academy Nicholl Fellowships, actually lay out their criteria in advance for writers to review. If you can find out what categories a contest uses for judging, it can be a window into understanding that contest’s tastes and what needs to be done to advance in the competition.
Do a Pass for Each Judging Category
If you can get ahold of the judging categories for the contests you’re entering, be sure to do a revision pass specifically for each category. This is a fantastic way to make sure your script is the best it can be in terms of plot, structure, character, theme, writing style, presentation, etc. If you can’t get ahold of the contest’s specific criteria, doing a pass for the general categories listed above will still elevate your script and increase its chances of success.
Ask yourself with each pass: is the plot tight and well-paced? Does the structure of the script make sense and allow the character(s) to go on a journey? Are the characters three-dimensional and dynamic? Do I have a thematic thread that ties the story together, and is my messaging on point? Are my lead characters going on a journey that has meaning and depth? Is my writing style concise and engaging? Are my fonts, margins, tabs, etc. set at industry standard? (Using screenwriting software will usually take care of that for you.)
Follow the Competition’s Rules and Guidelines
For several years, I’ve read for a writing contest that is quite strict about writers following its page count and subject matter guidelines. If the submitted material doesn’t comply, unfortunately, it’s disqualified. Some contests, like that one, have strict guidelines, whereas others are more forgiving when it comes to things like page length. The thing is, you won’t know which contests are strict and which aren’t going in. The safest thing you can do to make sure your script doesn’t get disqualified from the go is to stick to the recommended page lengths and any other specific guidelines, such as margins, font, etc.
Proofread Your Script (or Better Yet, Have Someone Else Proofread It)
The presentation of the script is the only thing a writer has 100% control over. You can’t control your contest readers and whether or not they connect to your story. You can’t control the scores a reader gives, or if you get advanced to the next round. But you can and should control how polished your script looks when you submit it.
If a writer submits a sloppy script, it reflects poorly on that writer and poorly on presentation and spelling/grammar scores. Why risk not being advanced to the next round because you didn't proofread? The best thing you can do is to have a trusted friend, relative, fellow writer, or proofreading service look over your script for you. It’s challenging to catch your own errors when you’re so used to seeing your own words on the page. If you don’t have anyone who can help, then reading your script out loud yourself is very helpful for catching errors. When you read it out loud, you say every word and you’ll hear right away if grammar or syntax is off. If you are using Final Draft, the program can read your script aloud as well, via the Assign Voices and Speech Control functions.
Enter Competitions That Offer Feedback
Some competitions offer included feedback as part of the entry fee, or optional feedback that you can add on when you submit. Getting feedback from your readers can be incredibly helpful in understanding how your script is perceived, and what revisions you can make to improve it for the future.
Vet Your Script, and Submit the Best Possible Version
Writing can be a lonely pursuit, and it can be hard to be the only judge of the quality of your material. So why not join a writers’ group? Not only is it a great way to make friends who share your same interests, but you can also get several honest opinions on multiple drafts of your work before you submit it to competitions.
Note that I said “multiple drafts” just then! It’s never a good idea to submit a first draft or a script that isn’t ready just because of a contest deadline. While deadlines are great motivators, throwing something together just to be able to enter is a waste of time and money. Make sure your script is thoroughly vetted by writer friends, a writers’ group, or through professional feedback (like a reputable coverage service, or professional writing consultant) before entering contests.
Submit to Multiple (Reputable) Competitions
Do your research on what competitions will help advance your career. You want to choose ones that have reputable production companies, producers, agents, and execs who will be either judging the scripts or reading the winners. Don’t shotgun your script to every contest, but don’t be afraid to enter a solid handful of contests that are a good fit for your script. What doesn’t advance in one competition can win another—you never know.
The Coverfly team thoroughly vets the competitions allowed on the platform, and it is constantly growing. See the contests available on Coverfly here.
While winning a screenplay competition isn’t ultimately in your control, making sure you submit to the right contests and get your script in the best shape possible certainly is. Best of luck with your contest submissions!
Rebecca Norris is an award-winning writer and independent producer. Her feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, is distributed on Prime Video and DVD, and two of her short films are distributed through Shorts International. Before becoming a full-time writer, Rebecca worked in development and read for numerous production companies and screenplay competitions. She is currently working on a novel while chasing her adorable, yet fast-moving toddler. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @beckaroohoo.