Should you enter a writing contest?

I just learned my sitcom pilot script, SUPERHERO SCHOOL, made it to the semifinals of the TVWriter contest.

Of course, it would be nice to win the grand prize of any contest and walk away with the gold.  But that usually happens to only one person, so the odds really aren’t in your favor.  But if you’ve chosen writing as a career, you’ve tossed the odds out long ago.

Still … are there other reasons to enter a contest?

It depends on the contest.

(1)  Some contests open doors.

Several years ago, I wrote a feature film script that made it to the semifinals in the Nicholl Screenwriting contest.  That led to several agents and managers calling me.  If you’ve ever tried to get through the door of the gatekeeper’s offices, you would realize that is a big deal.  They called me.

I’ve also used that result as part of my pitch on other projects … “I’ve optioned three scripts, published four novels, and was a Nicholl semifinalist.”  I remember one producer I was pitching.  As soon as I mentioned the Nicholl, he smiled and said, “That means you can write.”  He asked to see my script and we eventually worked together on a project.

(2)  Some contests give good prizes.

I’ve won money (that’s cash for those of you new to the writing trade), full access passes to film festivals, and even an interview with a professional writer about my work.  Twice I walked on the stage at the Las Vegas Hilton (now known as the LVH) to receive an award for scripts I had written.  The very stage where Elvis used to perform.  Me and Elvis.  I mean how cool is that?  And, oh yeah, they threw in a photo op with some show girls.  No need to tell my wife about that part.  I focus on the stage where Elvis performed.

(3)  Some contests lead to other things … and some of those are good.

I remember one contest I entered that I didn’t win.  I thought that was the end of it.  A little after the contest was over, however, I was contacted about doing contract work for the company that sponsored the contest.  They said they liked my writing.  Over the next couple of years I ended up earning several thousand dollars doing work for them.  And I didn’t win the contest.

Then there was a small contest that I won.  I wrote a short script and won $100.  That was a big deal for me.  What I didn’t realize is that script was then made available to filmmakers in another contest and several people made the film and placed their creations on YouTube.  It was the first time I had seen my words turned into a movie (granted, a very short movie).  That was a lot of fun.  But that wasn’t the end of it.  One of the producers developed the story and submitted it to film festivals.  That would lead to an IMDb credit for me.  That was a VERY BIG deal.

(4)  Some contests are for validation.

You write and write and write and write.  You pitch your script (or novel or short story or play) but no one will even look at it.  That’s when you begin to wonder.  Are you any good?  Can you write?  It’s hard to tell if no one will read what you write.

It doesn’t help your career to have your creation tucked away for eternity in a file folder on the cloud.  You need people to read your scripts.

I’ve entered some contests just to get feedback.  If I can’t get in the top 5% of a writing contest, I’m probably not going to beat out the pros for a job.  You have to always remember that in your career, you are competing against the pros, not the wannabe writers.  Becoming a semifinalist or finalist may indicate someone thinks you actually can write.

Sometimes you need to hear that from someone other than a family member.

(5)  Some contests are total ripoffs.

You probably realize that an entire industry exists to separate wannabe writers from their money.  Contests are one of the ways people do that.  Think about it.  You could start up a writing contest and offer a $100 prize to the winner.  Charge $50 bucks an entry (just to cover costs).  Design a website where they can submit their work and pay the entry fee, then sit back and collect.    One hundred entries and you’ve just made $4,900.  One thousand entries and … I think you can see the problem.

It’s easy in your quest for success to enter many contests hoping for that big break.  But all that happens is money is sucked out of your pocket (hopefully not your credit card) and you still don’t know if your writing is any good.

Don’t fall into that trap.

Take the time to review any contest you are entering.  Who runs it?  Who reads the scripts?  What do people in the industry think about it?  Do they provide feedback?  If you don’t win or even advance in the contest, is it worth it?  Why?  What will you have learned?  Would you be better off submitting to Amazon Studios (free but locked up for 45 days)?

Could the money you’re willing to spend on contests be spent better in other areas?  It’s a business decision.  Don’t turn it into lottery pick.

My Story

I’ll give you an idea of my thought process for entering SUPERHERO SCHOOL in the TVWriter Pilot contest.  The entry fee was $40.

This is only the second TV pilot script I’ve written (I’ve written dozens of feature length screenplays and several novels, but a half-hour pilot is a different creature).  My main goal was a little affirmation.  I think it’s a good script but does anyone else agree?

Let’s go through some of the options.  This contest includes some feedback (scoring sheets with notes) which is helpful.

  • If the script doesn’t advance would it be worth the entry fee?  Possibly.  If the notes are good, they may pinpoint problem areas.  Then I will have to make some decisions.  Do I ignore the notes and start marketing the script, or do I make revisions to the script to improve it, or do I consign the script to the digital storage cabinet in the sky and move on to the next project?
  • If the script makes it to the semifinals (which it did), would it be worth the entry fee?  Since my main goal was a little affirmation, the answer is yes.  Someone else thinks it is well written.  Now I’m looking forward to receiving the scoresheet and notes, revising the script, and starting the marketing process.
  • If the script makes it to the finals, would it be worth the entry fee?  Yes.  In addition to revising and marketing, I might also include “This script was a finalist” in my queries to producers.
  • If the script is one of the winners, would it be worth the entry fee?  Duh.  In addition to receiving cash that would cover the entry fee and even provide a little extra pocket change, the real opportunity would be the mentorship sessions I could have with Larry Brody.  That’s where I ask for specific recommendations for the script and suggestions for marketing.

For me it seemed like a good business deal.  So, I entered the contest.  At this point, I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth.

NOTE:  I could easily have entered the script in dozens of contests (the old throw it against the wall and see if anything sticks approach) but that would have been expensive and a misuse of my funds.

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