Independent filmmakers often focus on getting great with their cameras, perfecting their acting and finding out the best way to light. But the craft of screenwriting requires a huge amount of practice to get perfect too.
The best way to get practice writing screenplays, is to write screenplays. Any screenwriter will tell you that. But screenwriting contests present fantastic ways to practice your craft, and maybe get seen in the process, or at least get great notes.
Here are some of our favorite screenwriting contests:
Perhaps the most prestigious in the pack, The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting is an international screenwriting competition ran by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (The Oscars). It was established to identify and encourage talented new screenwriters, and helping struggling screenwriters focus on improving their craft.
Fellowships are awarded with the understanding that the recipients will each complete a feature-length screenplay during their fellowship year. The Academy acquires no rights to the works of Nicholl fellows and does not involve itself commercially in any way with their completed scripts.
The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, awarded annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is the world’s most esteemed screenwriting competition. Each year up to five $35,000 fellowships are awarded to promising authors who have previously not earned more than $25,000 writing for film or television.
Created in 1990 in partnership with the WGAW, the Disney | ABC Writing Program is based in Los Angeles and is widely recognized as one of the entertainment industry’s most coveted writing programs. This is less of a contest, and actually more of a job application process. That said, the strength of your writing is what can get you past the first rounds of the application process.
Writers become employees of Disney│ABC Television Group (DATG) and will be paid a weekly salary of $961.54 ($50,000 annualized) plus eligible benefits. The one-year program is meant to present DATG executives and producers with viable writing candidates who will make invaluable contributions in a writers’ room. Please note – there’s no guarantee of a full time job at the end of the program.
Sundance Screenwriters Lab
Yes, it’s THAT Sundance, and this is also an opportunity that’s outside the normal definition of a contest, depending on your point of view.
The Screenwriters Lab supports writers and writer/directors developing their first or second narrative feature film. It’s a five-day writer’s workshop that gives independent screenwriters the opportunity to work intensively on their feature film scripts with the support of established writers in an environment that encourages innovation and creative risk-taking. Through one-on-one story sessions with Creative Advisors, Fellows engage in an artistically rigorous process that offers them indispensable lessons in craft, as well as the means to do the deep exploration needed to fully realize their material.
If you have previously had more than one narrative feature produced, you are not eligible to apply. Many of the applicants are specifically invited by Sundance, although there’s an open application process for those not individually selected to take part. Some writers are individually invited to take part in the lab, however there is an open application process for everyone else at certain times of the year.
Final Draft/Big Break
The goal to doing contests is to practice and hone your craft, and possibly get feedback, but it’s also to possibly get noticed, right? The Big Break Screenwriting Contest offers film and TV writers in 11 genres the chance to win up to $80,000 in cash and prizes, but more importantly, your work will get an industry review. Grand prize winners also get flown to Los Angeles to meet with managers, producers and executives. There are opportunities for both movie and TV writers in a multitude of genres. Be sure to click the FAQ to learn as much about it as you can.
Script PIMP (Script Pipeline)
In 1999, while working in feature film development, Chad Clough took notice that hundreds of spec scripts weren’t being read in production companies and studio offices. He envisioned a matchmaking service between up-and-coming writers and film executives to better serve both parties. For the writer, their material could be reviewed by an impartial third party, while the industry could receive quality projects via a trusted filter. In 2000, Script P.I.M.P. (Pipeline Into Motion Pictures) was formed and has since offered annual writing competitions and other services to discover new writers for film and television.
Okay, so maybe the name of the contest was un-PC and off-putting. That’s probably why they changed the name of the contest to Script Pipeline. Today there are five different opportunities for your work to get noticed by the industry: The First Look Project, The Great Movie Idea Contest, The Great TV Show Idea Contest, The Screenwriting Contest and the TV Writing Contest.
By the end of 2017, it’s estimated that 15,000 screenplays, pilots, and original pitches will have been reviewed through the competitions, making Script Pipeline a leading review outlet for writers worldwide. Learn more about them here.
Screencraft calls themselves a boutique consultancy specializing in insider access to development executives in the best production companies and studios. They have many different contest opportunities, including a Sci-Fi and Fantasy Screenplay Contest, Horror Screenplay Contest, Comedy Screenplay Contest, Short Screenplay Contest (multi-genre), Drama Screenplay Contest, Family-Friendly Screenplay Contest, Action & Thriller Screenplay Contest, and a couple of other interesting contests, the Cinematic Short Story Contest and the Pilot Launch TV Script Contest
Founded in 1998, Scriptapalooza (and now, its various divisions including TV, script analysis and a fellowship), was created to nurture talent and create opportunities. They believe that everybody has a story to tell. To date, 102 Scriptapalooza writers have sold their scripts, 93 have been hired to write, and 139 have gained an agent and/or manager.
Interesting fun fact, on its 10th anniversary, the winner of the screenplay contest, Brian Price, won with a screenplay entitled, “Whale Farts”.
The last on our list is only here because it’s so stinkin’ fun. You’re not going to get your script read by industry professionals, but you will receive feedback from 3 different professional readers (both positive and critical) and you’ll have access to a forum full of other writers, providing you with additional feedback. If the goal of a writer is to write, their timed competitions and short story focus (no novels or feature-length screenplays here) gives writers inspiration and challenges along the way. Similar to other timed short-format contests, you’re provided with a genre, a location or situation, and a character to include in your script.
NYC Midnight hosts four different contests (Short Story Challenge, Screenwriting Challenge, Flash Fiction Challenge and Short Screenplay Challenge) and each have several ‘legs’, at only one entry fee. Each leg gives the writer another chance to hone their craft and receive feedback from readers.
The bottom line for any of these contests is to enter them. Give them a shot. Some of them are for more seasoned writers, and they’ll have the higher rewards. There are other contests out there, and before you enter any of them, do your research. Some are for certain college alumni only. Some hire unseasoned readers off Craig’s List. The contests and opportunities we’ve listed here have been vetted and have a high level of integrity and a track record of success. Hopefully if you give one of these opportunities a try, your career will be filled with the same.