Are Screenwriting Contests “Worth It”? [STPS #13]

The last week of the year is when I update my list of the “best” (IMHO) Screenwriting Fellowships, Labs, Grants, Contests and Other Opportunities.

This year, I also thought about whether screenwriting contests are “worth it,” generally.

(In this blog, I use “contests” to include labs, fellowships, etc.)

Why Most Contests Aren’t Worth Entering

Back in 2018, on their Scriptnotes podcast,  John August and Craig Mazin discussed a seeming scandal involving various interlinked entities that ran screenwriting contests and feedback services.

John asked on Twitter:

Hey, can anyone tell me whether winning a screenwriting competition actually had a meaningful impact on your career. Like did it actually start your career?

The result, he said, was

I think not surprisingly at all Nicholls Fellowship is meaningful. If you win the Nicholls Fellowship, great. That’s fantastic. It’s run by the Academy. Everyone knows what that is.

Some success out of Austin Film Festival. Very little success out of anything else.

Craig commented:

There are so many people out there charging you money to enter contests, charging you money for notes, charging you money for consulting. It doesn’t work. And more to the point, not doing it has worked. In fact, not doing it has worked for literally everyone you and I know who works as a professional screenwriters. So at some point I think we’re asking people to take a leap of faith here and stop doing this. We know that the Nicholls Fellowship matters. It doesn’t always work, but it can work. We know that Austin to a lesser extent can work. Beyond that, stop. …

More recently, they’ve called into question whether even the Nicholl and the Austin are “worth it.”

The Nicholl and the Austin

The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting are considered the most prestigious fellowships for amateur screenwriters.

Up to five $35,000 fellowships are awarded and Fellows are invited to participate in awards week ceremonies and seminars and meetings in LA in November.

In 2021, there were a record 8,191 entries competing for those five slots.

As Deadline notes,

Past fellows include Alfredo Botello (F9), Allison and Nicolas Buckmelter (Epix and Paramount Home Entertainment’s American Refugee), Destin Daniel Cretton (Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), Anthony Grieco (Screen Media’s Best Sellers), Matt Harris (Netflix’s The Starling), Geeta Malik (India Sweets and Spices), Andrew W. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller (CBS’ The Equalizer), Stephanie Shannon (Apple TV+’s For All Mankind: Time Capsule) and Rebecca Sonnenshine (Amazon’s The Boys).

The Austin Screenplay and Teleplay Competition is run by the Austin Film Festival, which includes a highly regarded Writers Conference often attended by more than a hundred professional screenwriters as well as thousands of wannabes.

In the past, Austin has been considered one of the top five screenplay competitions. However, in 2021 there were widespread complaints about the quality of the reader feedback.

There have also been occasional complaints about readers for the Nicholl.

Is the Nicholl “Worth It”?

 In a bonus segment of the Scriptnotes podcast, John August discussed with data scientist Stephen Follows how he’d determine whether screenplay competitions are ever worthwhile for the entrants.

Here’s Stephen’s response:

I’ve done research on quite a few scripts and quite a few competitions and I’ve never been able to directly address the benefit or not of these competitions because what you have to start from is a quite complicated place. You have to say what would the journey have otherwise been. Because in theory if these competitions are perfect they’re won by incredible writers.

The problem, he explains, is that to tell whether a contest made a difference, “you need to have a different universe where the only difference is they didn’t enter the competition.” Of course, there’s no way to do that.

Improving the odds?

I’m not a data scientist, but I’m a data nerd, so here’s what I came up with on the “worth it” question.

Winning the Nicholl is not a sure path to a screenwriting career.

There have been 171 Nicholl Fellows since 1986.

According to the Nicholl FAQ, 19 of the winning scripts have been produced.

There’s a list of 85 “notable fellows” on the Nicholl website. About 37 seem to have feature credits (many with indie projects they directed). About 14 seem to have TV credits.

That’s 51 out of 171 with at least ONE credit. (I’m assuming there aren’t a lot of success stories that the Nicholl folks don’t know about, but I could be wrong.)

So perhaps 30% of Nicholl winners seem to have at least one credit. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they had screenwriting careers, though some did. It appears that the majority of winners did not.

Winning the Nicholl seems to correlate with improved chances of becoming a professional screenwriter.

How many people want to be professional screenwriters?

About 80,000 people listen to Scriptnotes every week.

As noted above, over 8,000 people entered the Nicholl competition in 2021.

How many of those people will ever sell a screenplay or be paid to write one? Very few.

About five newbie writers, on average, sell a screenplay every year, according to Scott Myers, who has been tracking sales since 1991.

About 300 new members are admitted to the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) every year. (This is the union that represents most professional screenwriters in the US.)

Taking the most optimistic numbers, let’s say that roughly 300 out of 8,000 aspiring professional screenwriters will get into the WGA in a year.

That’s 3.75%.

Compare that to 30% for the Nicholl winners becoming credited writers — about 10 times higher.

(If the pool of wannabe pro screenwriters is larger, or the number of successful Nicholl winners is higher, then the “Nicholl effect” is even more significant.)

These are very fuzzy numbers because some people among those 8,000 plug away at screenwriting for decades, whereas others drop in and out of screenwriting every year. It’s even more fuzzy because I’m comparing how many people get into the WGA each year to how many Nicholl winners have credits ever.

Correlation is not causation.

What’s much harder to determine is whether Nicholl winners are more likely to have screenwriting careers because they won the Nicholl or simply because they’re good enough to win the Nicholl.

Winning the Nicholl is said to “guarantee” that a writer will gain representation by an agent, which is often the first step on the career ladder.

Scott Myers has interviewed 44 of the Nicholl fellows, going back to 2010. Analyzing those interviews could provide a clearer view of the impact of winning, if somebody wants to take on the project.

Why enter contests if you’re not going to win?

The Nicholl FAQs have some useful advice on entering contests:

Don’t enter screenplay competitions solely because you need the money. These competitions may seem like lotteries, with plenty of money to go around. But all of them, especially those that offer the largest prizes, are highly competitive. More than 99 percent of writers who enter contests will not receive a cash prize.

But there are a number of positive results that can arise from entering a competition:

Contests can serve as stepping-stones.

Winning writers, and occasionally runners-up, have used the “heat” generated by their contest victory or placement to jump-start their careers. Winners of the largest contests usually find an agent quickly (if they are not already represented). Their scripts are welcomed by major production companies and studios. If the writer so desires, this typically leads to meetings with countless development execs. Writers who have won major contests have often sold or optioned a script or been hired to write or rewrite a project within a year after winning. This often leads to other work or other sales.

Contest results can be added to a résumé or query letter.

Placing in a contest should certainly be mentioned in a query letter and added to a résumé when appropriate. While the mention of a victory or placement in an obscure contest will not guarantee positive responses from agents or producers, it can’t hurt you. Mention of placement in major contests has often garnered writers reads at agencies and production companies.

Contests can serve as yardsticks.

While most contests do not offer any kind of written feedback on an entrant’s script, the script’s performance may serve as a good indicator of whether the script is ready for submission to Hollywood agents and producers. Reaching the second round of any contest suggests that something is going right. Reaching an advanced round of highly competitive contests may suggest that the script is meeting or is close to meeting professional standards. On the other hand, an early departure from one or several contests may suggest that the script isn’t ready.

Contests can open doors and initiate professional contacts.

Since many contests use industry professionals as judges at advanced levels, it is possible to make contacts simply by advancing in a competition. Some contests provide lists of quarterfinalists, semifinalists and finalists to interested agents, producers and development execs. For a very few writers, these contacts have led directly to a career.

Contests provide deadlines.

Writers have been known to complete scripts when a deadline looms.

According to the Nicholl FAQ:

Anecdotal evidence suggests that while some quarterfinalists receive up to a half-dozen contacts, others do not receive a single e-mail. Reaching the semifinals seems to generate more emails, and the finalists report considerably more contact. These industry queries come from agents, executives, managers and producers.

Diversity Fellowships and Being “Less Than”

Many screenwriting fellowships require a lengthy application including multiple essays and (ugh) videos.

Many fellowships are intended for members of groups that are under-represented in the WGA, including women, people of color, and people with disabilities.

Often, essays ask people to explain how their “unique background influences their writing.” Some have suggested that this invites “trauma porn.”

The vast majority of working screenwriters (who are disproportionately white and male) don’t have to jump through these hoops.

Screenwriter Ashley Nicole Black discussed the issue on Scriptnotes:

I applied for all the diversity programs. I didn’t get in. And then I got a job on television. And a lot of my friends who were doing these programs were with me at the Second City. They had the exact same training I do. And I would watch as our white friends would get a staff writer job and our friends of color would get a diversity program. …

When someone presents a problem to you of like there aren’t enough people of color at your network or whatever and your solution is a training program, what you’re saying is you assume that those people need training. You’re assuming that they’re less than.

IMHO, if you’re good enough to beat out thousands of other applicants to win a coveted fellowship, you don’t need more “training.” You’re already good enough to be hired on an OWA or staffed on a show.

“Breaking In”

As Impact notes below, it’s notoriously hard to “break in” (i.e., sell a script or get your first paying job) as a screenwriter.

Staff writing gigs are rarely advertised. Here’s a rare example of one that was, and I wish more studios/networks would post jobs as a matter of course.

Open writing assignments (OWAs) generally require submission by an agent or manager, and may only be open to WGA members.

The WGA has a staffing and development platform, but it’s only for WGA members.

Simply getting read by agents, managers, showrunners, and production companies is a challenge. Some people send email queries, which rarely work. The best course is to get a referral from someone already in the industry who will vouch for your work. That’s why fellowships, labs, etc. where you meet people (including working professionals) are especially worthwhile.

If you DO know someone, people in the industry are often reluctant to read amateur scripts 1) because they’re usually terrible and 2) because of people like this.

Disrupting the Screenwriting Ecosystem

Various methods have been tried to “disrupt” the screenwriting ecosystem and increase opportunities for writers.

The Black List website (not to be confused with the annual Black List but run by the same people) launched in 2012 and has since hosted more than 55,000 screenplays. It promotes the top-rated ones to industry professionals. There have been a number of cases (such as this one and this one) where scripts were sold or writers got jobs or representation because of scripts on the Black List. The Black List also sponsors many labs, residencies, and other opportunities.

Impact (formerly Imagine Impact) launched in 2018 to

democratize access to the entertainment industry, discover talent at scale and accelerate the often slow, frustrating and antiquated development process.

As Impact notes on its website,

It’s nearly impossible for fresh voices and new talent – who have stories that can change the world – to break into Hollywood. The system is completely opaque, and there are all kinds of barriers: geographic, financial, legal, racial – not to mention the fact that most people don’t even know where to start.  If you’re a creative who doesn’t know anyone in the industry, who do you call or email? Where do you send your material for it to be reviewed, in a town where no one accepts “unsolicited submissions”? How do you get access to a system where the players intentionally make themselves inaccessible to the public?

The initial results were very positive:

In less than three years, Impact has built a network of over 60,000 writers across 125 countries and developed 71 projects – 35 of which have been sold to or set up at major studios and production companies including: Netflix, Sony, FX, Amblin, Village Roadshow, Legendary, and many more. We’ve helped launch the careers of 86 diverse writers, consisting of 44 men, 42 women, 33 BIPOC, 10 LGBTQIA+, representing 11 nations – many of whom have rocketed to the upper echelons of the business making six figure sales and being hired onto high-profile TV & film projects. 31 previously unrepresented writers have been signed by top tier management companies and agencies, including CAA, WME, UTA, Verve, Management 360, Lit Entertainment, Grandview, 3Arts, Writ Large, Underground and many more.

Impact also created the Impact Network:

a talent marketplace and industry networking platform that connects the financiers, distributors, and producers of content directly to the creators that bring projects to life. It’s a destination where creators, buyers, producers, actors, and ultimately crew can build and communicate with their networks, search for talent and IP, and post or browse jobs in an efficient, modern way – leveraging social networking technology to make the process of discovering, developing, staffing, and crewing television and film projects fun and efficient.  Imagine “LinkedIn meets Slack” designed specifically for the entertainment industry – that’s the Impact Network.

Unfortunately, these programs haven’t become the game-changers that many had hoped. I suggested some additional ideas here. But “Uber for Screenwriters” doesn’t yet exist.

So are  contests “worth it”?

Contests may be worthwhile for the intangible rewards (deadlines, encouragement, etc.) discussed above.

Contests (and especially fellowships) are often (but not always) worthwhile for a few hundred people who win or advance in them.

Contests may seem like the easiest option for people outside of the Hollywood ecosystem – even though the odds are terrible – just as lottery tickets are the easiest option for becoming a millionaire, even though the odds are terrible.

There are lots of other ways to “break in,” as I discuss in this blog, but entering a contest requires the least effort and sacrifice.

Many people move to LA seeking 60-hour-per-week minimum-wage assistant jobs as a path to screenwriting – but those jobs tend to favor single, childless people who have family financial support and who are in their 20s. It can be a miserable life; assistants are often subjected to abuse. It’s not a viable path for many, and it often leads nowhere.

So, until something better comes along, screenplay contests may look like the best option that many aspiring professional screenwriters have.