by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
I want to preface this list with a hard truth: screenwriting competitions are not the best way to break into the industry. Yes, a collection of high finishes in top contests will help you build your resume and get more reads. But, based on what I’ve seen and heard, the very best way to break into the ranks of professional screenwriters – assuming you can write professional caliber scripts – is moving to Los Angeles; getting a job in the industry where you have access to working writers, producers, reps, or people in development; and hustling. By that I mean going to networking events, making real friends, working continuously on your craft, pumping out new material, and being ready when someone opens a door for you.
This sucks. Because this path simply isn’t a viable option for a lot of us – those who came to screenwriting later in life and can’t reasonably go back to assistant level work, those who can’t move to LA for this reason or that… But that’s the way it is.
Now, given that screenplay competitions are not the best way to break in, they can be incredibly beneficial to writers in a number of ways:
- Recognition – The validation that your writing is on the right track, you’re getting better, and you’ve created something worthy of praise – that’s huge.
- Connections – Some competitions will set you up with mentors, get Industry folk to give you feedback, or provide you with general meetings. These meetings rarely go anywhere, but they’re great learning opportunities and chances to build your network.
- Reads – Many managers and agents will request scripts from top contests. (The two contests that regularly get mentioned by reps are Austin and Nicholl.)
- Cash/Prizes – Cash and prizes usually aren’t going to forward your career in a meaningful way, but they can be nice perks and can help subsidize the costs of entering so many competitions…
The big drawback of most screenwriting competitions is that they’re not cheap. You can’t enter everything, nor should you, so choosing the competitions that will have the most value for you is crucial.
In my experience, these are the screenwriting competitions and film/TV fellowships that are worth entering/applying to.
The Top 5 Screenwriting Competitions
The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting is the most respected award that an amateur screenwriter can obtain. The Academy awards up to five $35,000 fellowships every year from a pool of about 7,000 feature script entries. The thing to keep in mind with the Nicholl fellowship is that the Academy has a type – the scripts that tend to rise to the top in this competition have strong messages as well as progressive and traditionally underrepresented characters and storylines. Your campy horror-comedy isn’t likely to do well here unless it has a brilliant social justice metaphor expertly layered in.
The Austin Film Festival screenplay competition may be the very biggest screenplay competition there is. Last year they got over 10,000 entries. The good news is that those entries are broken into categories. The drama category is always the most competitive (usually over 4,000 entries, I believe). Last year I had the honor of making the semifinals in the comedy pilot category (top 20) and was told the category had about 1,400 entrants. As a semifinalist I got two meetings with managers and probably five script requests total. Getting to this level or above will get a lot of eyes on your logline, but after that it’s a matter of what people are looking for, and that’s always a crap shoot.
I’m talking specifically about the feature and pilot competitions – these are legit. I don’t know if the Script Pipeline brand is necessarily seen with the same weight by reps as Austin or Nicholl, but I do know that the people behind Script Pipeline have a great network behind them and they work hard for their winners and finalists. They even recently said that if you’ve won another top contest, they’ll review your script for free to see if it’s a good fit with anyone in their network. That’s awesome, and I think it speaks to the integrity and mission of this well-established competition.
This is a UK-based competition, but the entrants come from all over the world, and the judges are all Industry pros. I haven’t entered this one myself because I have a bit of a professional relationship with the people who run Shore Scripts, but I’ve wished more than once that I could give it a try. It probably has substantially fewer entrants than the likes of Austin while offering a much better prize package – guaranteed industry reads, meetings in Hollywood, script development…
Yes, I co-run this competition, but before you write me off as biased, hear me out. Write/LA offers prizes to everyone in the Top 50. It flies three writers to LA, puts them up in a hotel, gives them a two-day private writing workshop, brings in Industry Insiders to provide advice and answer questions, and then finishes the weekend with an invite-only live read event at Raleigh Studios. On top of that, the finalists all get read by an Industry Insider who gives them written feedback. Our head judge does a feedback phone call with every semifinalist… The list goes on. No, we don’t make promises about representation or guaranteed options. But we do our best to celebrate you, expand your network, and help you become a better, more professional writer.
Film and TV Fellowships
I won’t go into detail on these. Instead I’ll just say that these are all worth checking out, and if you’re eligible, you should apply to each and every one of them as often as you can (they’re all free to apply to except Sundance). They’re all extremely selective and competitive, but these are also all legitimate pathways to begin a writing career. I put these in a different category than paid screenwriting competitions, because these fellowships are actually run by Hollywood’s gatekeepers.
- Nickelodeon Fellowship
- HBO Access Writing Fellowship (every two years)
- Sundance Episodic Lab ($40 application fee)
- Sundance Development Lab ($40 application fee)
- Disney ABC Writing Program
- CBS Mentoring Program
- NBC Writers on the Verge
- Universal Writers Program
- Imagine Impact
- WB Writers’ Workshop
A Final Note
There are some truly great screenwriting competitions and fellowships out there, but there are also a lot of bad ones. Before you enter anything, use your judgement, read the fine print, and make sure the prize package is both deep and of real value to you and your writing career.
If you have any questions, I can be reached at lascreenwriterblog[at]gmail.com.
Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.