Arnon Z. Shorr
A Screenwriter's Contest Strategy to Keep you Sane
Several years ago, I wrote a popular blog post about how to use (and not overuse) The Black List (www.blcklst.com) as part of a screenwriting self-evaluation and marketing strategy.
Since that post, new tools have emerged and evolved that have changed the way I approach the process of getting attention for my screenplays.
Although Black List evaluations may occasionally play a role, I now mostly rely on a constellation of coverage services, screenwriting contests and the submission portal Coverfly (www.coverfly.com)
The First Step
My first step is to make sure the writing is good enough. Those entry fees add up, and if my scripts don't place well, I get no value out of that 'investment'. So instead of wasting money on entry fees to 'test' my screenplay, I spend a bit more up-front on script coverage or notes.
Sure, I also get notes from friends, but the real test is to get feedback from people I don't know (so I know they're not going to 'try to be nice' when they should tell me what's actually wrong with my script!)
The Black List is the cheapest option for quick-turnaround evaluations of your writing. (See my blog article if you're cash-strapped and need to use the lowest-cost option for initial feedback.)
After really enjoying that service, I've found over time that the quality of the notes and the value of the rankings wasn't quite as high as I had hoped it would be. Now, instead of The Black List I use a range of coverage services from Indie Film Hustle, WeScreenplay, Shore Scripts, and others.
The coverage I get from these services is more expensive, but it's also more comprehensive than the stuff that comes from The Black List. It's a good way not just to find out if my screenplay is good enough, but what I might consider improving before submitting the screenplay to competitions.
What is Screenplay Coverage?
At its core, coverage is feedback. You send your script to a coverage service, pay them a bunch of money, and they have an experienced reader read the script and write feedback about it. The feedback may include a synopsis of the story (which can be a useful way for you to test if your intended story actually comes through) and specific notes about what works and what doesn't in your writing.
Some coverage services also offer notes on the market potential for your script - is it better-suited to an indie producer or to a big studio?
Many coverage services also provide a "score" which usually boils down to three 'grades' - PASS, CONSIDER or RECOMMEND.
You want your script to get a RECOMMEND before you start submitting to competitions.
Screenplay Coverage Strategy
Like with The Black List, coverage services can be inconsistent. One reader might love your script. Another might hate it. For that reason, I rarely trust just one evaluation. When I have a draft that feels ready, I usually submit to at least two coverage services to see what sorts of feedback I get. I don't submit to screenwriting contests until I get at least one RECOMMEND and one CONSIDER.
If the script doesn't get the high scores it needs, I take the notes and revise the script, then I submit for more coverage.
Once I have the RECOMMEND and CONSIDER (or two RECOMMENDs - even better!) I submit my screenplay to the contests.
Which Screenplay Contests should I Submit to?
It's hard to know which screenplay contests are worth the fee. At the end of the day, none of them are worth anything if your screenplay isn't good enough.
But if you've tested your writing with coverage, and you're ready to submit it to competitions, consider a few guidelines.
There are lists of 'top screenwriting competitions' out there. Don't take any one list as gospel! Look at several lists, and see which contests come up multiple times. I won't recommend any here that I haven't personally had good experiences with. (So if I don't list a contest here, it might be awesome - I just haven't experienced success there yet!)
I used to think that the top contests were the ones where the winners got the biggest prizes. That's not necessarily a good rule of thumb. After all, there's usually only one winner, and there can be thousands of applicants.
The thing to look for instead is how the festivals treat their finalists (and, in some cases, semi-finalists). If you're lucky - but not lucky enough to win the screenwriting contest lottery and land at the top - you'll find yourself rising to "finalist" in some of the contests to which you apply.
Here's what to look for:
The first couple of rounds of a screenplay contest are read by 'readers' - nobody who can actually do anything for your career. But at many of these competitions, the finalist round is read by people who can actually do good things for your career - you want them to read your work and love it, so that even if you don't win, they still reach out to you to discuss it and maybe help your work along somehow. Most good contests will list (or hint at) who's reading the finalist screenplays, so check their websites!
The Page Awards is very good example of how this works. As a Finalist, my screenplay was read by top literary agents and managers. Although I didn't win, one of the managers who read my script even reached out to me after the competition and asked for a meeting to learn more about what I write.
The best screenwriting competitions offer significant support to their finalist screenwriters (and not just to the winners). This may include sending out loglines to their industry contacts, offering to set up meetings, making introductions, etc.
I got to experience this first-hand when my PAGE finalist script hit the Launch Pad top-50 (that's their 'finalist' level). Since then, there's a guy at Launch Pad who emails me once every few months to see if there's anything he can do to help my career along. He has submitted my screenplay to agents and managers, and has tried to facilitate meetings on my behalf.
These are the contests you want to submit to - the contests that actually work to get high-scoring screenplays into the hands of the right people.
The Critical Keystone to the Whole Screenwriting Contest Strategy
Ther is one more important (nay, critical!) piece of the strategy:
As much as possible, I submit to these competitions using Coverfly. Ditto (and in some ways, more importantly) for the coverage services.
This is because Coverfly aggregates the results from all these contests and coverage scores and uses that to rank my screenplays in comparison to all the other screenplays that use the service.
What is Coverfly?
At its core, Coverfly is a "common application" website for submitting screenplays to screenwriting competitions. What differentiates it from typical 'common application' sites is that Coverfly tracks your script's progress, assigns it a score based on its performance in the competitions, and ranks it in comparison to other screenplays on the Coverfly service.
How do Coverfly Rankings work?
High-ranking scripts may appear on Coverfly's "Red List." Getting Red-Listed might feel nice, but it doesn't mean too much, as the Red List is subdivided into a zillion categories and several timeframes. I've had screenplays in the top-20 for "Sci-fi feature of the month" or "western feature of the month" for numerous months over the last several years.
The harder "Red Lists" to hit are the ones that measure top-performers over the course of the year. "Top sci-fi screenplay of the year" is a much harder bar to meet. "Top screenplay of the year" is even harder.
Coverfly also offers an overall ranking, as compared to all other screenplays on the platform. Currently, I have scripts in the top 1%, 4% and 7%. Top 1% means something. People have seen the script on Coverfly and have reached out to me about it. The rest of the rankings are nice, but those scripts need to perform a little better in order to get serious industry attention.
Other Coverfly Benefits
Screenplays that are listed on Coverfly can be made available to readers. For high-ranked scripts, this can be a great way to get additional exposure. My highest-ranked scripts have been read numerous times by executives and reps who browse Coverfly for new talent.
But Coverfly makes an effort to create more opportunities for its top-scoring writers. Last year, Coverfly selected one of my screenplays for a professional virtual table-read. They hired actors and set up a really impressive presentation, and gave me the opportunity to invite reps, producers and industry friends to sit in on the performance of my script.
They also routinely give high-ranking writers opportunities to pitch their scripts to industry insiders - a level of support and access that is otherwise very hard to get.
Putting the Strategy Together
It starts with Coverfly. I upload the script to that platform, add in all the info that the platform asks for, and prepare to submit the screenplay to coverage services.
When coverage comes back with at least one CONSIDER and one RECOMMEND, I begin to submit the screenplay to competitions.
At this point, since I get the coverage through Coverfly, good coverage scores begin to push my Coverfly ranking up. A "Recommend" might put a screenplay somewhere in the top-20% or so. (But don't brag about this - nobody cares about top 20%. The vast majority of those screenplays won't see day one of production).
I use Coverfly to submit to the screenwriting competitions that I've heard good things about - contests with a strong panel of readers who will read the finalist-level submissions, or who have a strong track record of continuing to promote and support top-scoring writers and screenplays.
As those results come in and my Coverfly ranking increases, I can use that ranking along with contest results as a talking point when pitching my screenplay. As an example, when I tell people about "Out of the Sky", I can describe it as "a PAGE, Launch Pad and Vail Finalist that's currently a top-1% screenplay on Coverfly"
How much does all of this cost?
Fortunately, the Coverfly service is free to screenwriters. But everything else does add up.
Coverage can cost anywhere from $99 on the ultra-cheap end to several hundred dollars.
There are screenwriting contests with no fee, but most will charge anywhere from $20 to $99 (depending on the contest, and on whether you hit the early or late deadlines)
I keep a spreadsheet to track my submissions - a separate spreadsheet for each project. I keep track of the costs in that spreadsheet, too. This helps me make sure I'm not throwing good money after bad on a screenplay that simply isn't ready yet.
Generally, I've been spending a little over $1000 on this process per screenplay, spread out over the course of about 6 months. That's $400-600 on coverage services, and the rest on screenplay contests. If a screenplay consistently places in contests, I might spend a bit more on it to submit it more broadly. If it doesn't seem to be doing well, I hold off on more submissions until I figure out how to improve it.
Yes, it's a lot of money, but once I sell even just one of these screenplays, it'll pay for all the contest and coverage fees I've paid over my entire career. And it's cheaper than graduate school.
More than one way to skin a cat...
I'm sure there must be many ways to approach the early-career screenwriting game. I certainly won't pretend that my approach is better than anyone else's. In fact, if you do things differently, and you think there's something you do that could be helpful to people, please share in the comments below!