The dubious rewards that come from screenwriting competitions and the ‘expert’ readers employed to examine your work.
I’m a screenwriter. Not one you’ll have heard of before – definitely not under this name (pen names, FTW!) and not of anything used to illustrate this article, all of which are the editor’s choice from work he has access to. I’m not even going to suggest I’m a particularly good screenwriter.
Nonetheless, there are hundreds, if not thousands, on Twitter that call themselves screenwriters and haven’t got an optioned script under their belt – I have. They haven’t had a script held for eight months by Amazon Studios before the inevitable pass – I have. None of them will have had a screenplay reach ‘Elevated Consideration’ (whatever that means) with production companies – I have.
Thus, even though nothing I’ve written has yet been transferred from the page to film, if they’re calling themselves screenwriters, I’m going to do it too.
There are many ways to break into the screenwriting industry. You can stalk the bejeezus out of producers, agents, and managers using tools like IMDb Pro and make approaches. Some try networking on sites like Stage 32 and LinkedIn. You can move to LA and start hounding the ever-loving shit out of people. Another option is to beg your rich uncle to finance your single-location low-budget masterpiece and then get rejected for every fucking film festival under the sun until somebody takes pity on you.
Find a hundred different working screenwriters, and you’ll be given a hundred different origin stories, complete with a hundred different tips on how to make it. There is an entire cottage industry of so-called gurus who will sell you a webinar, or mentorship, or just a book with guaranteed results (actual results, not guaranteed).
Of course, once you start perusing these people’s IMDb pages, you’ll often note they haven’t worked for several years, and most of their previous work was critically panned. That might be why they’ve got the time that working writers don’t have.
There is, of course, one oft-promoted option for the budding Tarantinos and Nolans of the world – the screenwriting contest. Yeah, let’s talk about that, shall we?
Let’s be clear, not all screenwriting contests are complete bollocks. Final Draft’s Big Break, the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship, Script Pipeline, Austin Film Festival, and the PAGE Awards have a proven track record of transforming writers’ lives from blundering novice to employed professional. A high placement in any of these contests is enough for the right people to take notice. A Big Break or Nicholl finalist placement will probably result in agents and managers cyberstalking the fuck out of you because they want to sign the next big thing!
They are the minority in an absolute cesspool of predatory organisations that exploit people’s hopes and dreams in a cynical dance with the sole goal of taking money from people who often can’t afford it… and breathe.
Again, not all of the screenwriting contests are like this. Some have good intentions. Some work hard for their winners and their finalists. However, the overwhelming majority of entrants might as well have doused their entry fee in petrol, shoved it up their arse and lit it. And that’s not just because they didn’t win, but that the very nature of screenwriting contests is absolute bullshit.
Almost every screenwriting contest will make a big deal of their ‘industry judges’. Some manage to find judges you’ll have heard of before. Others have pulled a few agents or managers of B-list actors and directors. There is usually some sort of bait, and they’ll advertise how one of their judges worked with the star of whatever show is currently thrilling audiences on Disney+ or Netflix. Let’s just remember the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, for a moment, shall we? Even if you’re low on the Hollywood ladder, chances are you’ve been in proximity to somebody higher up at some point.
Those judges aren’t the ones reading your script. They don’t do a damn thing until the list of entrants has been whittled down to twenty or thirty remaining entrants, or less. So who is reading your script? Who is the gatekeeper between your passion project and the Hollywood ‘elite’?
If you’re lucky, it’s somebody with experience as a script analyst at a major studio, but it often isn’t. The people assessing your script are often some film students straight out of college or writers that have been jobbing around the streets of LA cap in hand for the best part of a decade. They’re no closer to kicking the door in than you are, but that’s what your entry fee is paying for – to be assessed by somebody who might not even be as good as you.
Because these script readers are absolute nobodies, they don’t have to be paid very much! Some contests pay their readers as little as $10 per script. Now, if you’re getting paid $10 for every screenplay you read and assess, how much effort will you put into giving it a fair reading? Would the answer be ‘bugger all’?
If you’ve just paid $50 or more to a contest, you’d expect the entire script to be read, but it probably won’t be. Script readers aren’t hoping to have had a hand in finding the next big Hollywood blockbuster or award-season darling. They’re hoping they can get through enough scripts in a day to pay their bills, buy their groceries, and live their fucking lives. Consequently, they will look for any reason to ditch a script early.
Most scripts end up being skim-read at best. That clever foreshadowing on Page 1 that pays off 100 pages later flies over their head. Subtleties and nuances get lost through the impatience of the reader. That dialogue you invested one hundred hours into perfecting goes unappreciated because the reader isn’t stopping to take it in. And if you submit a horror movie and they fucking hate horror, well, tough titties, eh?
Worst, you get one shot in most contests. Some contests, such as Nicholl, have a minimum of two readers on every script to try and limit subjective preferences, cultural misunderstandings and the other factors from unfairly eliminating a competent writer. Most don’t do that because it costs more, so your advancement in a contest is almost always dependent on your script landing in front of the one reader willing to give it the time of day.
The shitfuckery of competitions doesn’t end there. Far from it! Contests exist to make money, and they’re going to make more money if more people have heard about them and enter…
Enter the Quarter-Finalists!
If you look at the ‘Winners’ page on any competition website, you’ll almost inevitably find a vast list of Quarter-Finalists, and sometimes an almost equal length list of Semi-Finalists. I’ve seen these pages contain six or seven hundred names before, and it is not uncommon for them to be more than a hundred. Why? Free marketing!
Simple psychology – even if you don’t win, but you feel like you almost did, you’re going to be pretty chuffed with yourself. In an industry that defines ‘look at me!’, an irrelevant achievement seems like something worth bragging about. You’ve just been given the sweet validation of a group of supposed experts, so post that digital laurel up on social media straight away. #Screenwriting #AmWriting #WhateverTheFuck
The contest ends up getting extra exposure from happy writers who feel like they’ve accomplished something, but in effect, have nothing to show for their investment. A Quarter-Final placement in most screenwriting competitions will move you no closer to that dream deal than shoving a flare up your arse helps England win a trophy.
Some contests are even shadier. They don’t publish a list of the QF’s or SF’s but will send out an email to all the failed entrants to inform them that they did make it that far – the ultimate participation badge that you’ve just fucking paid for.
This latter practice is even scummier when you consider that it doesn’t help writers. In any competition, there are going to be some terrible scripts. As I mentioned, I am an optioned screenwriter. If you don’t know what that is, someone with a bit of money liked what I wrote enough to give me some money while they whore my script out to people with even more money in the hope of getting it made. As a result, I like to think I’m a competent writer. Not perfect, but y’know, not fucking shite either.
However, I was fucking shite once. I re-read a script recently that I must have written ten years ago, and if it wasn’t my name on the title page, I’d have assumed it was written by a complete muppet. I wasn’t using sluglines properly, my action was overwritten, my dialogue was stilted and naff, and my understanding of the three-act structure clearly needed a lot of work back then.
The thing is, there will be people entering that level of shite, or worse, into any number of screenwriting competitions. Give these people a fucking participation trophy, and you are effectively doing harm by preventing them from doing more to hone their craft. They will see that QF/SF award as validation that they’re on the right path, even if the reality is they’re stuck down a hole, in the fog, in the middle of the night, with an OW-L!
Even the contests that don’t engage in such twatty behaviour rarely do anything to help the writers that need it. Almost none of them share the assessment card that sees a writer get unceremoniously booted from consideration. Once they’ve got your money, you can basically go and fuck yourself with a cactus. Of course, it’s hard to share an assessment card when, as we’ve covered, many of the script readers are not motivated to do their jobs properly.
Some contests do offer feedback, usually at an additional premium that is likely in excess of the entry fee. Even here, competition organisers can’t help being bellends about it. A writer who pays the additional $70 or more for a critical evaluation of their script’s strengths and weaknesses may find themselves receiving a page of glowing praise and still fail to place in the contest. Why? Because the person who assessed your script for feedback is hardly ever the person who considered your screenplay for the competition itself.
This is all tied to the contest-supporting nature of ‘Coverage’. In the movie world, coverage is an assessment of a script’s relative strengths with a view to greenlighting it for production. A studio reader looks at a screenplay, makes some notes about what works, what might need changing, and so on. Finally, they offer a simple one-word assessment – Pass, Consider or Recommend.
A pass means that the studio shouldn’t pursue a script. A consider means that the script might work for the studio if certain criteria can be met (a rewrite, lower budget, smaller cast, fewer locations, etc.). A Recommend is ‘We really should make this.’
For some stupid reason, ‘Coverage’ is now offered as a service to aspiring writers using that very same model. Writers pay anything from $70 to $300 or more for feedback from an ‘industry pro’. The pro’s name is rarely given – just a simple four-line biography that is almost impossible to verify. The pro offers their subjective views on the merits of a script, and then finally, gives them the Pass, Consider or Recommend.
Okay, first thing first. Pass/Consider/Recommend (or P/C/R) has absolutely no business being used outside of the studios. Nobody will be considering your script, and nobody will be recommending it to anybody else. A handful of coverage services say that if you meet particular criteria, they might pass your details on to their ‘industry contacts’ or include you in a logbook, but the majority won’t do a damn thing.
A lot of contest organisers offer coverage as a separate service nowadays – and why the fuck not? Because since P/C/R means absolutely nothing for an industry outsider’s prospects, it has started to be viewed as an indication of whether one should pay even more money to enter a script into a contest. Of course, it fucking has! Because if you send off your script and get a Recommend back, you must be well on your way, right?
This practice leads to people spending money on contests that they wouldn’t have otherwise spent. As many of these companies can afford lawyers I can’t, I’m not going to name names right now. However, I have seen it. A friend, despite my protestations, got coverage back from one of these ‘#1 Hollywood Coverage Services’ (do take note – they all claim to be #1) and got the precious Recommend! Wow, eh? Not a word of criticism anywhere in the several pages of notes. They must have written something damn near perfect, right?
Well, they got excited, and they entered contests – including contests run by the same fucking company that provided the coverage. Spoiler alert: they didn’t get anywhere.
Now, I’ve seen that script. It’s competently written, and there’s an excellent and marketable idea there, but the structure is fatally flawed. Nobody should have given that a Recommend. Why did they? You could argue it was merely subjectivity, and the reader assigned to provide the coverage happened to just really love it. Maybe that is the case? I can’t prove otherwise, although I can lament the failure of the coverage provider to implement some sort of quality control procedure. Surely, they wouldn’t let a single reader hand out such a highly sought after rating without a process to verify that rating is earned, right? Yes. Yes, they would do that.
There is, of course, a more sinister possibility and one that I can’t dismiss easily. When your business plan is so heavily centred around exploiting people’s dreams for cash, the notes you’re offering might become a bit too encouraging. After all, if you’re brutally honest and fair about every single script that comes in from hopeful writers wanting to know where they stand, there are going to be fewer of them entering your competition when cold, hard truth smacks them in the face.
Never mind the fact that many of these coverage services pay their readers a bonus based on feedback from writers. What encourages people to give good feedback? Making them feel good about themselves. How might you do that? Tell a few porkies about the quality of their script, perhaps?
Finally, we get to the game of it all. Meet Coverfly. Coverfly is a platform that ostensibly helps writers connect with competitions because that’s definitely a thing we need more of in the world. Coverfly attempts to turn all of those pointless placements into something more meaningful. It has a ranking system. Place in a contest, and you get a little boost to your ranking. Hooray!
The upside of this is that those pointless QF and SF placements aren’t quite so meaningless anymore! You can get something from them, even if it’s just boosting yourself a couple of percentage points over the other 55,000+ scripts on the platform.
Of course, this cements the pay-to-win nature of this seedy side of the industry. You can’t boost your script’s ranking on Coverfly without gambling on contests or using their approved coverage service, owned by their parent company. Furthermore, unless you’re in the top few per cent, which will cost you a fucking fortune in entry fees, you’re not going to get industry attention this way.
Coverfly proudly boasts of its success at finding agents and managers for writers, getting them staffed on TV shows, or seeing spec scripts sold. Still, when you look deeper, the writers they’re helping usually have ten, twenty, thirty, or more previous placements over several years. You’re looking at people who have spent $1,500 to $2,000 that you can see. How many hundreds or thousands of dollars did they spend on ‘No placement’?
No disrespect to these writers. They have demonstrated the quality of their writing by navigating the competition circuit hellscape on multiple occasions. Simply by doing that, they’ve proven they deserve their success. More power to them!
Even so, Coverfly’s system is encouraging thousands of people to spend money chasing their own tails. It’s the methodology used in the most cynical cash-grab video games that boast ‘surprise mechanics’. It’s the narcotic-like effect of lotto scratchcards—the sense you were so close, you might as well go again. How many of Coverfly’s ‘curated’ competitions are raking it in from this business model that is entirely dependent on ignorant speculation and the false belief that another 10% to your ranking is in easy reach or even fucking matters?
Sure, Caveat Emptor – nobody should spend money they can’t afford. If you dump several thousand into contests and get nothing back, you have to take personal responsibility for your own actions. Coverfly isn’t forcing you to do anything. The shiftiest competition on the planet doesn’t have a gun to your head. And unlike the Blacklist, Coverfly isn’t charging $30 a month to host scripts while users spend again and again on evaluations to chase the magical number eight.
Nonetheless, Coverfly’s curated competitions include two that will make your movie if you win but won’t pay you for it. One won’t even give you the writer credit – you’ll get the Executive Producer credit instead, a credit so meaningless a dozen Kickstarters have offered it for third-tier pledges.
Now, Coverfly isn’t some evil operation preying on illiterate writers. They offer other programmes to try and find great writers, and those who aren’t good enough should hopefully realise that when they drop six hundred dollars and remain in the ‘Top 100%’. Additionally, and to be fair, one of the contests operated directly by another company under Coverfly’s parent company does include free feedback with entries – which is decidedly less shitty than 99% of the other contests out there.
Coverfly isn’t the problem, but it is a monument to an exceptionally broken, often predatory, and almost entirely unregulated system where people are encouraged to spend silly money on wishful thinking. Where contests generate vast amounts of cash for their operators but pay their readers the square root of fuck all and treat their customers like a Vegas casino treats a drunk. Where coverage services can bullshit writers into believing they have a chance to break through the door, but that door is welded shut.
And perhaps where talented writers with potential are scared away from the industry because after spending a thousand bucks or more, all they have to show for it is a handful of badges and a ‘Top 15%’ that isn’t considered good enough by anybody who makes a decision.
Yes, some people will find success through competitions. Some will find success through Coverfly, or the Blacklist, or InkTip, and if they read this, they’ll think I’m just some mardy bitch who didn’t place in a few contests and has written a rather lengthy whine about it. Full disclosure, I’ve entered competitions. I’ve placed. I’ve been a finalist. I even won one. I’m on Coverfly. I’ve got badges and shit on there. Do you know what that got me? Well, I’m writing an article about the bullshittery of contests, so what do you think?
I’m not suggesting that nobody benefits from these schemes. I am saying there are far too many fucking vultures out there and that too many of these vultures are being validated on social media and elsewhere through the glorification of pointless accolades and simple manipulation.
If competitions truly have writers’ interests in mind, stop cheaping out on the readers who have so much power over others. Even if an entrant doesn’t buy the extortionate feedback, have the fucking decency to send the assessment card so they know where they stand and where they can improve. And for the love of whatever deity you want to pretend exists, start being open about your selection procedure. Stop hiding the details of your script reading process in the small print, if you even include it at all. It’s other people’s money that they’re spending in good faith. There is no stopping this charade, but at least stop treating writers like shit, eh?
And if you’re a writer, before you drop your $50 or more entry fee, do some research first because a lot of these contests don’t deserve your time, let alone your money.
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