So here is the seventh one about having a great high concept spec *or* a high quality script that wins or places in a contest like the Nicholl. After doing all of my classes they grabbed me and interrogated me when I really wanted to just go home and take a nap.
In the clip I note two of the common ways to get into screenwriting - through spec scripts going out to market and through winning or being a finalist in one of the major contests. Spec scripts tend to get read due to their interesting concepts (“What’s it about?”) and contests are often more focused on the quality of the writing rather than the concept. Of course, there are a million spec screenplays in circulation in any given year and maybe 100 of those sell, so quality of writing is a massive component in spec screenplays as well. But whichever way gets you in, all roads lead to Hollywood... and Hollywood movies. You might write the awesome high concept screenplay which leads to an assignment writing that summer tentpole movie, or you might win a contest and land an assignment working on a summer tentpole movie. These days Hollywood is pretty much all tentpole all the time, so if you are a contest winner - be prepared!
There was a time - only about a decade ago - when Hollywood still made a certain number of mid-range movies, some of which were “prestige” films or dramas, but these days those films are made independently. Outside of the system, and usually written-directed-produced by the same person. They find the funding and make the film - no screenplay is actually sold (the film is funded). A movie like SPOTLIGHT doesn’t come from a studio, but from a filmmaker - Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film and secured the funding through his THE VISITOR producer Jeff Skoll. If you read my daily Script Tips you know that I've been a big fan of McCarthy since his first film THE STATION AGENT (which he found funding for). If you want to work outside the system and do your own thing, it has never been easier to do that. You can make a film for pocket change these days... and many people do. If you don’t want to write tentpoles and don’t want to make your own films, there are still some options available: TV is expanding right now, and even though many shows are high concept and similar to tentpole films (check out anything on the CW) there are still shows that are more low key and dramatic oriented like SHADES OF BLUE. The other option is to head to film festivals and find a director who needs a writing partner - some of my favorite genre films lately are the work of the director & writer team of Nick Damici and Jim Mickle. If you are a great writer there is a place somewhere for you in the business - studio or indie or TV or YouTube or whatever they come up with next. Every entertainment media needs *stories*, and that’s *us*. Finding your home will require that you open your eyes a little wider - if you are not writing the kinds of movies that are being made (and don’t want to write them), you’ll have to find the place where your type of writing is needed. Wait, how many ways to break in is that now?
The first thing you need to figure out is what your skill set is. You need to know what you do well, so that you can match that to a media and a method to break in. Heck, I have a book called BREAKING IN with dozens and dozens of ways to break in... but what’s important is what you are breaking in to... Studio films? Indies? Television? What are your skills and how do they match the media? If you want to break in to studio films, know that you will be writing studio films. There are people who want to write indie type stories for studios... and that seldom happens. Even if you win a contest, chances are if a studio based producer hires you it will be to do a rewrite on some high concept tentpole or comic book movie or maybe a board game turned into a script. That’s what Hollywood does - make big expensive mass audience films. No matter how you break in, that’s what you’re in for.
I look at different contests in the Breaking In Blue Book, and note that the King of all screenwriting contests is The Nicholl fellowship, which is run by those people who give out the Oscars every year. These days the Nicholl pays up to five winners $35,000... but it’s not just about the money, Hollywood producers and agents and managers *fight over* the winners! In fact, even if you don’t win they will fight over you: finalists and even semi-finalists usually get meetings with producers and agents and managers. Of course, there’s a reason *why* semi-finalists are still pretty damned good... there are *thousands* of entries every year (over 7,500 in 2014) and only about 5% advance to the competition quarter-finals, and only about 2% make it to the semi-finals and about ten entries reach the finals.
The Queen of screenwriting contests is probably Austin, and danged if my friend Max Adams didn’t win both the Nicholl and Austin in the same year with two different screenplays! This is probably why you should grab Max Adams’ book (in addition to mine).
The Prince of screenwriting contests is probably TrackingB, because winners and runners up land agents and managers, and the finalist judges are often development people who end up fighting over the winning screenplays. Where Nicholl and Austin just get you on Hollywood’s radar, TrackingB gets you in front of the buyers. The Younger Prince is Tracking Board’s Launch Pad, which is the direct competition to the TrackingB contest... Again finalists are read by people actually in the business who read and buy screenplays for a living, which means if you have a great screenplay this contest will launch your career.
In you win the Final Draft Big Break Contest, you can have a drink with me, since I’m at the big party where they announce the winner every year... along with screenwriters much more famous than I am (last year Max Landis was drinking with my group... so nobody really cared that I was there). So, maybe have a drink with all of the more famous people first.
Other good contests: PAGE, Scriptapalooza, SlamDance, ScriptPipeline, Sundance, BlueCat... and probably some that I’m forgetting, since I’m not a contest guy. Since I was a professional screenwriter before all of these contests began, I’ve been ineligible to enter them.
The thing to watch out for with small contests are the ones which are just money making schemes. Do your research! There have been some interesting scandals in the contest world, including one a few years ago where a small contest run by a script consultant had one of the contest readers admit that they didn’t read all of the screenplays... and I don’t mean they just read the first 10 or 20 pages of each screenplay (which isn’t unusual for first round on small contests, since you can usually tell a really bad screenplay after only a few pages of poorly written sentences), but there were some screenplays that they never read a single page! I discovered that another contest that is part of a small film festival had *no* “celebrity” judges and every screenplay was “read” by the person running the fest/contest and she pocketed all of the entry fees herself. I have no idea if she read all of the screenplays or even if she read any of them! It was all about her making money. The good news about fly-by-night contests like this is that the internet spreads the warnings, so usually all you have to do is Google some contest to find out whether it has had problems in the past. Always do your research!
Since I can’t enter contests, I write and send out spec scripts.
Spec screenplays are the most versatile choice (even the screenplays you enter in contests are specs, right?) because there are so many different ways that you can submit them. In addition to contests, you can submit them directly to production companies (after a query and a request) and to managers (again - query and request) and agents (query and request), plus there are many other ways specs can open a door for you. One thing to keep in mind: the reason why anyone will request your screenplay is that the *concept* sounds interesting. Mangers and Agents and Producers are *business people* who only earn money when a script sells or a writer lands a writing assignment. (Producers are last paid, so they need a screenplay or writer who can create something that gets made if they want to get paid.) Even managers and agents who may be looking for writers they can send out for assignments will be looking for specs with great concepts (unless the writer is one of the handful who wins a contest). The way an Agent or Manager introduces a writer to potential employers is through specs - and the way they get people to read specs screenplays is the same way *we* get people to read our spec screenplays: a killer logline or killer elevator pitch that’s all about the concept. If your concept is dull or mundane or something that doesn’t sound like something millions of people worldwide will be lining up tp pay to see, it will be difficult to get and Agent or Manager to request your screenplay... and then difficult for that Agent or Manager to get reads for you. Yes - there are exceptions. Nothing is an absolute in this business. But you may have noticed that everything in the world is cutting frills and focusing on profit, and Agents and Managers and Producers are no different. Even with referrals, someone is going to ask, “What’s it about?” and then it’s up to the concept to sell them.
This is the reason why there is so much focus on that concept, and why so many new writers fail by writing a script that’s based on a dull or mundane idea. I used to say that TV was the only place where Private Eye and Cop stories were wanted, but if you’ve watched TV of late you may have noticed that the trend for *weird* cops and detectives has gone to extremes - a zombie who eats the brains of victims to solve crimes? So, unless you plan on using the contest method make sure you begin with a great idea! One of these Film Courage Interviews has my “100 Idea Theory” - where you should come up with 100 great ideas and then select the best of them all to script. A well written screenplay with a bland idea is going to be tough to get reads with... and a terribly written script with a great idea isn’t going to get you very far, either! As I’ve said before - there is no “or” in screenwriting. If the question is: which is more important, concept or execution? the answer is: BOTH!
But spec screenplays can also *travel*, and I think that’s come up in one of these Film Courage segments. This is a business of referrals, and there are referrals you know about and ones that you don’t know about. If someone reads your screenplay and thinks it’s great and passes it to someone else in the industry (“You’ve gotta read this!”) that screenplay can travel all over town, from one person to another, and eventually land somewhere that matters. I’ve said before that a great spec script given to the *wrong person* or just left on the street in Beverly Hills has a pretty good chance of being discovered and landing you a gig. There are so few screenplays that get everything right that one which does will go places. People who complain about the gate keepers in Hollywood don’t understand that those gate keepers are *actively* looking for that great screenplay that will earn them points with the boss and further their careers. Everyone wants to be the one who discovered the next big thing!
That next big thing could be *you*!
Good luck and keep writing!