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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Can Winning a Competition Make a Difference?

Today The Script Department's very own Margaux Froley interviews a development exec about competition winning scripts, the spec market and what you can expect from a meeting. Enjoy.


I'm always curious about the perspective of other industry friends, especially those who have come up the demanding ladder of the development world. I recently discussed the current state of the industry with Brian Schornak, VP of Production at Back Lot Pictures. I consider Brian's taste in scripts to be impeccable, meaning he understands a writer's voice and has a terrific ability to help shepherd classy, yet quirky, films. He was involved with the recent successful film, SUNSHINE CLEANING.

For those of you who don't know this fun fact, the script of SUNSHINE CLEANING was discovered in a script contest by the company Brian works for. Brian was also one of the producers who met with the winner of the 2008 Silver Screenwriting Contest, so he's no stranger to seeing screenwriters blossom from contests.

Q: You've seen writers get discovered by contests before, including meeting with last year's Silver Screenwriting Grand Prize winner, Hilary Graham.What common elements are you seeing in the scripts that get plucked from these contests?

Generally, the writer has an interesting, distinctive voice and tells a story that really grabs the reader's attention. Not necessarily the most commercial, sellable story - it's more about establishing the writer as someone to work with and to watch grow. The winning script might turn into a hit spec sale but that's not the be-all and end-all. Some of the specific writing mechanics, like structure, might be imperfect - but those things can always be fixed with development.

Q: So a script wins a contest. Great. Now what? When you meet with the winning writer, what are you expecting them to bring to the table?

I like writers who come equipped with a bunch of ideas - fleshed-out or not - that will give me a sense of the type of screenwriting career that they want to pursue. I also love to talk about movies and get a sense of their general taste. All of this helps me when I'm looking to develop original material or fill writing assignments. Honestly, personality goes a long way, since being "good in a room" is key to landing paying writing jobs. You don't have to be the nicest or funniest person I've ever met, but I take a lot of meetings, so a great conversationalist with intuitive people skills will stick out in my mind long after we've parted ways.

Q: Can a writer really launch a career from a contest?

Absolutely. As a first-hand example, Megan Holley wrote SUNSHINE CLEANING, which was a fantastic script, and submitted it to the Virginia Governor's Screenwriting Competition back in 2003. Our company happened to be involved in the judging process because my boss Glenn Williamson is an alumnus of UVA. She won the competition, we made the movie, and now she's much sought-after all over town. It's been a great experience.

Many other contests - Nicholl in particular, have turned out viable writers, and I think that producers and literary reps alike are looking more closely at contest winners these days. The town is very competitive in terms of finding the next hot writer and the competitions are a great sorting mechanism.

Q: Among the "industry" crowd, how quickly do prize-winning writers get noticed? More by managers than agents?

It depends on the size and reputability of the contest, but in some cases there's a mad dash to obtain and read the winning scripts. Managers might be more inclined to sign writers who have a lot of potential but need some development, whereas agents are more likely to come aboard once a sale seems possible. But that's not always true.

Q: How does building and maintaining a relationship with a production company help a new writer with his/her career?

Writers are always welcome to check in periodically with the execs they had good meetings with (sometimes you just don't feel much of a connection, and that's okay, there are plenty of places to do business). Execs are always putting together lists of projects for paid writing assignments and for internal development projects, so it's good to maintain visibility.

Q: What's the spec market like right now?

The spec market waxes and wanes. Right now it's waning, as for economic reasons studios are cutting back on their development and production slates, so there's less incentive to buy new projects. As a result, production companies are more likely to package scripts with a director or a star before going out to buyers. The movie business, although largely tied to corporate conglomerates, does seem to be fairly recession-proof thus far, so I imagine and hope there will be more activity in the near future.

Brian has also already volunteered to again meet with this year's Grand Prize winner of the Silver Screenwriting Competition. He could be discussing your script with you by October! Hmm...what to wear? Click here to SUBMIT. Deadline: May 1st.

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Christian M. Howell said...

Rather timely as I'm soul-searching in terms of contests. I just got several coverages from &*^%&) and NONE of them were similar enough to make it seem like a template is used.

It's difficult to know what the next reader will think about the changes suggested by the first.

At least with &*^%&). I have what I think is s funny script but it's nearly impossible to tell.

Aaah well, WTH. Onward and upward

Stan said...


Thanks for posting this. I must second Christian's comment on the timeliness. 'Tis the season for script contests. I just submitted to Page and Bluecat and must say it is a humbling experience to 'put one's work out there'. I thought I'd had three or four scripts 'contest ready' but when it came down to it, there was really only one of those four that was 'even close'. So without further ado I bring you...

9+ things I learned in the last few minutes prior to and even the immediate hours after my screenplay contest submission:

1) Proofread your script. Proofread your script. Proofread your script.

2) Beware of last minute 'search and replace' function changes like changing a character's name--apparently I missed one instance.

3) Also, if changing a character's name from a generic term like "The Cop" to "Officer SoAndSo", don't forget to check your grammar with a fine tooth comb.

4) Don't forget to search for two blank spaces. A common typo.

5) Spell check can be a double edged sword...

6) Don't be so click happy!

7) A Spell check is not a grammar check.

8) Some contests allow discounted resubmissions, some don't!

9) Think of your script as a performance on American Idol with Simon Cowell as the only judge! (scary but good to know what you're up against)

As I proofread my script for the umpteenth time, discovering hidden treasures of glaring errors I managed to completely overlook so many times before...

I wanted to say 'oh, they'll overlook that because the story's grrrrrrrreat!' or 'they'll forgive that big grammar mistake because they're still reading at page 65...' and 'they're really liking my characters so it's all good.' forgetting the fact that I just took them out of it with the that big grammar mistake or that obvious type-o. See?

Then I find myself thinking: D'oh! and Ooh what's the reader thinking? Are they throwing my script in the trash, even if the last thirty pages alone would win the Nicholl Fellowship? (or look like the 'lost pages' to Butch & Sundance) *$%@#! But what I'm really thinking is: *that* just cost me $X,000, or at the very least, the price of a resubmission. Double D'oh!

"It's all a part of the experience." -- somebody

"Ashes, baby, ashes." -- Ian Fleming