Screenwriting contests are, from my understanding, a good way to get noticed. Maybe not the best way, but the best way is subjective anyway. People get representation and their names on the Black List (which sometimes leads to production) from contests every year. It wouldn’t surprise me if the numbers were similar to people gaining representation and option deals from query letters or knowing someone. They are a tool, and a good one.
So far into my young life as a serious writer (if I can be considered serious), I have only entered contests in my bid to get someone who can help me to notice me. I have a query letter drawn up and some contact information for people I think might be interested in what I offer, because I don’t have a huge body of work and I’m still ironing out the wrinkles of my own talent, and the fact that I don’t live in LA yet I’ve decided to wait on that aspect of the business of being paid to write.
The bigger value in these contests, to me, is the sense of worth it gives you. Until I did well in the contests I entered with an admittedly weak draft of The Time Bubble (and a silly title), I wasn’t sure if I was just wasting my time. While I didn’t win any contests, or even do well in certain ones, I did well enough in others that it gave me the confidence to keep pushing forward. To try again. I’m not worried about doing poorly in these contests and it destroying my reputation because I don’t have a reputation. I’m a nobody, which is great because it means I can keep making mistakes and not really be penalized for it (except in the wallet). If I were to query with a weak draft of something it would follow me.
My one piece of advice in this matter is to enter the best contests. It’s tempting to enter small contests without much competition, if only to recoup the costs of entering others. But those contests won’t be a good barometer of your talent. If you’re the best in a weak field, how good does that make you? Mediocre? It’s difficult to say at that point.
However, if you enter the biggest and best of contests (i.e. Nicholls, Page International, etc.) and you do well, it is not only evidence that you’re on the right track but it can be a confidence boost. I did ok in most of the contests I entered this year, but I was eliminated in the first round of both Fellowships I applied for (Warner Bros. Writer’s Workshop and Nicholls) so my confidence was pretty low. Then, out of the blue, I went to the semi-finals of the Page International Competition. The judging differs for the Page, which was an advantage for me, but I still placed in the top less than 10% of scripts within the Science Fiction genre. Because I did so well in the Page, decent in some other contests, and poorly in still more, that told me that 1.) writing is incredibly subjective and 2.) if I beat out almost 5,000 other screenplays to get that far (even if only in one contest) I’m doing something right. I’m not sure I would have had that same reaction if I did well in a really small contest.
Many contests also offer feedback. Typically it costs more, but it can be very useful to understand why you didn’t advance or how you can be a better writer. I’ve yet to opt for feedback (because I’m poor), but that’s why I use Black List 3.0.
BL3.0 is probably the most useful service for screenwriters I’ve found so far. Much like contests I don’t expect to get noticed from it, but the feedback and scoring system they provide can give you a sense of where you stand against established screenwriters. This is different from contests, because contests only allow amateurs to enter. I’ve written about BL3.0 before, and how they score.
BL3.0 is an excellent resource for those who are on the fence about entering contests. I discovered BL3.0 after I had already went wild with contest entries, but for my latest project I’ve decided to get feedback from BL3.0 before entering. I’m hoping that this will be enough to put me over the edge and maybe make some finals or even win a contest. And, of course, if my script is rated highly enough on BL3.0 it is visible for industry pros to see and download among other perks. That feels like a longshot, though, so I’ll stick with hoping for constructive feedback.
In conclusion, enter the best contests to know your worth. Utilize them as means rather than ends. But most importantly, don’t get discouraged if you don’t do well in one. In another you might do smashingly. Not to mention the learning experience they provide. Some might say that’s the most important thing to get out of it.