Forget pitch meetings, networking, taking courses or having the same dentist as Steven Spielberg. The best shortcut to making it as a screenwriter in Hollywood may be as close as your mailbox.
At least that's what contest participants are betting on. We're not talking Publisher's Clearinghouse. These contests are known as Nicholl, Disney, CineStory, Austin, Kingman, to name just a few. They are screenwriting competitions, dangling in front of writers the ultimate prize--being discovered.
Established contests, as well as new ones, are being deluged with scripts, sent by writers who hope winning will provide the break they need. Some competitions have been around for a long time and are considered to be proven career-boosters. Others are newer, smaller and quirkier, without a track record.
With entry fees ranging from around $30 to $100, "most people can't afford to enter all of them," says Terry Frazier, editor and publisher of the Writer's Aide Screenplay Contest Newsletter, which tries to list all existing competitions. Frazier says that if a writer enters 20 competitions a year, he could easily spend $1,000 on entry fees, copying scripts and postage. (Disney is the only contest listed above that does not charge an entry fee.)
Now, $1,000 could buy some nice writing time in, say, Hawaii, and you never know who you'll sit next to on the plane. On the other hand, waiting for the mailman to bring a letter saying "Congratulations!" is kind of fun. And as any aspiring writer will tell you, waiting is as much a part of the game as is writing.
So, the question is: Are screenplay competitions worth a writer's money, time and energy?
"They're one of the best ways for an aspiring writer to get noticed," says Frazier, adding that winning a major competition, such as the Walt Disney Fellowship Program or the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Competition "is the biggest plume you can put in your hat."
Does a big feather in your headgear really open doors? For graduates of the Nicholl program, the answer appears to be at least a tentative yes. As many as five $25,000 fellowships are awarded annually, with the understanding that the recipient will complete a screenplay during the fellowship year. Some past winners do sport nice feathers. They include Allison Anders ("Gas Food Lodging"); Randall McCormick ("Speed 2"); Radha Bharadwaj ("Closet Land"); and Andrew W. Marlowe ("Air Force One").
With more than 4,000 entries each year, even being named one of the 200 finalists is something to include on a resume. When writer George Ferris entered four scripts in the Nicholl competition, he made contest history by having all four make the cut to the quarterfinals. One of these went on to become a semifinalist. Ferris jokes that "it's given me bragging rights. I can go into bars and bore strangers now." Two of his scripts, including the Nicholl semifinalist, were recently purchased by independent producers and are now in pre-production.
And even if winning a competition doesn't make your name as well known as Joe "Basic Instinct" Eszterhas, it can still change your life. Writer Dorothy Spangler, one of 13 Disney Fellows in 1994 (chosen from 2,700 entries), was able to leave an insurance company job. The fellowship gave her a one-year spot at the Disney Studios, receiving a $30,000 stipend.
"It really was a big leap forward in validation and self-confidence," says Spangler, who now works as a story consultant for Samson Entertainment, a small independent production company in Woodland Hills.
Plus, winning anything can make you feel like Cinderella at the ball. Spangler remembers the moment she heard she had won: "I jumped up and down and screamed 'whoopee' a couple of times. Then I went out and bought a 'Lion King' cake and took it to work the next day."
Winning a small contest also can produce temporary elation, but it's not likely to put a writer into the fast lane. After completing her first screenplay, public relations executive and writer Marlane McGarry entered it in a California Writers Club competition. She won first prize, a weekend at the group's conference in Pacific Grove, Calif.
"I was particularly pleased, because it was my first effort, and I actually won a contest. Then reality came crashing in," says McGarry, explaining that winning the contest didn't change the challenges facing every aspiring screenwriter, such as getting material read and finding an agent.
Some contests try to connect the winners with mentors and career guidance. The CineStory Screenwriting Awards, located in Chicago, link the winning writers with executives in major production companies.
"We try to deal with writers' career aspirations. That's what sets us apart," says Mark Hartigan, CineStory's director of Awards. "We're one of the most writer-friendly organizations."