I recently read Gavin Polone’s article, “Who Really Determines the Fates of Aspiring Screenwriters?” If you haven’t read it yet, definitely take a look at his insightful piece. Gavin Polone is a film and television producer whose credits include Zombieland and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The titular question that Polone answers in his article got me thinking about the importance of screenplay competitions. With the current state of the studio system and the deluge of scripts in agency offices, it has become increasingly difficult for aspiring writers to break out. Winning or advancing in a screenplay competition may be more relevant than ever and could be what alters your fate as a writer.
With increasing numbers of submissions to agencies and production offices, it’s no surprise that the agents that Polone refers to don’t actually have the time to read everything. In screenplay competitions, EVERYTHING is read (or should be if you’re paying an entry fee). At AFF, each script is given careful consideration with each one read at least twice by two different readers before being eliminated. The readers we use are also carefully selected and interviewed in person and closely monitored during the reading process. In an agency or production office, it seems unlikely that there would be a consistent and efficient process for combing for quality material. Also, many screenplay competitions now provide constructive feedback for submissions which you almost never get from an agency.
Screenplay competitions have been around for a long time (AFF is now in its 19th year) and it’s nothing new that if you win or advance in a competition, the likelihood of your script moving up to the top of the stack in an agent’s office would be greater. Many success stories have come out recently from previous alumni of the AFF Screenplay Competition who are now signed with an agency or in production on their script. Some of those include:
- Christopher Cantwell, a 2010 Semifinalist, recently had his script “Off the Grid” optioned by Indian Paintbrush (Jeff Who Lives at Home). Christopher e-mailed me a few months ago to tell me that his current agent at ICM first reached out to him literally as his plane was landing upon returning from the AFF Conference. He credits this to placing in AFF. His script also ended up on the 2011 Black List.
- Julie Howe, the 2010 Comedy Screenplay Winner, signed an exclusive deal with Experience Media Studios last year to produce her screenplay, and has since expanded the team to include Sony Pictures Entertainment-based producers Alex Siskin (Big Daddy, Mr. Deeds) and Joyce San Pedro (an AFF judge and panelist).
- Rachel Long and Brian Pittman’s 2008 Finalist script “Stranded” was previously acquired by Rick Dugdale and Daniel Petrie Jr’s production company Enderby Entertainment (this year’s sponsored award judge). The project is currently set to go into production this June with Petrie set to direct.
Other screenplay competitions also have had great success in helping their writers. The BlueCat Screenplay Competition has had similar success with getting their top writers signed with top agencies. The Nicholl Fellowship of course has always had a great track record with their finalists and winners each year. Many of our previous winners have also been Nicholl winners including last year’s winner, Dion Cook, and the 2010 winner, Andrew Lanham. If you’ve got the funds, submit to as many competitions as you can.
Submitting to screenplay competitions is a great start but don’t stop there; create a webisode series, adapt your story into a book or stage play, or even take the initiative and shoot the script yourself. The bottom line is: if someone at an agency doesn’t take notice of your script, make them take notice. Or make them wish they had if you succeed elsewhere. At the end of Polone’s article, there is a silver lining when he states, “Fear not, since, in my experience, truly good writing always finds its way to the decision-makers…” It’s nice to know we can still remain optimistic.
–Matt Dy, Screenplay & Teleplay Competition Director