Limitations of the Screenwriting Competition Model, and How Coverfly Wants to Improve It
Four years ago, I was a software engineer living on the east coast without a clue about the inner-workings of Hollywood. My best friend from college had just moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting, but he wasn’t having any luck — that is, until he won two major screenwriting competitions in the same month. He consequently signed with a manager at 3 Arts Entertainment and two agents at UTA, optioned a TV show to a studio, and got staffed as a writer on an award-winning Netflix show.
As it turns out, this wasn’t just a fork in the road for my friend. Three thousand miles away, impressed by my friend’s success, I became curious how and why screenwriting competitions operated.
I decided to quit my job, move across the country, and eat ramen noodles for a few years while my friend and I, armed with his first-hand experience of how to get noticed, built a talent-discovery platform of our own.
Today, I run Coverfly: a free-for-writers platform that helps emerging screenwriters get discovered. We are a full-time team of twelve (by the way, we’re hiring!) obsessed with improving the current talent-discovery model in Hollywood.
Breaking into Hollywood as a screenwriter is notoriously hard. The conventional wisdom is to move to Hollywood, get a job as an assistant, work your way up, and after several years, network your way into a writing job. Or maybe you have a friend or cousin already in the industry that is willing to read your script and pass it along to a literary manager or studio exec. Or, perhaps you have a time machine and can teleport to the 1990s and sell your first spec script for $3 million.
But if you don’t have the money to relocate to LA and work for pennies as an assistant for several years, and if you want to avoid getting stuck in a Primer loop by dabbling in homemade time-travel, there’s another proven way to break in: screenwriting competitions.
Screenwriting competitions don’t care where you live, where you’re from, what you look like, where your college degree is from, or who you know. Because you’re paying a fee (most of the time) to compensate the competition’s readers for their time¹, they’ll read your script, and if it’s good, the top competitions will put it in the hands of someone who can make something of it.
Empirically, there are a couple dozen screenwriting competitions that have done exactly this: built heat around their winning writer(s) and ultimately landed the writer representation, a paid writing assignment, a job in a writer’s room, or a flashy spec sale.
Screenwriting competitions are a valuable, necessary, and self-sustaining mechanism for discovering new screenwriting talent without bias. They can help knock down the walls that have barred geographic, socioeconomic, and racial diversity from Hollywood for so many years.²
If I believed the screenwriting competition model was perfect, however, Coverfly wouldn’t exist. As I’ll explore below, the model today is not only flawed, but sometimes exploitative of writers. Coverfly’s mission is to fix these problems and replace the archaic, inefficient and biased mechanism of talent-discovery in Hollywood. Breaking into Hollywood as a writer shouldn’t be about who you know, how old you are, what you look like, or where you’re from. It should primarily be a function of how well you can tell a story in the form of a screenplay.
Here are three key problems limiting the screenwriting competition model:
Problem #1: It’s unclear which competitions are valuable to writers.
The advent of the digital age, as well as the absence of any sort of regulation or accountability, has made it easy, and sometimes profitable, for just about anyone to announce a call for entries for a new screenwriting competition. We’ve seen hundreds of new screenwriting competitions being launched in just the past few years. This makes it a minefield for writers trying to determine which competitions are able to offer meaningful exposure for its winners to the entertainment industry, and which are not. Without a reliable way of rooting out the scams, some in the community have taken the knee-jerk reaction of labeling all screenwriting contests scams.³
In truth, writers should evaluate a screenwriting competition based on the expected value (EV) they receive from submitting to that competition. Expected value, in this case, can be calculated as:
(the chances of winning or placing × the prize for winning or placing) −(the cost of submitting)
Given a screenplay competition, if this value is greater than zero, then submitting to that competition is considered expected value positive (EV+), and if it’s less than zero, submitting to it would be considered expected value negative (EV-). Writers should avoid contests that are EV-.
Of course, using this formula requires knowing the values of each variable. Estimating one’s chances of winning a competition isn’t too difficult. Odds are based on how well your script has been received by readers in the past, and taking into consideration the number of other submissions in the contest that your entry is competing against. Most competitions post their annual submission numbers. Likewise, the cost of submitting is public information. But the prize for winning, in some cases, is far from concrete. In reality, the prize variable in the formula above should really have been broken down as (cash prizes for winning + intangible/non-monetary prizes for winning). While most competitions offer cash prizes as a portion of the prize pool, and this number is easy to find, the value most winners expect from winning a competition is exposure, career traction, and mentorship — and the value of that is a difficult number to calculate in terms of dollars — it really depends on how much you value the stated prize and how confident you are that the competition can deliver that value to you. So let’s break down how to identify a valuable competition.
Screenwriting competitions can be broken into three categories:
- The No Brainers — All writers should enter these types of screenwriting contests. These are competitions where even if you assume the value of intangible/non-monetary prizes to be zero, submitting to them is still EV+. Examples⁴ of these contests are programs with free or heavily subsidized entry or application fees, such as studio writing programs, festival writing labs, contests organized by charitable/not-for-profit entities, and contests run by volunteers. If you win, you get some value. If you lose, you’ve lost nothing other than your time applying (or an amount of money that was worth the risk).
- Probably Worth It — Writers should submit to these contests if they can afford the submission fee and if they seek exposure. These are the competitions where the intangible/non-monetary prizes for winning are large enough to make them EV+ for writers. They should have strong track records of generating success for their winners.⁵ Because these contests are taking in more money from writers in submission fees than they are paying out in cash prizes, in order for these competitions to provide value to writers as a whole, they must be able to create that difference in value in terms of exposure on behalf of their winners. Characteristic of these contests are contests with longstanding and reputable ownership, strong juries and mentors, proof of industry connections, and a track record of generating success for their winners.
- Probably Not Worth It — Writers should avoid these contests. These are contests that may be well-intentioned, but the intangible/non-monetary prizes for winning are not large enough to make them EV+ for writers. These contests are typically lacking in recent success stories for their winners, have vague or non-existent juries reading the top scripts, don’t offer any direct contact with industry connections to winners, or simply post the results of the competition without any further value to the writers. Indicators of these competitions include:
— Using general phrases like “we’ll distribute your script to the industry” with no evidence of past success or specific industry professionals listed
— First-year contests that don’t have specific industry professionals mentioned and no history of success stories
— Small regional film festivals without any industry mentions in their jury or as part of the prize package
— No way to contact the administrators or no response when you do.
Unfortunately, the majority of screenwriting competitions are in category #3, and sorting contests into categories is tricky and time consuming in the first place. Coverfly attempts to solve this problem by doing the legwork for writers and only allowing competitions (those in categories 1 and 2) we trust on our platform. If you run a screenwriting competition and want to be on Coverfly, you can’t just “sign up” through a web form somewhere and host your competition. In fact, there is no “sign up form” for contests to get on Coverfly. We do our homework on a contest before inviting it to Coverfly. We know the administrators on a first name basis and speak to them directly on the phone. We learn their evaluation process and scoring structure. We reach out to and interview the past winners of contests to ensure that each contest is delivering the value they promise to winners. We require that competitions advertise honestly and fairly. We make sure their ownership is transparent. In other words, Coverfly audits and vouches for every competition it allows on the platform. We also actively support and promote the contests on our platform.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
We do this because we have a stake in the success and reputation of screenwriting competitions. It would be easier and more profitable (in the short term, at least) to let any competition onto the platform. But if screenwriting competitions aren’t serving writers, Coverfly and its mission to break down barriers for emerging screenwriters will fail both as a business and as a valuable service to emerging screenwriters. Coverfly is also owned by the same company that owns ScreenCraft and WeScreenplay, which stand to benefit from the effectiveness of the competition model being nurtured.⁶
Problem #2: Poor user experience for the majority of entrants.
For most competitions, 98% of the applicants receive little of value for their submission fee, other than evaluation of their screenplay and the chance of winning. A common experience for writers submitting to contests is to pay $60 to submit their screenplay, receive a confirmation email, and hear back six months later that they didn’t win. This is a terrible user experience, regardless of the fact that the writer didn’t win. User experience and actual success in a competition should not go hand in hand.
Coverfly attempts to improve the user experience for all entrants in a competition by increasing transparency for the writer. This means giving the writer live updates on the status of their entry in the competition, a dashboard to track and update their submission, and transparent access to the scores and written feedback that the contest provides during the course of judging. It also holds the contest accountable to the submitter by providing proof that the contest did in fact receive, read and evaluate their work.
Problem #3: Poor user experience for entertainment industry professionals.
The primary benefit to the writer of winning or placing highly in most screenwriting competitions is exposure to the industry. Most competitions post an announcement on their blog with an unstructured list of the winning writers. For the most prestigious screenwriting competitions with long-standing track records, this alone can be enough for studio execs and literary managers to take notice. Most competitions worth entering also do active outreach to their industry connections on behalf of winning writers. This can be quite effective; shining a light on a third party (the contest winner) as an up-and-coming writer who was selected from, in some cases, thousands of writers, is a good way to pique a manager or producer’s interest — especially if that person knows and trusts the contest’s track record in identifying talent.
However, while these outreach efforts by the contest can be effective, they can also be extraordinarily time-consuming and inefficient both for the contest administrators, and more importantly, for the industry.
Here’s the thing: thousands of creative executives in Hollywood have full-time jobs dedicated to keeping their thumbs on the pulse of the industry. They’re keeping an eye on new trends in viewership, which projects are getting made, what A-list actors are looking for, what studios are interested in, etc. And all of this insight is changing rapidly — monthly, if not faster. Which means that the types of projects and voices an executive is looking for today may, and probably will, change next month. For contest administrators to successfully promote top projects to the industry, they need to stay abreast of their industry contacts’ constantly evolving interests. It’s incredibly time consuming for contests to stay up-to-date with the changing trends of the industry to ensure their outreach stays effective. Because it’s so time consuming, this outreach isn’t as effective as it could be.
A more efficient model for contests to generate success for winning writers is inbound querying: executives or managers querying contests for specific types of projects or writers they’re currently looking for. Contests only need to spend time learning the tastes of producers actively seeking new writers or scripts. Executives only get queried with material from the contests when they actually want it. It’s a win for both sides.
The problem is, inbound requests require too much effort from the executive, for three reasons:
- They’re skeptical about which contests to trust for quality winning projects.
- Reaching out to the contest is far from frictionless. They have to get in touch with the contest, find the person in charge of writer success, and hope that person sends them material properly suited to their taste. They are unable to browse loglines of winners before their contact information is given away.
- Competitions haven’t banded together to present their winners to the industry in a single, easy to search dashboard. Executives are expected to jump from site to site and sort through poorly organized blogs to find contest winners.
Coverfly pulls together all of the disparate and previously unorganized data points about writers and competition winners/finalists that are floating around the internet and aggregates them into one easily digestible interface for industry professionals to view (if the writer opts to make their info viewable). Industry users can browse by genre, format, demographics of the writer, competition, average project score, and other parameters, and learn about the writer, read their project, and see what else they’ve written, without having to reach out to the contest or writer first (a writer’s project and data is only shared with the industry on Coverfly if the writer explicitly opts-in). It improves the user experience for industry professionals — which is exactly what screenwriting competitions need in order to become a trusted source of talent in Hollywood.
In short, Coverfly makes it extremely easy for industry executives to see which projects and writers have scored the best across multiple contests. We want a time-pressed industry professional to have to do as little digging (and clicking) as possible to find the best scripts.
Coverfly will raise the standard for contests by holding contests accountable to writers, providing writers a better user experience (even when they don’t win or place), and making it easy and natural for industry insiders to tap into the contest winner pool for discovering new talent.
Furthermore, if there’s no effort made by the good-faith operators of screenwriting competitions to band together, self-police the model, and create a unified interface for the industry, the competition landscape will devolve into a mess of unreliable, ineffective, and disorganized operations more focused on their small profits than giving new writers an effective way to breakthrough.⁷
The screenwriting competition model is flawed, but it’s also a vast improvement over the nepotistic and exclusive structure of access to Hollywood that’s been in place for over nearly a century. We hope that an improved and tech-supported version of the screenwriting contest model that Coverfly is cultivating will lead to a more open Hollywood, accessible to fresh and diverse storytellers around the world.
¹ Of course, most screenwriting competitions charge a fee to submit — and this is why they work. At the end of the day, screenplays are difficult and expensive to evaluate because it is a highly specialized and technical format with a long tradition of industry conventions and readers with a very specialized skill set. Professional script readers take time and expertise to read and understand each screenplay carefully. Most qualified people are not willing to evaluate screenplays unless they’re compensated for their time and experience. This is why most established people in the industry won’t read a stranger’s screenplay, despite receiving many unsolicited requests.
If competitions didn’t charge fees, there would be no business model and they would cease to exist, and you’d be left with, well, what you already have — an industry where your script only gets read if you have an inside track or a major movie star attached to your project.
Colleges and universities operate the same way — when you apply to college, you pay an application fee (if you can afford it) to the college to compensate them for the time they’ll spend evaluating your application. In return, the college carefully reviews your application. Imagine if instead of charging, the college just let you submit for free and said “your application will take a lot of time (and money) to read, and odds are it’s not great, so we’ll just read the ones we feel like, or the ones by applicants whose parents we know.” The application process would be even more rife with nepotism, and the student body would be sorely lacking in social, economic and racial diversity — you know, a bit like Hollywood.
It’s also worth noting that even if you’re submitting to multiple competitions per year, you’re still spending considerably less than you would by following the conventional wisdom on breaking in of “move to LA and work for cheap”.
² Unfortunately, screenwriting competitions aren’t perfect when it comes to racial diversity, either. Historically speaking, the winners of major competitions have been overwhelmingly male and white. Recent trends indicate that is beginning to change. Increasingly, studios and competitions are launching diversity writing programs and initiatives to be more inclusive.
³ Craig Mazin and John August had the following to say in a recent episode of their podcast:
“[Screenwriting competitions] are charging you money for a lottery ticket and the thing that you can win is not money or prize but rather a brief moment of pride. And perhaps even a brief moment of not feeling bad. Maybe that’s the best it can be, right? That’s all they’re selling you is false comfort… Winning it is not going to do anything for you and that’s what it comes down to.”
Actually, most competitions give out cash prizes. One of many examples is The LAUNCH, a Coverfly-exclusive screenwriting competition for students backed by two wealthy philanthropists that’s producing the winner of its competition with a million dollar budget and giving out $100k in education grants to eight of its finalists. The statement that you don’t win money or prizes from screenwriting competitions is, simply put, false.
I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, though, and propose the argument they were probably trying to make, which is that screenwriting competitions don’t lead to significant career traction for their winners. To that, I can only point to the hundreds of writers who were discovered as a direct result of winning a screenwriting competition not named Nicholl or Austin. Here’s a direct quote from one of the 2017 ScreenCraft Fellowship winners:
“I can’t begin to express how beneficial the ScreenCraft Fellowship was for my career. It put me in rooms I would have never otherwise gotten into. It gave me valuable experience pitching my projects. It helped land me a manager. And the ScreenCraft staff, specifically John and Cameron, have been my relentless cheerleaders ever since. Winning the ScreenCraft Fellowship is unlike winning any other contest because the people behind it really, truly, care about your success. When you join the ScreenCraft family their team will fight tooth-and-nail for your projects, and for you.”
The (better) argument they could have made against screenwriting competitions is that not enough writers are finding success through contests for them to be worth it. And I agree, to an extent. Some are obviously more effective than others. I suppose the difference between us is that I see it as a viable and important model that needs work, whereas the naysayers believe it’s a model that should be snuffed out altogether.
Mr. Mazin and Mr. August are without a doubt experts on screenwriting, and they have contributed a lot of value to the screenwriting community, but that does not necessarily make them experts on breaking into the industry as a writer in 2018. It’s hard to blame them for issuing a cautionary message about screenwriting competitions when the good ones are few and far between, but their comments fail to acknowledge the value and potential of the screenwriting competition model, which provides a real chance at industry exposure and access to writers outside the industry that don’t have the means or privilege to get connected in Hollywood. I believe their blanket commentary about screenwriting competitions (with the exception of two) almost willfully ignores the major adaptations the contest model has undergone in recent years and fails to recognize a handful of new competitions that deliver vast amounts of value to aspiring writers.
⁴ Examples include Reddit Screenwriting Competition (free), Universal Writers Program (free), The LAUNCH (subsidized, backed by philanthropists), Apu Screenwriting Contest (free), Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship (free), HBO Writing Program (free).
⁵ Other common characteristics of these competitions:
- Success story pages with specific past winners and specific places they signed or sold their work.
- A jury or mentors with relevant professionals in the industry, their name, and picture.
- Transparent leadership/administrators — you should be able to contact someone and get a response.
⁶ Coverfly’s parent company also owns WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft, independently operated companies with popular screenwriting competitions hosted on Coverfly, in addition to other services and educational programs. WeScreenplay, which I developed before Coverfly, runs three competitions each year, and ScreenCraft divides their contests into 14 smaller format and genre-specific categories.
Both companies’ contests meet and exceed Coverfly’s definition of “worthwhile competitions to enter” outlined in point #2. There are hundreds of glowing testimonials from screenwriters available on their websites and on Facebook (here, here, here, here, here, and here). ScreenCraft’s and WeScreenplay’s past winners and industry juries are real and their names are available to the public. Their teams work long hours finding talented, undiscovered writers and getting them signed. This is in contrast to the plethora of scam screenwriting contests that one can find littering the internet.
Coverfly wouldn’t have been possible to build without its affiliation with WeScreenplay. We originally built Coverfly to scratch our own itch and support the technical requirements of running a screenwriting competition and high volume script coverage service with dozens of freelance professional script readers.
⁷ Do you run a screenwriting competition that creates real value for writers? Apply to be on Coverfly. We’d love to have you part of the movement.