Written by J. Holtham

You have a great idea for a movie. You buckle down, you write every day, you outline, sketch,scribble your butt off. After a couple of months, you have a script! Yay! You bring it to We Make Movies, get some excellent feedback, do some rewrites. Now you have a great script!

Even more yay!

Now what?

The distance between having a script and making a movie can seem insurmountable. Without an agent or manager to open doors, set up meetings, it’s hard to know what to do. If a writer wants to take the initiative, there is something you can do: throw your hat into the ring and enter a contest or two. But which ones give the most bang for your buck? There are so many out there and all seem to promise the moon to the winner: exposure to agents, managers, producers, sometimes even cold, hard cash. Which ones deliver on those promises?

I’ve been scoping out the contest scene for a couple of years now and I have some tips for you!

Here’s what I’ve found:

– The Nicholl Fellowship is the “big fish,” in terms of screenplay contests. It’s administered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and provides the 5 fellowship winners access to the Oscars, as well as $35,000. It is basically the highest honor available to an unproduced screenwriter/screenplay (you can’t have earned more than $25,000 from screenwriting in your career to be eligible). It’s a year-long fellowship, so you’ll be expected to complete a feature screenplay during that time. Winners of the Nicholl have a great track record of later success. The competition, though, is fierce. Last year, more than 7,000 scripts were submitted. For five slots. Like I said: fierce.

– In terms of contests, the Page International Screenwriting Awards come right behind the Nicholl. They also offer cash prizes ($25,000 top prize), professional services with their co-sponsors and other goodies. Again, competition is fierce, but there’s an upside: the Page International awards are divided into 10 genres. That means there are 31 awards available. But this deadline is fast approaching: April 15th

– A third major contest is the Big Break Contest, administered by Final Draft. Being associated with the premiere screenwriting software gives the Big Break Contest a higher profile. Like the Page, there are different genres and TV pilots are accepted as well. The Big Break has a cash prize, too ($15,000 for the feature script winner, $2,500 for the TV winner), plus an all-expenses paid trip to LA and meetings, an iPad and other perks.

– The TrackingB has a great track record with getting the finalists repped. TrackingB is a industry news source, tracking script sales and news. It doesn’t offer a cash prize, BUT the winner is promoted to the TrackingB’s network of agents, managers, producers and other industry executives.

As far as contests, those are the major ones, the ones which carry weight in the industry. Like a lot of the screen trade, there are a lot of blind alleys and pie-in-the-sky promises with little to back them up. With these contests, a high placement (semi-finalist or finalist) will get your name out there and get your requests for your script. The higher you go, obviously, the more requests you get from the top agents and managers.

It’s also good to remember that several film festivals also have screenplay contests attached:

Austin, Slamdance, Atlanta, Nantucket, as well as others. The Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition is probably the grand-daddy of them all: high profile, good track record, name recognition. Sundance has a Screenwriter’s Lab, but that’s another matter.

Beyond those contests and festivals, what else can you do? There are smaller contests that are rising in stature, such as BlueCat, the Screencraft genre awards, and the Writers Store Industry Insider contests. They maybe don’t have the reach of the Big Three above (yet), but they do have some industry traction, good track records of sales and options, as well as industry cachet. (Full disclosure: I was just a finalist for one of the Industry Insider contests and had a great experience.)

Another reason to submit to some of the smaller contests? Feedback. Many of the smaller contests provide feedback or offer feedback to entrants for an additional fee. Notes and feedback from our friends and peers is extremely valuable, but sometimes it’s good to get an outside eye. (Beware, though, most pay-for-feedback services. But that’s another post.)

Some things to remember:

– Deadlines! Most of contests have three deadlines: an early deadline, a regular deadline and a late entry deadline. (More on the three deadline in a second.) Entering early is always good. Your script will set the bar for the rest of the pack. Keep track of the deadlines! In general, they end at 11:59 PST, but some contests are based on the east coast. Make sure you know when your contest window is closing!

– Fees! Pretty much every major or minor screenplay contest has a submission fee attached. Running a contest can be pretty expensive: if you want good readers reading the entries, you’re going to have to pay for them. So we don’t begrudge the contests the fees. Mostly, submission fees hover around $50. With each deadline, though, the fees go up. It’s standard to see an early deadline fee of $30, going up to $50 for the regular deadline and $65 or $75 for the late deadline. Another reason to get your script in early: it saves cash!

– Withoutabox! Withoutabox is a filmmaking community, owned by IMDB. They offer script and film hosting services, among other services. They also offer a submission services to film festivals and contests. It’s free to join and, frequently, there’s a super-late Withoutabox deadline for you procrastinators out there. Again, the submission fee goes up, but the extra time tinkering can make all the difference. Getting to “Fade Out” is a great, great feeling. But that’s not really the end. If you want your script to live, find an audience and thrive, contests can be a bridge between the movie in your head and the world. Good luck!


The Nicholl Fellowship:

Page International:

Big Break Contest:


Austin Film Festival:


Atlanta Film Festival:

Nantucket Film Festival:

BlueCat Screenplay Contest:


Writers Store:

Upcoming: The Last Temptation of Paula Deen (Fell Swoop Playwrights), The Hurch of Why Not (Theatre 167). Recently: Binary (or The Information Age) (EST), Snakeskin Suit (Unknown Artists), Doing Something Good (Red Fern Theatre Co.), Nice Guy (Brimmer St. Theater Co.), The Miss Julie Dream Project (Fell Swoop Playwrights). Finalist: Industry Insider Screenplay (Killers Anonymous). Semi-finalist: Screencraft Screenwriting Fellowship (The Line). Webseries: In The ‘Wood, Straight Out Of The Closet, Noisemaker Blues. Film: Favored Nations (Superfreako Productions). Memberships: Fell Swoop Playwrights, Brimmer St. Theater Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre. He is a proud product of New York & New Jersey public education.