Have you ever wondered why so few winners of contests and fellowships actually make it as writers in Hollywood?

In talking to a former finalist of Austin Film Festival, his summation was that after the field is winnowed to 10, the most desperate, least established writer is chosen as the winner.

Sure, that was his opinion. But apparently AFF trusted that opinion enough to make him the former finalist a reader for the screenplay and teleplay competition. I’ve talked to several readers, and his responses are consistent with the other responses. And for other contests and fellowships.

Screenshot of the homepage of Moviebytes, a website that lists writing competitions

While you read these responses, some of which you may have hypothesized about it but never had confirmation, think about “the cream always rises to the top.” Organizers fixing contests may be one reason why this doesn’t hold true, and I’ll explore how a lesser known contest did fix their results in a future article. But, and I’m sure you’ve wondered as well, if the same writers enter the same circuit of contests and fellowships, shouldn’t there be more than a little consistency at the top? True, not all reader tastes are the same nor are the forms and their focus on quantifying the merits of the script in objective data rather than subjective preferences. But this may give you more than a pause before entering a contest.

Saying Yes

Previous finalists are contacted regarding being a reader for the current competition. If the invite is accepted, it’s a done deal. There’s no screening process or inquiry about their career status. If one says “Yes,” it’s a “Yes.”

For AFF, the compensation is a badge to the festival. Other contests don’t offer even that. Network fellowships are different. I was a reader for one program and was well-paid.

For AFF, readers read 100 scripts for a badge. For a producer’s badge, they read 175 scripts. A producer’s badge value is $400. On an hourly basis, union script readers earn $25-40; per script, $40 and up. If you do the math, a large competition such as AFF would need over 300 readers to read their 6000+ submissions. (Just a note: in running a short screenplay competition, I asked for several people established in entertainment to volunteer to read the scripts. I felt enormously bad about the amount of work I was giving them.)

In reading for the network program, I was given 2 weeks to read ten scripts. My batch was smaller because I was new. The other readers for the program received 20 or so scripts every two weeks.

Comparatively, the contest readers I talked to were given 2 months to read 175.

I received an invite to read through personal connections. I performed a trial critique, had a meeting regarding that critique, studied several critiques that passed muster, and went through an in-person training session. After turning in my batch of evaluations, I had several phone meetings about them.

I was also asked to categorize television shows: shows I was extremely familiar with, shows I was familiar with, and shows I wasn’t familiar at all with. The batch I received was based on my responses. The person in charge of the program was desperate to find someone who watched a particular show—no one on the roster had named it as one they watched.

Compare that to other contests: a preference for TV drama or comedy was indicated by the reader I talked to but the batches ultimately received were across the board—comedy, drama, film and TV.

My evaluation forms had check-boxes for different criteria. I had to come up with a logline for the script and provide concise notes justifying my rankings. My forms came with manuals for filling out the forms and for what the expectations were for readers. The other readers did not directly answer whether there were checkboxes on their forms.

The readers I talked to didn’t read their guidelines. While they did say their evaluations were screened, it was possible to not read the entire script and submit coverage based on a few pages. Even with strict guidelines, that would be possible for any competition.

In my case, it was made very clear that if the president of the network read my evaluations, she’d know why those marks were given. I believe my contract obligated me to avail myself should there be questions about my review. I read every single word of every script.

Getting to Work

On one script, I found nearly 100 typos, grammatical mistakes, and format errors. However I couldn’t condemn it based on that.

While I could note in my summary that a spec episode wasn’t consistent with the show’s style or accurate on the facts of the show, there was no points scale for that. I read someone’s script that severely deviated from the particular show’s tone and style. That person got into the program with that script.

I did not put a single person through to the next round. In my trial critique, I gave a writer who was called the program’s best writer a 10/100 ranking. While I was told to look for home-run scripts, I was admonished for being too harsh on scripts. In talking to a person who has placed well in competitions, he said he first writes a script as well as he could then makes minute changes to make it worse. That was his secret to doing well. That might be a good strategy. If competitions are using the same type of writers to be then judges, it can be surmised it’s a system that maintains a status quo. And that status quo generally is of writers that never make it in Hollywood. And it’s interesting to note that the studios and networks are the ones who utilize union script readers, those who won’t accept what amounts to less than $2.50 per script with a turnaround deadline of 60 days for the entire batch.

For the network program that I read, the administrator told me that she looks for readers whose tastes were consistent with their own. Basically they weren’t looking for objective readers or readers who would judge a script differently than they would. And if they liked a reader, they would continue to use that person. (After my initial batch, I was not given another set.)

 

Disclaimer: I have advanced in network fellowship programs. Of the few competitions I’ve entered, I have not advanced. I have won a short screenplay competition as well as fellowships in playwriting and performance art.

 

–Ken Choy

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