I Won a Major Screenwriting Competition – This is How
by Angela Bourassa, Co-Founder
I was fortunate in 2019 to have a very good contest year. A feature of mine won the Gold Prize in the sci-fi category of the PAGE International Screenplay Awards, another feature made the semifinals at the Austin Film Festival in two categories, and a pilot made the finals at AFF in two categories. All of that success led to me signing with a manager and signing my first shopping agreement.
There’s obviously no magic formula for winning any particular contest (though some charlatans will try to tell you there is). That said, I believe these are some of the main factors that contributed to my screenplay contest success:
I wrote high concept stories.
It’s possible to win a screenwriting contest with a slow-burning character piece, but it ain’t easy. The clearest path to success is by starting with an original, undeniably high-concept idea. A really good idea with mediocre execution will almost always out-perform a mediocre idea with solid execution, in my experience.
Again, this isn’t to say your script has to be high concept to win a contest. But it definitely helps.
My sci-fi script that won PAGE is about a woman who rediscovers something that has long since fallen by the wayside – sex. My pilot that made the finals at Austin is about a woke mom whose daughter tells her she wants to put off going to college to become a feminist porn star.
Now, those ideas may not be your cup of tea, but you have to admit that I was able to give you the gist of both stories in very few words. That’s the mark of a high concept idea.
I took big swings.
I am all about big, fat swings. Trust your gut. Make the divisive choice. Write the story that scares you. Figure out what matters to you, and lean into it. Don’t be afraid to be different, because that’s what makes you stand out.
Yeah, some people might hate your choices, but some people will ALWAYS hate your choices. Better to get big reactions – even if they’re negative – than sighs of boredom.
For my pilot that made the finals at Austin, I wrote all the action lines in first person, from the perspective of the main character. It made sense for that particular story, and I knew it meant some people would reject the script outright for not “following the rules,” but I made the choice with intention, and it paid off.
I left a lot of white on the page.
A major portion of my rewriting process is eliminating unnecessary words, sentences, and phrases from the action lines AND the dialogue. Everything is wordier in the first draft (and second and third) than it needs to be. Pithy dialogue will always be better received than countless monologues. Action lines that get to the point rather than painting every last excruciating detail will read faster and make the reader so much happier.
The goal is for the reader to look at what page they’re on and be amazed they’re already so far in, not dreading how much further they have to go.
I spread the love.
A lot of people out there will tell you that the only contests worth a damn are Nicholl and Austin. Those two are definitely the top of the heap, but if you put all of your eggs in those two extremely competitive baskets, that means you’re putting all the hopes of your entire screenwriting year on those two very closely aligned announcement dates. If you don’t advance in either competition, that heartbreak can be devastating.
So if you’re financially able and find a few other contests with prizes that interest you, spread out your luck! The contests I personally recommend include Script Pipeline, PAGE, the Sundance Episodic and Feature Labs, the TV fellowships, and of course, Write LA.
For my part, the sci-fi script that won PAGE only made the second round at Austin. The pilot didn’t get anywhere in the Launchpad Pilot competition. And neither feature I submitted to Nicholl got any recognition at all.
Not all readers value the same things, and some are tougher judges than others. There’s definitely some luck involved in this game, so give yourself a fighting chance!
The pilot went through three or four drafts. The sci-fi went through at least twenty. That story took a long time to get right, and I completely rewrote the third act multiple times. But now I think it’s my best script.
I kept writing.
This is the big one. It can be really, really tempting to send your script(s) off to a competition and then just wait. I’ve done it. It’s a hard urge to fight. But you have to fight it.
If the script you entered wins a contest, amazing! Every rep and producer you talk to will ask you what else you’ve got. If your script doesn’t win? No worries! You’re already working on your next project, and it’s going to be your best piece of writing yet.