Which Screenplay Contests Should You Enter in 2021 ?
By Jerry Traynor, Associate Editor, Moviebytes.com
Screenwriting contests are not a one-size-fits-all affair. While there are obvious benefits to winning a huge and prestigious competition like the Nicholl Fellowships, smaller contests can be just as valuable if they hook you up with a judge who wants to option your screenplay, or a manager who wants to represent your work.
Like every other aspect of life, the Screenwriting Contest biz was shaken to its core by the Covid-19 pandemic, but writers have always been a bit ahead of the curve on social distancing, and with more time to write, there's a greater-than-ever need now for places to send fresh new material.
The following list is a very subjective round-up of some of the best contests and fellowships available to film and TV writers. Note that not all of these programs have announced their 2021 deadlines, so be sure to check their websites regularly, as well as the MovieBytes Upcoming Contests Calendar.
Industry Workshops & Fellowships
Winning a major film or television writing competition can be a great way to win attention from the industry, but the opportunities listed below take that one step further because they basically are the industry. Why settle for a cash prize and yet-another-copy of Final Draft when you can win what amounts to a writing job at Warner Bros. or Nickelodeon?
The focus of this eight month program is opening doors to the Industry, and of the 97 emerging, diverse writers have graduated from the program over the course of 13 years, 53 careers have been launched. That's a good track record! Applicants are expected to submit a half-hour or one-hour episodic spec as well as a piece of original material such as an original pilot, a stage play, or short fiction story.
A submission to the Disney/ABC Writing Program isn't a contest submission so much as a job application. Winners are paid a weekly salary for a one-year gig that provides access to executives, producers and literary representatives leading ultimately to a potential staff position on a Disney or ABC television program. The best part? It's free to submit.
The HBO Access Writing Fellowship provides participants with eight months of mentoring by HBO Creative Executives, as each writer develops a script suitable for HBO or Cinemax. Applications are accepted in the Spring, so keep your eyes open.
Sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Nicholl Fellowships remain the 800-pound gorilla of the screenwriting contest world, a competition so prestigious that its winners are almost guaranteed representation and a toe-hold in the industry. Need more convincing? Consider some previous winners: Erhen Kruger (Arlington Road), Michael A. Rich (Finding Forrester), Bragi Schut Jr. (Season of the Witch), Doug Atchison, (Akeelah and the Bee), and lots more. This contest routinely attracts more than 7,000 submissions every year, but even its finalists and semifinalists have been known to garner significant attention for their success.
Writers on the Verge is a 12-week program designed to help writers who are "almost there" but need a final bit of preparation with their writing and presentation skills. Like a lot of the Industry programs listed here, they're especially interested in attracting writers of diverse backgrounds, but all writers are welcome to submit. For Asian and Hispanic writers, NBC also co-sponsors the CAPE New Writers Awards, and the NHMC Television Writers Program.
Like Disney, Nickelodeon is offering a one-year, salaried position interacting with executives, writing spec scripts and pitching story ideas. They're particularly looking for writers with diverse backgrounds and experiences, so if that sounds like you, there's no better opportunity anywhere. And like Disney, this one's totally free.
Unlike most of Hollywood Fellowships listed here, the Universal Writers Program focuses primiarly on feature film development. Program participants write feature-length scripts, and participate in a curriculum designed to strengthen their creative approach, personal presentation skills and overall knowledge of the Studio production process. As with Disney's program, this is a year-long paid gig.
The Warner Bros. Workshop has been around for more than 30 years, and its list of past participants includes a fair number of industry heavyweights like Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives), Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl) and Felicia Henderson (Soul Food). The submission process is competitive, so be sure to check their website regularly for deadlines and requirements.
Top Screenplay Contests for 2021
These contests and fellowships may not be sponsored by industry heavyweights like HBO or Disney, but they nevertheless represent a significant opportunity for new and emerging writers. Some of them - like Page, Austin, and Scriptapalooza - are enormously competitive, while others - like CineStory - offer more realistic odds.
(Contests listed alphabetically)
This contest has been around for a long time, offers a $5,000 first prize, and is judged by somebody named Francis Ford Coppola, of whom you may have heard. If you write prose, Zoetrope also offers a short story contest you may want to consider.
The Austin Fest Screenplay Competition is a huge contest that's been around forever, and while it's not quite as prestigious as the Nicholl Fellowships, it's darn close. Past winners who have sold their scripts include Ron Peer (Goodbye Lover), Max Adams (Excess Baggage) and lots of others. This contest also attracts 6,000 - 7,000 submissions per year, but even those who don't win can benefit through discounts to the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Conference, one of the biggest and best parties of the year for screenwriters.
BlueCat has more of an indie-vibe than some of the other big contests, but they've had their share of success stories, too, including Ana Lily Amirpour, who won the BlueCat Grand Prize in 2007 and went on to write and direct the Sundance hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. BlueCat founder Gordie Hoffman is a writer/director himself, and won the prestigious Sundance Film Festival Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his terrific indie film, Love Liza.
Cinequest is one of the cooler Film Festivals in the country, and their Screenplay Contest Finalists are presented alongside high profile Maverick Spirit awardees like J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Chuck Palahniuk, Neil Gaiman, Philip Kaufman, Michael Arndt, Diablo Cody, Dennis Lehane, Jason Reitman and others at their highly anticipated Writers Celebration. Not bad company, and they also award a substantial $5,000 First Prize.
A trailblazer among those contests offering mentorship as part of their prize package, CineStory may be the best contest you've never heard of. Each fall the contest's semifinalists are invited to attend an intensive, 4-day retreat in the mountains of Idylwild, CA, where they spend their days and evenings interacting with industry mentors such as Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (Iron Men, Children of Men) and Meg LaFeuve (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur.) The best part? This is one of the smaller competitions on this list, so if your script is ready your odds of success are pretty darn good.
The Creative World Awards (CWA) is a well run, highly regarded contest with a $3,000 Grand Prize as well as several genre and short screenplay awards. The Richmond International Film Festival Screenplay Contest - run by the same folks - is similiarly well regarded.
Cynosure has been around since 1999 - ancient history! - and since its very earliest days has specifically recognized screenplays in two categories: those with compelling female protagonists, and those that showcase diversity. If your script falls into either one of those categories, you may want to take a shot at the contest's substantial $5,000 first prize.
Next to the Sundance Labs (below), Film Independent's Screenwriting Lab may be the best opportunity available for indie screenwriters to hone their craft. The lab is an intensive five-week program running two evenings a week in Los Angeles in July and August. The Lab is designed to help screenwriters improve their craft and advance their careers.
Like ScreenCraft, Filmmatic features a family of genre-specific contests, plus the Inroads Fellowship, which provides the winner with a trip to L.A. to meet development execs and mentors, and the Pitch Now Screenplay Competition, which allows 100 finalists to pitch their scripts to execs via a partnership with Virtual Pitch Fest.
Sponsored by the folks who publish the industry-leading Final Draft Screenwriting Software, The Final Draft Big Break Contest offers a trip to L.A., substantial prize money, and a high-profile awards ceremony.
This well-reviewed competition offers a $1,500 first prize, plus $500 toward airfare to meet the competition mentors. The contest also offers the opportunity to resubmit rewritten drafts of your entry at no extra charge.
The Fresh Voices Original Screenplay Competition flies under the radar a little bit, but they offer substantial prizes and like PAGE, they offer awards in several different genres, as well as multiple TV categories. They also distribute several "Spotlight Awards" to recognize scripts in various categories such as "Best Role Written for a Female Lead", "Diversity and Inclusion," "Courage and Fortitude," etc.
In other contests, writers of short screenplays are sometimes treated like second class citizens, but HollyShorts provides short script specialists with a contest of their own, linked to the popular HollyShorts Film Festival. The winnning script is given production grants and a world premiere at the next year's fest!
Every year, the non-profit Humanitas organization selects up to five writers through a rigorous selection process for their New Voices Award. Candidates are asked to submit a script and participate in personal interviews, and are then matched with a mentor who helps them further develop their script. Once the script is honed, Humanitas sends it to a partnering studio or network executive. The winning writers are given recognition at the annual awards ceremony and are awarded a $7,500 grant.
The International Screenwriters Association (ISA) is a popular online organization for screenwriters, and sponsors a family of contests including the ISA Fast Track Fellowship, which flies two winners out to L.A. for a series of meetings with industry executives.
If you've written a "spiritually uplifting" screenplay, a submission to the Kairos competition is a no-brainer. They offer a $15,000 Grand Prize, and promise to put your screenplay into the hands of studio executives and production houses looking to purchase inspiring, faith-based stories.
The Middlebury Script Lab offers a tuition-free week in the idyllic New England town of Middlebury, Vermont, where writers can focus on the craft of screenwriting with help of advisors such as Shawn Ryan (creator of hit series The Shield, The Chicago Code, and Last Resort) and Peter Liguori, President and CEO of FX Networks and chairman of entertainment for Fox (1998-2009). All expenses except travel to Vermont are covered, and you can even shuttle up the mountain for a ski break!
Nashville, like Austin, is a well-established film festival as well as an increasingly high profile screenwriting competition with various genre awards for both features and TV.
The PAGE International Screenwriting Awards is a huge competition with a gigantic $25,000 Grand Prize and a huge number of success stories. Your odds of winning the Grand Prize may not be great, but unlike the Nicholl Fellowships and some of the other contests on this list, PAGE offers prizes in 10 different genres, which means your sci-fi epic won't have to compete with another writer's indie romance, and vice-versa. PAGE is also an uncommonly well-run competition that meets their deadlines and responds promptly to email inquiries.
If you've written a screenplay based on the precepts outlined in Blake Synder's hugely popular Save the Cat! screenwriting book, this contest is for you. Each submission receives a 50-point analysis and review from judges trained in the Save the Cat! methodology. Prizes include a 3-day trip to L.A. (travel permitting), and a table read of your work.
In contrast to contests like PAGE and Nashville that offer multiple genre awards within the same competition, ScreenCraft sponsors several different contests, each devoted to a specific genre or format, plus the ScreenCraft Fellowship for scripts from any genre:
Screenplay Festival is another contest that flies a bit under the radar, but it's worth considering for the recognition they give genre scripts. And if you want to improve your odds, consider Screenplay Festival's 100 Screenplays Contest, which limits entries to the first one hundred screenplays entered.
Script Pipeline has actually been around for about 15 years and has steadily grown into a family of well regarded screenwriting contests with a number of notable alumni, including Evan Daugherty, a former contest winner who went on to sell the $3 million spec Snow White & the Huntsman. Script Pipeline now offers a number of different competitions for both screenplays and TV, including a couple of contests for story ideas in case you haven't yet gotten around to actually writing your blockbuster.
Shore Scripts offers both a screenwriting contest and Short Film Fund that provides financing for shorter scripts. The screenwriting contest has some impressive judges on both sides of the Atlantic, so this may be a good contest for British writers or those with international ambitions.
Shriekfest is a genre-specific competition linked to the popular, bi-coastal film festival held each year in Orlando and Los Angeles. It's a smaller competition but it's been around forever and has a great reputation.
Slamdance is no Sundance, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. They've been around forever, and sponsor a well-respected screenplay competition that may be a little less snobby than their Park City neighbors. Competition is substantial, though, as they attract about 2,500 submissions every year.
Stowe Story Labs New!
Like CineStory and the Middlebury Script Lab, Stowe Story Labs is a non profit dedicated to bringing emerging screenwriters together with filmmakers and creative producers to help get film and TV projects made and seen. Past mentors include Academy Award-winning screenwriter and producer David Magee, casting director Ellen Parks, and Academy Award-nominated producer Amy Hobby.
For those on the outside looking in, Sundance can feel like a cliquish secret society that doesn't necessarily welcome newcomers. If you fit their profile, though, there's literally no better place to have your screenplay nurtured.
Another contest from the popular International Screenwriters Association, Table Read My Screenplay offers their winners screenplay readings in high-profile destinations like Sundance, Hollywood and London.
The trackingb (read: tracking board) TV and Screenplay contests have a somewhat lower profile than some of the other contests listed here, and they offer virtually no cash prizes. That said, the insider access they promote seems to be legit, and past Finalist Mickey Fisher had a CBS TV series deal for his sci-fi spec Extant within eight months of winning this contest.
Write/LA is an annual competition that offers 3 Grand Prize Winners round-trip air travel and three days of accomodations in Los Angeles for industry introductions and mentoring, plus a live read of the winning scripts. The Write/LA folks also sponsor a bi-monthly competition called LiveRead/LA that features a live script read for two writers, moderated by an industry insider.
Talk about pedigree! The Writers Lab is funded by Meryl Streep, and is designed to provide opportunities for female writers over 40 years old. The Lab brings 12 selected writers together with outstanding professional female filmmakers for an intensive four-day screenwriting retreat of one-on-one meetings, panel discussions and other activities.