ON THE MAP TO FAME AND FORTUNE there are many more bumpy back roads than straight, flat interstates, but for screenwriters determined to arrive at the ultimate destination-seeing their words and visions acted out on the big screen-that fact has never been a deterrence. One way new screen scribes are getting their feet in Hollywood's doorjamb is by submitting their work to any of the prodigious number of screenplay competitions now thriving all over the U.S.
Erik Joseph, author of How to Enter Screenplay Contests and Win (IFILM Publishing), says: "Open to anyone, with or without credentials, relatives or contacts, screenplay contests assure you that someone will read your screenplay." As many of these competitions employ some of the most decorated writers and industry professionals as readers-people with links to the individuals who can help you make your movie-you don't necessarily have to win a contest to advance your career. In many cases, those who Finish as finalists or even in the top 25 percent in a major scriptwriting competition generate further interest in their work. Quite simply, then, as an aspiring screenwriter, why not enter your script in a contest? The worst that could happen is you lose a few dollars and don't make any helpful contacts. But who knows what will happen the next time around? As the old saying goes, every time you don't win you're one step closer to the time you do.
So how do you win a screenplay contest? In asking that question you are actually asking a more fundamental question: How do you write a good screenplay? In our personal quests to discover a definitive answer to that query, we are often met with suggestions, a few models and probably some friendly conjecture, but nothing concrete. Maybe that's because we are not asking the right people. We need advice from those who have read thousands of scripts and who can easily distinguish a good script from a bad one.
MM sat down with decision-makers at some of the most important screenwriting competitions, programs and fellowships to get their advice on making an original script great. The participants in this round-table discussion include Greg Beal, Program Coordinator of the Nicholl Fellowships; Ed Rugoff, Director of the Chesterfield Film Company Screenwriting Fellowship; Eva Nagorski, Director of the Nantucket Film Festival Screenplay Competition; Gianna Chachere, Director of the Slamdance Screenwriting Competition; John Johnson, Director of the American Screenwriters Association and Writer's Digest Screenplay Competition; Lisa Moiselle and Maggie Biggar, co-chairs of the Step Up Women's Network Screenwriting Contest; BJ Burrow, Director of the Austin Heart of Film Screenplay Competition; Marc Madnick, Director of the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Competition; and Erik Joseph, Former Director of the Nevada Screenwriter's Competition and author of How to Enter Screenplay Contests and Win.James Menzies (MM): There are of course many reasons why a screenplay does not advance in a competition. Of those reasons, which do you see as the easiest to overcome?
Erik Joseph (EJ): Mechanics. During 12 years of coordinating, reading and judging screenplays, I found that consistently one fourth of entrants are eliminated off the top because they don't follow the contest rules and/or the rules of professional screenplay writing. I'm talking about simple things like being replete with typos, bad binding, upside-down pages, excessive underlining, bold and italics, etc. Write it right, write it well, send it in.
Marc Madnick (MAM): Make sure it looks like a script should look. If it comes to us handwritten, which does happen, we actually send them back. Take the time to make it look right.
Ed Rugoff (ER): A lack of understanding of the basic elements of the format-slug line, description, dialogue, etc.
Gianna Chachere (GC): Follow directions regarding length. Scripts should be no longer than 115 pages, at most. Even though we accept scripts to 130 pages, anything over that is a clear signal that the writer did not carefully edit their work.
John Johnson (JJ): Most scripts get disqualified, or at least heavily marked down, because of simple things such as including a name or address when the rules clearly state no identifying information. They're also eliminated because of unprofessional presentation such as not using white cover stock paper and brass brads to bind the script. This category can also include using too many camera directions or scene changes like "Cut to."
Greg Beal (GB): There is still a general lack of training in screenplay basics: format, craft and execution.
MM: Which reasons are the most difficult to overcome?
Eva Nagorski (EN): Developing characters people can identify with and finding the suspense in the characters and their involvement in the entire script.
BJ Burrow (BB): Story-related problems are very difficult. The decision as to what subject to write about is obviously one of the most critical ones a writer must make, and should be well thought out.
Lisa Moiselle & Maggie Biggar (SWN): The writer's inability to listen to constructive criticism.
JJ: Some plots are quite good but the characters are one dimensional; or the plot and characters are good but the writing is just plain bad. Always be as prepared as possible by taking seminars, attending conferences and rewriting on a regular basis.
MM: Many people feel that the first 10 pages are the most crucial in any good screenplay. Is this contention overstated?
EN: Of course you want to be intrigued by the first pages and curious about the upcoming ones. However, the suspense in the script can initially be subtle and worth a patient read-through.
BB: I don't feel that it is an overstatement to say that the first 10 pages are the most critical. You must snag a reader right from the beginning. They should want to continue turning the page, and not just because our guidelines tell them they must. The competition is so fierce, you can't afford a lackluster first 10 pages.
SWN: The first 10 pages are not the most crucial. Would you walk out of a movie theater after the first five to 10 minutes of a movie? Most likely not. Yet, if the pages don't quickly gain momentum after this point, readers will most likely lose interest.
GC: That may be a golden rule for production companies, but we are interested in recognizing talent and originality, which often doesn't come through in the first 10 pages.
GB: It is possible to write a decent script that starts a tad slowly. Plenty of scripts have a good first 10 pages, though; far fewer have good middles and good ends.
MM: The most important elements of a good screenplay seem to be well-developed characters, a captivating plot line and realistic dialogue. Do any one of these elements outweigh the others in helping to win a contest? Could someone win a competition if they lacked one of these elements?
MAM: I think that judges are usually looking for the best writing overall. If something is well written, they can overlook a lack of plot or premise. If you write terrific, deep characters you can end up winning a contest. However, I don't think the reverse is true: you can't succeed with a great premise and weak character development.
ER: We are looking for talented writers, so the plot line is not as important as it might be in a traditional screenwriting "contest." So it is conceivable that a writer could submit a screenplay in which the plot is not strikingly original, but in which the dialogue and characters are vivid and fresh, and receive a fellowship.
BB: The most important element of a screenplay, the one element that can help overcome other shortcomings, is dialogue. Excellent dialogue can help an average story reach higher realms. Rarely do you have exceptional dialogue coupled with lackluster characters.
GB: Characters and story seem to weigh the heaviest for most judges. And by story I mean its essence, as opposed to the plotline, which would be the way it unfolds. Dialogue needs to serve the script-realistic for a gritty drama, stylized to some extent for a romantic comedy, fantasy adventure or noir thriller. It's so subjective. Most winning Nicholl scripts have intriguing characters, engaging dialogue and an interesting story.
MM: The cliche 'write what you know' is espoused so often, it can be frightening to aspiring screenwriters. Does it mean that if you write a story based on personal experience, you'll have a better chance to turn out a more creative script?
EN: Write what you know, even if it means learning/researching something you didn't know before. Actors go into boot camps for their character roles, meanwhile writers have the trickier task of not just worrying about creating the characters, but all the other elements in the script, as well.
BB: Unless "what you know" includes getting shot in the face every 10 minutes, you could run the risk of writing a very average screenplay, bordering on boring. How many of us have been in a car chase? We certainly "know" these moments through movies, books and television, but in our every day lives, we're more apt to get stuck in traffic and be brought to tears because the office is out of coffee.
As a writer, you must build on the events and people in your life, but also go beyond reality. What if, instead of accepting the divorce that your aunt had wanted, your Uncle Charlie decides it's time to collect on that life insurance policy? How would Uncle Charlie have gone about plotting and executing his plan? Take the people you know, place them in an interesting situation and ask "What if?"
EJ: Write what you know. If you don't know, find out. Use the tremendous resources at your fingertips. The best writers are experts; they could be what they write about.
JJ: I'm pretty sure Steven King never met a tommyknocker. Did M. Night Shyamalan actually see dead people? The best way to look at this is to say all screenwriters should get to know the art of screenwriting. That is, how to write strong characters, believable dialogue and compelling plots. Armed with those skills, the writer can then complete a script based on personal experiences or interests which is always more fun, or create an imaginary world that will successfully draw the viewer into it. Can you say Star Wars?
MM: How can entrants who don't win benefit from the experience? What are some of your success stories?
MAM: Ken Hastings, who won our first competition, said in our press release, "Now I might get to meet Elizabeth Hurley." A year later, he was on the set with Elizabeth Hurley starring in his movie.
ER: Our program is intended to help writers launch professional screenwriting careers. To that end, they participate in a year-long workshop under the guidance of our staff, professional screenwriters and Paramount Studios executives. We have had many success stories. Last year, Chesterfield alumnus David Auburn won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for his play Proof. The Warner Brothers film A Walk to Remember was written by Chesterfield alumnus Karen Janszen.
BB: Two years ago, we had a finalist, Cindy Davis Hewitt, who wrote this incredible comedy called This is Not a Toy. I gave the script to a representative from Pixar who attended the festival, and she read it and signed Cindy to a contract. Two weeks after this year's festival, Miramax bought This is Not a Toy. David Watts, who won the sitcom category of our Prime Time Teleplay Competition was signed by UTA a few weeks after the festival, and CAA signed Kevin Kerwin. Disney picked up the family screenplay, Miracle in Lane Two, by Joel Kauffmann and Donald C. Yost, which aired on the Disney Channel, starring Frankie Muniz.
GC: Our competition has been great in connecting writers with agents, managers, producers, etc. We recognize 12 scripts per year and this year we will make a semifinalist announcement to recognize more writers/scripts that demonstrated true passion and craft. Success has and will come in different ways. 2001 winner Joshua Marston continues to find success for Maria Full of Grace at the Sundance Lab and Lisa Rothstein recently signed with Larchmont Literary with her script Brit or Miss. Other finalists are still in negotiations with top agencies for representation. Mary Stuart Masterson will direct 1999 finalist Andrea Bailey's script Falling Over Venus; and Slamdance alum Van Fischer optioned finalist Tim Boughn's Neo Ned. Also, Slamdance is a film festival, which means we can link directors with writers and scripts. This is one of the most exciting prospects about our competition.
GB: Everyone who reaches the quarterfinals or beyond is placed on a contact list that is distributed to industry folks. Many entrants have been read through the competition, and some have found agents or producers or simply fans who might just play a part in their future. And many more entrants have used the competition as a touchstone-how good is this script?-or as a deadline to finish a new script. Nicholl Fellow Susannah Grant was nominated for an Academy Award for Erin Brockovich. Allison Anders (1986), Randy McCormick (1987), Andrew Marlowe (1992) and Ehren Kruger (1996) have also done pretty well. Mike Rich (1998) saw Finding Forrester go straight from the competition into production. Anthony Jaswinski (1997) and Karen Moncrieff (1998) both had films at Sundance this year-Killing Time and Blue Car, respectively.
WM: Often, a writer gets so closely involved with his or her own work, that it can be difficult to gain perspective. Which screenplays you would suggest an aspiring writer look to as models?
EN: Cabaret, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Apartment.
MAM: Basic Instinct by Joe Eszterhas or something by Shane Black, who wrote Lethal Weapon and 20 other things. They're not poetic, they don't write long-winded sentences, they're not verbose-they just write in a way that makes the reader not want to put the script down.
BB: It really does depend on the type of story a writer wishes to tell, but I think Billy Elliot, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist and Fargo are four inspiring samples. I also think The Big Lebowski is a great example of how to break every "rule" and still create a wildly enjoyable film.
SWN: Shakespeare in Love is a good model for writers to read. It has classic structure, pathos, comedy and drama.
GC: There are so many to choose from, and it depends if you have experience behind the camera. But to me Paddy Chayefsky's scripts are invaluable because they are brilliant and he never directed. Also, the usual standards including On the Waterfront, Chinatown, Casablanca, etc. But my favorite script is The Hustler.JJ: If I have to pick a script I would say either North by Northwest or The Shawshank Redemption. The writing is so strong that if you read one of them, then read your own script, you're bound to see the differences. Then, get to rewriting! MM