In Hollywood, there is an old saying that you’re only as good as your last movie — but what if you haven’t even had one produced yet? It’s a conundrum all undiscovered writers face, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. There are, however, a variety of ways to get a foot in the door, and screenwriting competitions are among the most accessible. They’re always a gamble, and even winning one can’t guarantee a sale, but the right contest could serve as a major stepping stone toward success in a notoriously difficult industry. “On the whole, screenwriting competitions are a valuable entry point for people in an industry that was previously so heavily gatekept. It’s nice that there’s other avenues,” producer Adi Shankar (Dredd, Castlevania) told MovieMaker. Winning isn’t everything, either. Just placing as a finalist could increase the odds of a manager, agent or producer actually taking a blind query seriously. In fact, the most common success stories touted by screenplay competitions are entrants securing representation or optioning their specs to production companies.
But to compile this list, we didn’t just take participants’ word for it. MovieMaker asked managers, producers and executives what screenwriting competitions they actually pay attention to. Unfortunately, it’s not many. But with cash, constructive criticism, mentorship, networking opportunities and other valuable prizes being offered, there are other reasons to enter, beyond making a sale.
We narrowed down a wide field to the following 15 submission-worthy screenwriting competitions — in alphabetical order — that writers should consider entering in 2021.
Entry Fee: $48-$88
Deadlines: March 3 – May 3
Among the industry professionals we surveyed, this is the competition most frequently cited as one they keep an eye on.
That’s not surprising, considering it’s hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, with the semifinal round judged by Academy members drawn from across the spectrum of the motion picture industry. Finalist scripts are judged by the Academy Nicholl Committee, which will award up to five $35,000 fellowships to amateur screenwriters.
The prize money is intended to give fellows an entire year to focus exclusively on developing at least one feature-length screenplay, with the help of individualized Academy-member mentorship. Other priceless perks include invites to awardsweek ceremonies and seminars.
From the program’s inception in 1986 through 2020, 181 fellowships totaling $4.75 million have been awarded. Previous winners have included Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy), Oscar nominee Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, The Ring).
One manager told us she particularly values Nicholl fellows because of the “exceptionally rigorous judging process in place.” Add that to the prestige the Academy carries in Hollywood, and it’s a good bet that even if your script doesn’t make it past the semifinals, there is a really good chance other industry gatekeepers will still be interested in reading it.
Entry Fee: $25-$90
Deadlines: June 4 – November 12
Three winners in the feature category will receive $500, but the real prizes here are golden networking and mentorship opportunities.
Not only do these lucky screenwriters get an all-access badge to mix and mingle with industry professionals at the film festival in a booming production hub — they’re also going to attend an all-expenses paid, two day retreat to workshop their scripts with Hollywood veterans. Previous mentors have included writer-director James Ponsoldt, screenwriter Michael Lucker (Vampire in Brooklyn), and producer Kathryn Dean (Winter’s Bone, Hell or High Water).
Ponsoldt, the director of critically acclaimed indie dramas The Spectacular Now, Smashed and The End of the Tour, won the Atlanta Film Festival’s inaugural screenplay competition in 2008.
“As a born-and-raised Georgian, the Atlanta Film Festival — and the Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Competition — holds a place close to my heart,” Ponsoldt told MovieMaker. “The vibe is fun, supportive, all about creativity in the purest sense, and generally a nurturing atmosphere more driven by artistry than business. Also: great people, the best food, and it always feels like a celebration!” The Atlanta Film Society also provides winners with a travel stipend and three nights of accommodation for the event. Due to the pandemic, however, the 2021 festival is largely taking place online, with drive-in screenings and limited-capacity indoor screenings.
Fingers crossed that the virus won’t be an issue in 2022. But Brian Grady, the festival’s screenplay programmer, told MovieMaker that there was a silver lining of the writing retreat being held virtually. He was able to pair winners with mentors — all previous Nicholl fellows — who were particularly interested in the screenplays, because of personal taste, style or experience.
“What I was really trying to get at is an actual friendship,” he said. “Trying to pair individuals with mentors who I thought would be really fitting with them.”
Entry Fee: $45-$70
Deadlines: March 26 – May 21
Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), Lawrence Kasdan (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back), Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), and Everybody Loves Raymond creator Philip Rosenthal sit on the board of advisors, lending even more credibility to this gigantic networking event that has long been known as a writers festival.
Cash prizes of $5,000 are awarded to winners in the drama and comedy categories, while horror and sci-fi category winners receive $2,500, and the festival reimburses those winners’ round-trip airfare and hotels in Austin.
Win or lose, though, it’s really all about making the pilgrimage to one of the coolest cities in America to connect with industry players in a famously relaxed environment. Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel) has praised the event as an “unpretentious, professional-level screenwriters conference where writers from all over the world come to learn from other writers.“
“One of my favorite things about Austin is that, unlike other world-class film festivals where filmmakers are separated from the audience by velvet ropes, AFF encourages their attendees and speakers to mingle and get to know each other,” she wrote in a letter featured on the AFF web site. “The festival’s social gatherings are how I’ve come to meet so many of the writers who have gone on to become close friends, mentees, and mentors.”
Also, all entrants get detailed, constructive feedback about their scripts. Some competitions bypass that entirely, or charge extra, so it’s an affordable opportunity to at least find out what is and isn’t working in your current draft.
Continue for more of MovieMaker‘s 15 Submission-Worthy Screenwriting Competitions of 2021