(Update: Since this article’s publication, the Writers Guild of America has gone on strike, raising questions about whether it’s acceptable to enter screenwriting competitions at this time. The WGA assures us that entering a screenwriting competition is fine, so long as you don’t sell a script or discuss selling a script to the companies the WGA is striking against.)
Screenwriting is among the most difficult literary endeavors, because a screenplay isn’t published, it’s produced—and before it can ever be produced, it must first be discovered.
While there are many routes a writer may take to land on the radar of agents, managers, producers and directors, screenwriting competitions are among the most accessible, especially to those writers living outside the Hollywood bubble. But you need to carefully choose the few that are worthy of your time, money and effort.
“The truth is, you need to vet the film festival before you enter,” says Michael Zoumas, executive producer of Oscar-nominated animated film Coraline and current Netflix animated series Oddballs. “There’s only a handful that are worth paying attention to.”
Also Read: 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee in 2023
Among his preferred festivals, he says, are the Academy Nicholl Fellowship, the BloodList, Slamdance, and Final Draft’s Big Break screenwriting contest.
Although competitions often offer cash to winners and runners-up, the most valuable prize is usually the chance to meet industry professionals who can help kickstart careers and provide priceless mentorship. And producers like Zoumas will take a script more seriously if it does well in a top competition.
“It’s kind of like getting a screenplay from a really good agent,” Zoumas says. “It’s been vetted by the competition, so you know you’re going to read something from a writer who is at least competent and really committed to the craft. Then, whether or not I want to work with them depends on if I connect with the story and the characters.”
To help you reach that point, here is our annual list of 15 screenwriting competitions we recommend.
Academy Nicholl Fellowship
Entry Fee: $50-$90
Deadline: May 1
The organization behind the Oscars offers one of the best annual opportunities for screenwriters to be discovered, via the Academy Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting competition, which awards up to five $35,000 fellowships to amateur screenwriters.
Fellows are expected to complete at least one original film screenplay during the fellowship year, and are mentored by an Academy member throughout the process. They’re also invited to participate in awards-week ceremonies and seminars in November, which no doubt means valuable networking opportunities with industry giants.
For an additional cost, the Academy offers entrants brief feedback from readers, with at least two comments and as many as six, depending on how far the script goes in the competition. But this contest isn’t really about the feedback — it’s about the potential spotlight. So submit your best work, and workshop it ahead of time: With more than 5,000 scripts from 85 countries submitted in 2022, this is among the most competitive and sought-after opportunities for aspiring screenwriters.
Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Competition
Entry Fee: $40 – $100
Deadlines: June 30-November 17
The Atlanta Film Festival is one of the best festivals for networking, and the city was just named MovieMaker’s top big city on our annual list of the Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker.
This spring competition is among the least expensive to enter, especially for those living in Georgia — it offers a 50 percent discount to locals. Three feature screenplay winners receive an impressive prize package that includes $500 in cash, an all-access badge to the festival, a travel stipend, and three nights of hotel accommodations — as well as an all-expenses paid invitation to attend the Atlanta Film Festival Screenwriters Retreat.
The winners in the short screenplay and pilot competition, meanwhile, receive a travel stipend and two nights of accommodations, an all-access badge, and a mentoring meeting. The short film winner gets $250, and the pilot winner receives $350. Perhaps coolest of all, winners in all the categories can have an excerpt of their scripts performed during the festival by Atlanta SAG-AFTRA actors.
The Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition
Entry Fee: $55 – $85
Deadline: May 25
Not only do entrants get brief, thoughtful notes from a reader (with the option to pay more for more in-depth coverage), they also receive a discount to buy a festival pass, with bigger discounts awaiting second rounders, semi-finalists and finalists.
Attending the latest festival, MovieMaker found that it very much lived up to the hype, offering meaningful networking opportunities and panels likely to help writers improve their work and careers. If you don’t want to take our word for it, maybe you’ll believe the letter of recommendation from writer-director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) on the AFF website.
“The Austin Film Festival is the best, hands down,” he writes. “I’m honored to have shown films here, I’m honored to have spoken on its panels, and I’m honored to have let it put me up in the city’s finest hotels. The movie business is a collaboration, whether the auteurs among us want to admit it or not. And AFF realizes that. Which is why they bring us all together every year. To learn, to share, and to hopefully enjoy each other’s company.”
Each screenplay submitted gets at least two reads: a full read in the first round, and at least 10 pages from a second-round reader, who can read to the end and maybe even reverse a prior “no.” Writers who make it to the second round and beyond will get access to exclusive panels, and semifinalists are included in the Producers Book, which is distributed to judges and other industry professionals attending.
Screenplays can win in five categories: Drama, Comedy, Horror, Sci-Fi, and Short. Cash prizes range from $2,500 to $5,000 and are awarded during the Austin Film Festival Awards Luncheon, and winners will also receive reimbursement for airfare and hotel accommodations.
BloodList – Fresh Blood Selects
Entry Fee: Free
Submission Period: August 1-15
This one is for horror writers only, but that genre can also include thriller, science fiction, dark comedy, psychological drama, and dark fantasy, so if your screenplay fits within that fairly wide range, we heartily recommend this annual discovery platform.
Brillstein Entertainment Partners literary manager and producer Kailey Marsh (Light as a Feather) launched the BloodList in 2009 by curating a collection of the industry’s most-liked unproduced horror screenplays. A few years ago, she decided to open the door to undiscovered voices to submit for inclusion on the list, forming the Fresh Blood Selects, which includes unrepresented writers and their screenplays.
The prize doesn’t guarantee anything other than being featured on the website, which allows curious eyes to read the logline and download a PDF of the script to read. But it’s very well-known and respected: Producer Matthew Stein (Halloween, Halloween II, Scream 4) told us in 2021 that it’s one of the few discovery platforms he keeps an eye on. While there is no fee to participate, there is also no feedback offered, so make sure to submit your best, most polished work. And maybe consider entering a few other competitions on this list first for constructive criticism, to make sure the screenplay is ready to be considered by the Fresh Blood Selects committee.
CineStory Retreat & Fellowship Contest
Entry Fee: $50 – $88
Deadline: May 8
CineStory offers one of the best prizes of any competition: a four-day writing retreat in the forested mountains of Idyllwild, California with experienced professional mentors who will share tips and tricks of the trade in a mix of group and private meetings.
The grand prize winner of this screenplay competition not only attends the retreat with all expenses paid, but also scores $10,000, plus a priceless 12-month fellowship program with two industry mentors. They have previously included Mark Fergus (Children of Men, Iron Man, The Expanse) and Meg LeFauve (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Captain Marvel).
CineStory doesn’t offer coverage, so it’s better suited for writers on the verge rather than writers starting out.
Dallas International Film Festival Screenwriting Competition
Entry Fee: $75
Deadline: June 18
All entrants receive a page of feedback (with the option to pay more for extended coverage), and scripts are read and evaluated by readers from companies like William Morris Endeavor, Creative Artists Agency and Zero Gravity, so there’s a chance to catch the eye of an agent or manager.
The competition, presented by Event Horizon Films and Torfoot Studios, recognizes a grand prize winner, runner up and finalists in the feature, TV pilot, and script-to-screen categories.
Judges include Emmy-nominated writer, producer and director Jessica Sharzer (American Horror Story), writer and producer Thomas Dean Donnelly (Sahara, Conan the Barbarian), S.W.A.T. creator and showrunner Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, and Oscar-winning writer and director Brenda Chapman (Brave).
Winners will be treated to a luxurious Oscar party in Los Angeles during the 2024 awards season, a celebrity shout out, and DIFF “Star” passes for the 2024 festival. This is another wonderful networking opportunity for screenwriting competitors to meet and connect with fellow filmmakers.
Final Draft Big Break Competition
Entry Fee: $65-85
Deadlines: May 22-June 30
Final Draft is the biggest name in screenwriting software, and Big Break happens to be one of the most recognizable competitions, as well. As producer Michael Zoumas told MovieMaker, he’s almost sure to read a script that places in the competition. Even if you’re just a finalist, include that in the subject line of your queries to agents and managers.
Here’s what grand prize winners in the feature film and TV screenwriting categories can expect: $10,000 cash, an Apple iPad, a Dell XPS 13 Laptop, script consultation with Script Pipeline’s director of development for potential industry circulation, and roundtrip airfare and three nights of hotel accommodations to attend the annual Final Draft Awards in Los Angeles, among other offerings.
Additionally, eight writers will be chosen as feature winners in the genre categories Action/Adventure, Comedy/Rom-Com, Diversity, Drama, Family/Animated, Period/Historical/War, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and Thriller/Horror, and three TV winners are selected in the Half-Hour Pilot, Hour-Long Pilot, and Diversity Pilot categories.
Humanitas New Voices Fellowship
Entry Fee: Closed for 2023
Deadlines: Closed for 2023
This four-month mentorship program for emerging television and screenwriters has nurtured the talents of successful writers including Martin Zimmerman (Ozark), J. Holtham (Supergirl, Jessica Jones) and Jeanine Daniels (Snowfall).
Each year, selected fellows are paired with award-winning showrunners for one-on-one mentorship focused on their projects. They also attend workshops focused on the most pressing issues facing emerging television and film writers. Additionally, fellows receive a $7,500 stipend and solid networking opportunities. At the end of the program, fellows’ work and contact information are distributed to the Humanitas network of agents and managers.
“What makes Humanitas special is that they care as much about the artist as they do about the script,” writer Andrew Bluestone told MovieMaker after his experience as a 2021-2022 New Voices Fellow. “I felt nurtured and part of a community, and I would do it every year if I could.”
True to the name of this nonprofit organization, Humanitas is interested in writers whose work explores the human condition in a nuanced, meaningful way. “The human condition encompasses all of the characteristics and key events that compose the essentials of human existence, including birth, growth, emotion, aspiration, conflict, and mortality,” wrote Humanitas Program manager Daniel Plagens in a blog post offering a little more insight into what judges seek.
The organization also offers an annual contest catering specifically to college students. The Humanitas College Screenwriting Awards gives out two $20,000 cash prizes recognizing excellent student film and TV writing: the David and Lynn Angell College Comedy Award and the Carol Mendelsohn College Drama Award.
Save the Cat! Screenplay Challenge
Entry Fee: $129-$159
Deadlines: Closed for 2023; 2024 coming soon
If you’re thinking of entering a screenplay into any of these competitions, chances are, you’ve read late screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. The popular title focuses on successful story structure, broken down by a beat sheet tailored to what Joseph Campbell coined “the Hero’s Journey,” so the competition prides itself on providing each entrant with feedback grounded in structure, not subjective opinion. The entry fee includes 50 points of analysis that aim to tighten the screenplay from beginning to end.
Grand prize winners are flown out to Los Angeles and provided hotel accommodations for a three-day experience, including a live table read of the screenplay, meetings with the industry professionals judging the competition, a year of hosting on The Black List, and a 12-month subscription to Save the Cat! 5.0 Software.
2019 winner Vincent Accettola says in a YouTube testimonial that the table-read prize “was more than just a very cool experience,” because “for the first time ever, I was able to hear real actors bring my work — my characters and my dialogue — to life, and you really get something out of that.
“Every screenplay competition is an investment,” he added. “Sometimes, the investment pays out great if you’re the grand prize winner; other times, you still get a benefit by receiving great feedback. With Save the Cat, you’re guaranteed to receive fantastic feedback. With their 50 points of analysis, you get advice that is not only thorough and illuminating, but most importantly, actionable.”
ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship
Entry Fee: $69.50 – $79.50
Deadlines: Closed for 2023; 2024 coming soon
Screencraft offers over a dozen contests throughout the year, most based on specific genres, but by far the best opportunity is the fellowship program, which awards three writers with a program designed to provide career guidance with personalized plans of action and thoughtfully curated industry meetings.
Winners score three months of one-on-one consultation with the ScreenCraft writer development team, access to networking opportunities to build relationships within the industry, seven days of intensive professional meetings with literary agents, managers and studio executives, and mentorship support from previous fellowship winners. This year’s roster of professional mentors includes writer and producer C. Robert Cargill (Doctor Strange), writer and showrunner Monica Macer (Station Eleven) and writer Shiwani Srivastava (Wedding Season).
Fellows have secured representation through the program and have been hired to write film and television for Netflix, Apple TV+, ABC, The CW, Amazon, FX, NBC, Hulu and more.
Vanita Borwankar was staffed on a Disney series after she was a 2021 ScreenCraft Fellow, and says in a testimonial that the opportunities she earned through ScreenCraft “were absolutely incredible.”
“In fact, on the very first day I signed with Cavalry,” she says. “And I was able to take that incredible news and momentum into all the rest of the meetings, as well as have my manager help me strategize for big ones and follow up with everyone I met.”
The Script Lab Free Screenplay Contest
Entry Fee: Free
Deadlines: Opens October 2
This contest for features, TV pilots and short screenplays is free to enter — and may give you exposure to agents, managers and producers — but it understandably won’t provide any feedback unless you pay for it. Notes cost up to $80 (which is cheaper than other coverage services), and if you’re not one of the winners who will be announced this coming June, feedback is probably the most valuable part of the experience.
“The first-round scripts for free entries in this competition will be judged on a first impression of the project. We’re using the same criteria on the first few pages that many readers at studios and agencies use to determine if they should continue reading,” states the Script Lab.
“Please enter your full screenplay and ensure those first few pages are engaging and polished. As your screenplays advance in subsequent rounds, they receive full evaluations from our judges.”
The grand prize winner receives $500 plus distribution to the Script Lab network of nearly a thousand industry professionals, a career consultation session with Coverfly’s Writer Development team, and a one-year membership to the TSL 360 screenwriting video library.
Entry Fee: $55 – $65
Deadline: May 15
This popular contest is noteworthy because it consistently yields success stories. In 2022, a record four Script Pipeline contest selections landed on The Black List — the annual roundup of Hollywood’s most-liked unproduced screenplays.
Finalist Catherine Schetina’s Pure was No. 1 this past year, and in 2021, grand prize winner Daniel Jackson’s Cauliflower landed the No. 1 spot.
That impressive track record speaks to the strength of the company’s network of production companies, agencies, and managers, who are introduced to ten Script Pipeline finalists every year.
The company also has its own roster of development executives who take interest in guiding finalists in advancing their careers. The winner receives $25,000 and the runner-up receives $2,500.
Script Pipeline initially launched as a coverage service, so entrants may want to take advantage of the reduced rate to add general notes as an optional service during registration, or just hope their script is one of 50 Quarterfinalists and 30 Semifinalists that will receive general feedback from the company.
A company representative told us in 2021 that Script Pipeline is looking for “bold, fresh, unique voices,” telling stories that “take at least a slight pivot from the norm, offering something thematically relevant or unexpected.”
A common mistake to avoid? Submitting “generic stories that have been done to death, don’t say anything, and bring nothing new to the table.”
The company also offered some great advice: “We always suggest writers read plenty of scripts, produced and unproduced, to figure out what approach might suit them best. Eventually you carve out your own niche, and that’s crucial in gaining attention from execs.”
Slamdance Screenplay Competition
Entry Fee: $30 – $115
Deadline: July 24
The Slamdance Film Festival was established in 1995 by a wild bunch of filmmakers who wanted to showcase the unfiltered voice of independent artists, so naturally, judges for this annual competition are looking for new, bold, and raw voices.
“We are looking for scripts that take risks, refuse compromise, and go places where Hollywood hacks fear to tread,” the organization says on its website.
As is the case with many competitions on this list, the real prize is making connections that may lead to success down the road. 2018 grand prize winner Tyler Tice’s winning horror feature Day Shift is now streaming on Netflix, with Oscar winner Jamie Foxx in the starring role.
“Winning Slamdance is everything to me,” says Tice in a testimonial. “Slamdance gave me a new lease on life and a chance to live my dreams. They opened up more doors than I could have ever imagined.”
2021 grand prize winner Neil Ferron found representation through the competition as well, and praised the sense of community that Slamdance nurtures.
“There’s the undeniable professional boost: high-profile press, management, momentum,” he says in a testimonial. “But it’s more than that. [Slamdance co-founder] Peter Baxter has created this family of weirdo artists — ambitious, talented, outlandish. I feel like I’ve been invited to join a team of mutant heroes, and I’ve never felt more nervous or more at home.”
The entry fee depends on the length of your script, and when you submit.
WeScreenplay Feature Screenwriting Lab
Entry Fee: $60-$90
This contest is particularly appealing because it guarantees every entry will receive free written feedback from readers, while finalists are judged by very accomplished industry professionals, including writer Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water), MGMT Entertainment literary manager Chris Nold, and Original Film creative executive Sammy Warshaw.
A minimum of four winners are selected to participate in a three-day interactive virtual screenwriting lab that offers meetings with industry executives, hands-on creative workshops, and mentorship from accomplished feature writers. WeScreenplay also offers a Diverse Voices Screenwriting lab for writers of color, women writers, writers with disabilities, writers over 40, writers in the LGBTQ+ community, and others whose voices have historically been ignored by Hollywood.
Among the success stories: 2021 Diverse Voices Lab finalist Soma Helmi signed with Josh Goldenberg at Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment after receiving multiple meetings and offers from other managers.
“You can get invaluable feedback to polish your script and it’s an amazing opportunity to get your work in front of reps,” says Helmi. “I’d like to say a big, heartfelt thanks to WeScreenplay for helping me connect with representation.”
The Writers Lab
Entry Fee: $40-$60
Deadline: Closed for 2023
This is a script development program created exclusively for women writers over the age of 40, supported by A-list actresses and producers Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman.
Offering a four-day workshop for 12 promising writers, it was launched in 2015 to create a space where women can work intensively on their feature film scripts with the support of established film professionals. Mentors and writers engage in a rigorous process of intensive script development through one-on-one meetings, panel discussions, peer workshops, and at group meals, all designed to inspire and prompt creative exploration.
“We care deeply about what we do,” co-founder Nitza Wilson tells MovieMaker. “Finding excellent writers we can support is a thrill for us. We work with vetted, veteran (paid) readers and hold regular reader meetings to talk through questions and stay true to our mission. We personally read hundreds of submitted scripts. And ultimately, the retreat is bespoke to best serve the cohort we choose. At the end of the day, the interactions at every step are fun, creative, intentional and meaningful.”
Meg Waite Clayton, who participated in 2019, says: “I learned so much, both about writing and about the industry. And most rewardingly, I connected with a cohort of screenwriters not only from my year, but from prior and subsequent years, and amazing mentors who have become allies as well.”
Main image: Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy), Nkechi Okoro Carroll (All American) and Bill Collage (Emancipation) discuss revisions at the Austin Film Festival, one of our 15 Submission-Worthy Screenwriting Competitions.