Twenty-one has always been a lucky number in gambling. This year it’s proving to be a good number for moviemakers, too, first as the title of one of the season’s biggest box office draws and now as the Nevada Film Office launches its 21st annual Screenwriting Competition. As the film office’s call for scripts opened, MM spoke with Sarah Bontrager, the public relations coordinator for the Nevada Film Office, about this year’s crop of submissions, how Nevada is more than just casinos and what it takes to make it in this land of opportunity.
Jennifer Wood (MM): 21 definitely seems to be the magic number in Las Vegas—for gamblers and moviemakers. It’s also the 21st year of the Nevada Film Office’s Screenwriting Competition, which seems serendipitous. So how will this year’s winning entrant “get lucky?”
Sarah Bontrager (SB): The greatest “award” we can give to a screenwriter is feedback, suggestions and constructive criticism in regards to their script from the industry professionals who judge our competition. In fact, every screenplay submitted to the NFO Screenplay Contest has notes, tips and helpful pointers, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, so the individual can improve and further develop his or her screenplay. Another incentive is the fact that the winning scripts are sent on to production companies, studios, agents and others within the competitive filmmaking industry.
MM: I know that there have been some changes to this year’s competition—particularly in the areas of scoring, judging and compensation. Can you talk a little bit about these changes—why you thought they were necessary and how they will impact this year’s crop of scribes?
SB: This year, the NFO has planned some minor changes with regards to scoring and judging for the screenplay contest. These subtle changes are intended to provide better analysis and evaluation of the screenplay and to the screenwriter. Each year, our contest attracts talented writers from all over Nevada, the country and worldwide and we feel that the modifications in scoring and judging will further enhance the contest. No monetary prizes will be awarded this year.
MM: One of the requirements for submitted scripts is that they must be 75 percent filmable in Nevada. Of course, the first thing someone thinks of in that case is “casinos,” but Nevada’s got a lot more to offer. So what are the things that you look for in determining whether a script would be filmable in your state?
SB: One of the reasons we hold the contest is to remind writers just how diverse Nevada is. Sure, there’s the Strip and casinos, but we’re the most mountainous state in the country and our deserts can be backdrops for anything from road pictures to outer space adventures. Besides famous places like Lake Tahoe and Hoover Dam, we have picturesque small communities like Ely and amazing wilderness like the Ruby Mountains, which most people would swear are far away. Our point is that the script be filmable in Nevada, so the setting can be the moon or Switzerland—as long as appropriate locations can be found here.
MM: Besides the location aspect, the competition’s open to any script, which means you’re getting a huge variation in terms of story, genre, etc. Once you know the location prerequisite has been met, what are the things you’re looking for in a winning script?
SB: We look for the same things successful producers and satisfied audiences want: Compelling story and characters who draw you into caring about them and what they do. All the guide books talk about the basics of structure, pacing and dialogue put into the standard industry format.
MM: With the number of film writing competitions out there, aspiring screenwriters have a lot of choices in which contest to enter. What’s the one thing that sets the NFO’s competition apart?
SB: Because Nevada’s contest has been going on longer than any other state-sponsored one, it has prestige plus runs very smoothly. All the basics are in place and there’s a wide network of experienced judges available who enjoy the state and like reading stories that can be set there. Entrants are assured of quality feedback. On top of that, the state’s unusual locations can inspire some great story ideas.
For more information, visit http://www.nevadafilm.com/screenwriters.php.