Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thumbs down to this screenplay contest....

Like most working screenwriters, I am opposed to "dollar options." There are countless reasons why dollar options are a terrible idea for the writer, and why you should never agree to one. Please, please don't fall into the trap of being tricked into believing that a free or el cheapo option will make you a "professional screenwriter." This is so far from the truth it's laughable. All a dollar option does is tie up the rights to your work so that it's unavailable when a serious producer comes along who actually wants to buy it.

This brings me to today's sad topic: an established, formerly respectable screenplay contest that has just been taken off my "mildly recommended" list, and placed on my "avoid" list.

Say it ain't so, IndieProducer. In the past this contest seemed all right. It's run by people who have actually made a couple of films. Their entry fee was a bit high in relation to their modest cash prizes, but it was within acceptable parameters. They had (based on my limited polling of past entrants) a good track record of responding to emails, and generally met their deadlines for announcing winners. Overall, this contest has rated a neutral-to-mildly-positive on my "recommended contests" scale.

Okay, some aspiring writers aren't impressed by cash prizes, and think "exposure" is the only good reason to enter a contest. I respectfully disagree. The folks who think cash prizes are silly are people who have well-paying day jobs and would blow a big cash prize on a new plasma TV or a trip to Hawaii. I, on the other hand, always look at cash prizes in terms of how many months of "room and board" they'll cover for a struggling writer. For instance, in one particularly good month I won $11,000 total from three different screenwriting contests -- $2,500 from a relatively small contest that I won, $2,500 from a pretty big contest in which I was the runner-up, and $6,000 from a prestigious contest that I won. That $11,000 came at a time when I was so broke I couldn't even afford to buy a ream of paper, and was considering taking a temp job to make ends meet. All of a sudden I knew I'd have many many months of stress-free writing. Was that valuable to me? Hell, yeah.

As for "exposure" -- well, very few screenplay contests are SO prestigious that Hollywood actively seeks out the names of the winners. With the exception of the Nicholl Fellowship -- which is so prestigious that winning it, or even placing in the finals, means that your phone will ring non-stop -- when you win a contest, you need to do the work of informing agents and producers about your award. In that regard, pretty much any contest win is helpful, provided that you have an intriguing logline and can write a snappy query letter. Being able to mention in your query letter that the script has won an award is "extra frosting" to tempt the producer into reading it.

But, back to IndieProducer. I noticed that this year, they had changed their prize to an "option" with the production company that runs the contest. Basically, this is a way that a production company can charge a reading fee for considering your screenplay -- by disguising it as a "contest entry fee."

Now, I don't necessarily have a problem with small production companies running contests as a way to find good scripts. Indie companies don't have the resources to pay readers to weed through thousands of unsolicited submissions. Thus, they either "hire" interns to cover scripts for free (an exploitative practice in itself), or they institute a policy of "no unsolicited submissions" and rely on databases like InkTip -- a favorite of bottom-feeding and ultra-low-budget producers -- in their search for decent, cheap material.

The difference between entering a production company's contest, versus simply paying a reading fee to be considered by said production company, is that with a contest, somebody wins. This is important. If a production company simply charges reading fees, they can keep doing that forever with no intention of ever making a film. Reading fees can be their sole source of income. They don't even have to read any scripts; they can just collect the money and throw out the screenplays. On the other hand, if there's a contest involved, the company is legally obligated to pick a winner and give them a prize. And that prize should be something tangible: cash with no strings attached, or a PAID option, or other prizes of real and measurable value. And a respectable production company will award you a prize big enough that (after also paying their readers) the company is basically breaking even on the contest. In other words, the contest is legitimately a way for them to find promising material without going broke -- it's NOT a way for them to make extra income.

Which brings me back to IndieProducer. I had to do a little research (they're not being too forthcoming about the details of their "prize"), but guess what? When asked, they will admit that their prize is an UNPAID option. Yep, that's right. By entering this contest, you get to pay $35-$40 for the chance to win an UNPAID option. (Oh, and you also get a plaque.) This is icky on so many levels I don't know where to begin. Of course, the contest organizers are quick to point out that this is an experienced and respected production company. Yay.

Look: If you've been a screenwriter for any length of time you have producers (including, yes, "established" producers) offer you dollar options all the time. And if you have any sense at all, you turn them down. One of my scripts had seven or eight different producers try to option it for free (well, a buck). I always said no, and continued to enter the script into contests, winning over $18,000 in cash prizes. (By the way, I would've been ineligible for those contests if I'd accepted an option!)

Every time I turned down their free/dollar options, the various producers chided me for passing up such a "great opportunity" to work with people with "solid connections." Don't ever believe that b.s.! A producer with no money and no access to money doesn't have the ability to get a kite off the ground, never mind a movie. And, if they DO have access to money, but don't have the decency to make a small "good faith" payment to you -- say, at least enough to cover your rent for one month -- well, that's not someone you should work with. Ever. Fortunately for me, I didn't fall for the empty flattery of any of those losers -- therefore my script was totally available when a producer with integrity came along who really DID love my script...and who proved it by paying me decent money.

How sad that the "winner" of IndieProducer won't be able to leverage his contest victory by sending his script out to interested agents and producers. Instead, he'll get to celebrate his win by watching his script collect dust for a year. If the prize were a PAID option of a few thousand dollars, at least the writer would have something to show for it -- AND the company would have more incentive to actually make the movie.

Never enter a contest with a FREE OPTION as the award. Trust me, you don't want that booby prize!


  1. Thank you for the comment on my blog - don't move! LA is the place to be for screenwriters. I shall live vicariously through you...

  2. Nice post and nice thinking.......I read your hole post and like you post. Thank you