The Cold Read: What do screenplay competition judges know about your script prior to reading it?

by Ann Marie Williams

When you enter a screenplay competition, typically you’ll be required to submit a logline (or short summary) of the script you’re entering. However, while that logline is often used for administrative and/or promotional purposes, often your script’s logline is never seen by the competition judges.

Is this important for you, the writer, to know? Definitely! Because it means that most competition judging is done “cold.” In other words, when the judge begins reading your script, the only thing he/she knows going into the story is the script’s title (and possibly it’s genre). 

I never realized the impact of this until I was a Reader for the Austin Film Festival. I’d be assigned a batch of scripts and delve in one at a time — and I never really knew what (or where) a story would take me after FADE IN. I’d open Script A, for example, to find the story set in modern day New York. Once finished with Script A, I’d open Script B to find myself venturing into a story set on a mythical planet in the future. Then I’d delve into Script C to discover a story that travels in time between the present and the 1800s.  

And that’s fine!  But… this experience at Austin Film Festival made me realize how difficult it is to start reading a script with no prior knowledge of the story.

When you see a movie, typically you’ve already seen the trailer or heard a little something about it. You probably know, at the very least, what it’s been rated (G, PG, PG-13, R). Judges rarely get even that much insight.

As a result of my experiences as a Reader at Austin Film Festival, I looked at my own scripts with a new perspective. After reading so many scripts cold, I realized that I had to make sure there was enough information in the first few pages of my scripts to give the reader a clear sense of the time, setting, and tone of each story.

Even if, as mentioned earlier, the reader knows the genre of the script they are about to read, that still doesn’t give a whole lot to go on. Think about the vast variety of stories (and types of stories) one genre can cover. “Comedies” can be light, fun, and family-friendly, or they can be dark, edgy, and gritty, they can be romantic, or cynical, or some combination of the preceding.

Imagine how confusing it would be to read the scripts for Star Trek, then Planet of the Apes, then Alien, then The Matrix, then Arrival, then The Martian. All these scripts could be entered under the sci-fi genre, but they are all incredibly different — in setting, style, and tone.

So again, why is this important for you, the writer, to understand?

It is so that you, the writer, can be clear and transparent in your script — especially the first few pages. This doesn’t mean you can’t have some mystery surrounding the location and era of your story, but the information you provide in the first few pages of your script should be clear enough that (at the very least) the judge can get a sense of how the story will look and sound once it’s on the screen. If the film will be set in the 1800s, will the characters the audience sees on screen be dressed in 1800s attire? Will the buildings and amenities be representative of that era? If so, then the viewing audience is likely to know from first few seconds of the film where and when the story takes place. And if the viewing audience knows this right away, then the script’s reader should, too.

So, try reading the first few pages of your script as objectively as you can (which can be difficult since, as the writer, you know every aspect of the story — where it starts, where it goes, and even what’s not on the page). But, if you can, try to determine if there is enough information on the page to convey the setting and tone of the story. 

This this doesn’t mean you have to be overt and obvious in conveying the story’s setting. Nor does this mean you can’t have some mystery surrounding the location and era of your story (if the mystery is necessary to the telling of the story). You can still build suspense and intrigue from the start. But if the reader doesn’t understand what’s supposed to be happening, then it’s possible the script is creating confusion rather than building suspense and intrigue.  Suspense and intrigue can pull a reader deeper into the story, confusion can keep a reader from ever feeling truly invested in the story.

And, one final note, just because your judge won’t read your logline doesn’t mean the logline you submit to the competition isn’t important to the judging process — and to your career. In fact, it could be very important. Here’s why.

Want even more insights into the competition judging process? Check out Ann Marie Williams’ book Screenplay Competitions: Tools and Insights to Help You Choose the Best Screenwriting Contests for You and Your Script

Follow me on Twitter @byWriterAnn

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