The Five Steps of Screenplay Competitions

by Ann Marie Williams

While not all screenplay competitions operate in the same way, typically the screenplay competition process covers five basic steps: accept, read, rank, advance, award. And while these steps may seem obvious at first, there are details relative to each step that I believe are worth noting to help writers improve their scripts and better their chances at advancing.

STEP ONE: Accept

Competitions receive scripts through what is typically called the “entry,” “submission,” or “application” process. Usually you’ll be required to submit your full and complete script, your script’s genre, your script’s logline, and your contact information.

Most competitions only accept submissions online (either through their own websites or through third-party submission sources), though a few still accept paper scripts.

Several competitions offer some form of written critique in conjunction with your entry (either written by your script’s competition judge/s or another reader). With some exceptions, you’ll be required to decided at the time of entry whether you want the critique or not.

Funds (entry fees, critique fees, etc.) are usually required at the time of entry.

STEP TWO: Read

Once entered, a script is read, either in full or in part, by at least one competition judge (sometimes referred to as a reader).

The amount of the script a judge is required to read varies from competition to competition. Some competitions require judges to read every script in its entirety before ranking it, whereas other competitions only require judges to read a minimum number of pages before ranking it. This is just one reason why it’s crucial that your script has a great beginning.

It’s important to note that, prior to reading a script, usually the judge won’t know anything about the script other than its title (and maybe its primary genre). Even if you submit a logline with your entry, this doesn’t mean the judge is going to see that logline prior to reading your script (however, the logline you submit is still incredibly important).

STEP THREE: Rank

Once a script is read, it is ranked by its judge (or judges if more than one judge’s rank is required per competition round). Ranks are used to determine if a script advances in the competition or not.

Competitions often provide judges with judging criteria—specific categories (e.g. character, plot, structure, pacing) against which the judge should evaluate a script’s strengths and weaknesses.

Some competitions post their judging criteria online. I suggest using this criteria to help determine if the competition is a good fit for your script. (It can also offer new insight for evaluating your script — how would you rank your script on a 1 to 10 scale for each criteria and why?)

The number of judges required to rank a script before that script can be advanced (or eliminated) varies from competition to competition (and sometimes round to round within a competition). Whereas one competition might require only one judge’s rank to determine advancement, another competition might require the ranks of multiple judges.

STEP FOUR: Advance

Scripts that receive an advancing rank move on to the next round of competition.

An advanced script is typically assigned to a judge (or judges) who did not read the script in a previous round.

Advanced scripts are read and ranked again and these new rankings (either alone, or in combination with the rankings from the previous round/s) are used to determine which scripts advance to the next round.

This process is repeated for however many rounds a competition requires until the final round of the competition is reached. At that point, the remaining scripts are read and ranked again. Those rankings (either alone or in conjunction with these scripts’ rankings from previous rounds) determine the competition’s winner/s.

It’s important to note that a competition may have several rounds of competition (a set of advancements/eliminations) for every advancement tier (a publicly released list of scripts that reach the corresponding round — e.g. quarterfinals, semifinals, finals, winners). Therefore, knowing how many rounds your script advanced through (versus simply knowing which advancement tiers the script reached) can provide you with more information about where your script ranked (and the rankings and credentials of the judges it took to do so).

STEP FIVE: Award

Some competitions award one winner. Others award multiple winners. A few competitions award one first place winner, but also award second and third place winners. And several competitions award a winner for each format, genre, or category they judge.

Winning a competition (and sometimes placing highly) is often accompanied by prizes. Competition prizes vary significantly but might consist of: cash, writing software, gift cards, magazine or database subscriptions, memberships, script or logline circulation, consultations, mentorships, festival or conference tickets/passes, promotion of you or your script, and so forth.

Before you enter any competition, be sure you understand and are willing to accept the awards and prizes offered. Awards and prizes sometimes include option deals, guaranteed representation, first look clauses, circulation of your script, or other prizes that can affect the rights, ownership, and/or production of your script (as well as your ability to enter other competitions or fellowships). These prizes might be helpful in aiding the launch of your screenwriting career, but it’s also incredibly important that you understand what you’re agreeing to by entering a competition and if you’re comfortable accepting the prizes that could potentially be awarded to you.


So, that’s the five steps in a nutshell.

Even though these were just very brief explanations, I discuss each of the five steps in detail throughout Screenplay Competitions since, though these steps may seem obvious at first, how each of these steps is implemented varies from one competition to the next and knowing the differences can help writers select the most fitting competitions for their scripts.

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 Screenplay Competitions: Tools and Insights to Help You Choose the Best Screenwriting Contests for You and Your Script has been endorsed by Richard Walter, Matt Dy, Harry M. Cheney, Dave Trottier, Lucy V. Hay, and Ken Levine.