How Much of a Script Do Screenplay Competition Judges Read?

by Ann Marie Williams, © 2020


Not every screenplay competition requires judges to read every entered script in its entirety.

While it’s likely that a judge will be required to read a script in its entirety in order to advance the script, some competitions allow judges to eliminate scripts after a pre-determined minimum number of pages read (e.g. the first thirty pages).

Having been both a screenplay competition entrant as well as a screenplay competition judge, I understand the pros and cons to both approaches.

Some scripts are so obviously unprepared for competition that a judge can tell in the first few pages that the script won’t rank high enough to advance. No matter how brilliant a plot is, for example, or how well-drawn the characters are, if a script isn’t formatted or structured properly, then there’s no way it can (or should) advance. For these types of entries, it really isn’t necessary for the judge to read the entire script.

However, as a writer, I prefer to know that my script will be read and judged in its entirety, so I gravitate to competitions that require a full read. Additionally, I’ve paid my entry fee just like everyone else, and for that reason I feel my script should be given the same attention and consideration as all the others.

However, it takes time to read and judge scripts. The more pages a judge has to read, the more it costs the competition (if they are paying their judges), which could ultimately affect entry fees. Or, the more difficult it will be to find people willing to judge scripts if it means they’ll have to pour through 120 pages of a not-so-great script after not-so-great script.

So, I understand both sides.

To win a competition, a script should be nearly perfect from start to finish. If a script has a stellar ending, but the beginning is sluggish, then odds are that script would not be worthy of winning the competition. Whether the judge was required to read the entire script or only the beginning, the script wouldn’t win either way.

But, when it comes to advancing and placing in a competition, whether a script is read in it’s entirety can matter, depending on how the competition advances scripts, and how many scripts advance.

Let’s say a screenwriter enters two scripts: one of the script’s has a great ending but a weak start, while the other has a great start but a weak ending. Both are entered into a competition that allows judges to eliminate scripts at any point after the first thirty pages.

If the first round of elimination is very steep (e.g. only 10% of scripts advance), then it’s unlikely either script would advance. Whether the one script was eliminated after its weak start or the other script was eliminated after its weak ending, neither script would make the top 10%.

However, if the competition offers a more generous first cut (say, top 25%), then the script with a weak beginning but a great ending might not advance because the judge stopped reading after the weak beginning and, therefore, never read the ending that would have elevated the script as a whole. On the other hand, the script with a great beginning but a weaker ending might advance because the judge saw the merits of the beginning of the script even if the ending needed work.

Again, it’s unlikely either script would win, but unless the scripts are assessed in their entirety, the initial cuts might not perfectly represent the “top 25%” of scripts. So, if you’re trying to determine exactly how your script stacks up against the other entries, you might not get an accurate assessment unless all scripts are read in their entirety.

Similarly, if you’re getting a written critique from your script’s judge/s, and your script is not read in its entirety, then the critique might not be as helpful as a critique based on your entire script (since the judge won’t know how the story comes together at the end).

Also, I would argue that if you’ve paid extra for a critique, then the judge should be required to read the script in full. However, no script should be judged differently just because its entrant paid for a critique. So, when you’re paying for a critique from your judge, the competition should already require all scripts to be read in their entirety.

Bottom line, whether a competition requires its judges to read every entry in its entirety or not, I believe it’s important for entrants to know what that process is so they can make decisions about which competitions to enter and better understand how and why their scripts ranked the way they did.

Finally, knowing a judge can eliminate a script after just the first ten or thirty pages means that your script must have a stellar opening. But, this is something that every script should have anyway — because these are the pages (or minutes) that will determine if you grab the attention of a potential agent, manager, producer, actor, director… and eventually, your audience.

Screenplay Competitions book front cover

Screenplay Competitions has received endorsements from Dave Trottier (author, The Screenwriter’s Bible, www.keepwriting.com), Professor Richard Walter (former Screenwriting Area Head, Associate and Interim Dean UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television), Professor of Film John Bernstein (Boston University, College of Communication), Matt Dy (former Director of Script Competitions at Austin Film Festival), Professor Harry M. Cheney (Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts), script editor Lucy V. Hay (www.bang2write.com), and Emmy-wining writer Ken Levine (Hollywood and Levine).

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