Last Friday the 8th July my bleak drama Faith was announced as the winner of the Prequel to Cannes Feature Screenwriting Competition 2011, a great achievement of which I'm very proud. It got me thinking about competitions and how I've approached them in the past and I've come to a conclusion that maybe I didn't treat them with the respect I should have done.
Competition deadlines are dangerous to writers as there's a temptation to rush off any old rubbish just so you can meet that deadline and enter - you've got to be in it to win it after all...right???? In reality you're not doing yourself any favors by rushing your work just to enter for the sake of entering. I know this to be true, as I've been guilty of this on many occasions. Starting a script a week before the final deadline isn't the best preparation in the world. Rushing that script means you haven't put as much effort into as you could have and the quality of what you've written isn't going to be great. It's no surprise then that a good percentage of scripts (more than half the total entered) fall at the first hurdle simply because not enough thought went into them. By doing this you're just wasting your entry fee; you might as well spend it down the pub.
Another danger for writers is thinking of script competitions as the be all and end all, entering everything in sight and hoping you get lucky. It almost becomes an addiction and yes, I've been there too. Again you're not doing yourself any favors, weakening your chances by not focusing your efforts.
It's better to choose four or five screenwriting competitions per year and concentrate on entering those with scripts you've been working on for a while. Better still think a year ahead and then you have a glorious 365 days to work on anything you might wish to enter in the future. Planning ahead, deciding which competitions you're going to enter, what script you're going to enter with, and making sure that script is ready and polished to its best increases your chances significantly. It's worth bearing in mind that my screenplay Faith took three years to write from conception to finished draft, most of which was spent rewriting it over and over again until it sparkled. That's why it has also made the last 25% of entries in another screenwriting competition.
Does winning a competition lead to numerous offers of work and agents begging at your door? I doubt it, but it does elevate your exposure to those in a position to help you forward your career and gives you the opportunity to show what you can do.
Competitions aren't an easy way into the industry and nothing will ever replace good old fashioned hard work as a way of getting you noticed.