Friday, March 27, 2009

What does your title say??

You’ve worked for (fill in time span here), pouring your blood, sweat and tears into your script but it’s finally done. The only thing left to do is the title page. You think about it for a few minutes and think, “aw, screw it, what’s in a title anyway?” Sound familiar? If this is how you view your script’s title, think again. In some cases, the right title can mean the difference between getting made and sitting on the slush pile for all eternity.

Don’t believe me? The other night I saw Greg Kinnear on “The Graham Norton Show”. (It’s on BBC and if you’ve never seen it you are missing one of the funniest hours on TV.) He was talking about his movie X. It originally came across his desk with the dubious title “Windshield Wiper Man” and sat there for three months before he even took a look at it. It sounded to him like another goofy superhero movie and he had a hard time getting over the mental image of a man in a cape, etc. Fortunately, for whatever reason he got past it, made the movie and the rest is history but what a close call.

Similarly, I was reading a script for a client and the title smacked of a whacky comedy. I sat back waiting for the laughs to come in only to find out it was a horror movie. It’s a good script but the human brain being what it is, my expectations were let down and in general I felt disappointed with the read. I would have read it regardless but if someone was looking to make a horror movie, this script would not have leapt off the pile with a big “read me” sign in bold, dripping, blood red letters.

So take some time, do a few “test groups” with your friends, co-workers and fellow writers to see if your title evokes the genre, tone and excitement you’re looking for.

Photo from City of Centralia Illionois

Friday, March 20, 2009

Are screenwriting contests worth the entry fees?

Google “screenwriting contest” and you get a mind-boggling 511,000 results. The entry fees as well as the prizes they taunt you with can be equally staggering. So how do you decide what contest, if any, to enter?

According to Cynthia Cree, founder and President of the Hollywood Nexus and the Hollywood Omnibook, “Writers should participate in screenwriting contests as a means of motivation to write (e.g. to complete a submit-able draft by a set date), to obtain feedback, and for the experience of competing against other screenwriters.” But, she warns, don’t enter if you’re going to equate not winning failure, or take it to mean that your script is not good. The point of any contest, according to Cree, is to help you be better today than yesterday.

Pasha Mckenley with Creative Screenwriting agrees that contests go beyond winning or losing. “Contests are a great way to get exposure. We have access to industry professionals who will read your script because it was selected over thousands of others. I get calls and emails from executives who are looking for the next hit. Sometimes I even give executives scripts that didn't make it to the final rounds but were strong contenders where the writer showed promise.”

She also feels that entering contests helps you prepare your script for industry standards such as putting it in the correct format and correcting typos. “Learn the BASIC techniques of screenwriting before sitting down to write one. It’s shocking how many scripts are entered into contests that aren’t even properly formatted.” Finally, she advises writer to carefully read the rules and regulations of the contest.

Writer Deanne Devine has only positive things to say about her contest experiences. She entered BlueCat because it offers 1 page feedback for every entry. If you enter early, you get your feedback in a month and can revise the script and reenter it by the regular deadline (at a reduced fee) to improve your chances of winning (and get a second critique).

“My screenplay came back with nice comments, but a TON of ‘needs improvements.’ It was really helpful for the price.” She took the feedback to heart and did a total rewrite on her script. This year, the feedback was much more encouraging and showed only a few areas that need tweaking.

Benjamin Ray, quarterfinalist in the 2008 PAGE International Screenwriting awards, advises all writers to apply to as many contests as possible, especially those that give you feedback. “Overall its fun and creates opportunities”. His favorite contests have been the Austin Film Festival, PAGE, and In general, he finds that most contest providers are on your side and are happy to offer you help if you ask.

Beyond simply winning or losing, contest have taught Ray to work with deadlines. “Use this to your advantage by setting up a series of screenwriting deadlines to build up a solid resume.”

His tip for finding a good contest? “Look for ones that give a lot of details on their webpage.”

Having judged a number of contests over the years, I would advise any writer to enter contests that offer professional feedback first. No matter how you place, you’ve come out a winner if you’ve learned something from the experience.

The other main benefit of contests is the exposure to industry professionals. If a contest is judged by a panel of executives and agents, you’ve basically been given the opportunity to submit your writing to people who wouldn’t normally accept an unsolicited script. In the long run, that can prove far more important than winning the actual contest.

(photo by Martin Kingsley)