Breaking in as a screenwriter today is not easy, but there are more avenues than ever to get your work noticed.
Studios, production companies, agencies, and management companies face endless submissions and email queries from aspiring writers worldwide. Since the double-punch of the Economy Collapse and Writers Guild of America strike in 2007/2008, the industry is more risk-averse than ever.
While the doors for original screenplays have thankfully opened up a bit in recent years, it’s still difficult for a newcomer to get their screenplays read by industry insiders.
This is where screenwriting competitions, fellowships and labs come into play. And Launch Pad has helped more writers find success than any other competition.
Studios, production companies, agencies, and management companies have turned to them to find new projects and new talent. They use them as filtration systems to find those diamonds in the rough.
And that is why every up-and-coming screenwriter — even those experienced ones that have been in the grind for years yet still haven’t broken through — should enter marquee contests, competitions, and fellowships like Launch Pad Feature and Pilot Competitions, as well as the Academy’s heralded Nicholl Fellowship.
Here we turn to Launch Pad Feature Screenplay Competition mentor Barbara Stepansky — and her Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship win that launched her career — to learn more about what screenwriting competitions, and fellowships can do for you and your ambitions as a professional writer.
Barbara is a WGA Award winner, a Nicholl Fellowship winner and an award-winning independent film director. Her work was shortlisted for the Academy Awards, garnered the DGA Diversity Award, earned the Student Emmy, and was featured on the Black List. She is the recipient of the Mary Pickford Foundation Scholarship and the Franklin J. Schaffner AFI Fellow Award.
Flint, a film she wrote about the Flint Water Crisis for Sony/Lifetime starring Queen Latifah, was nominated for a Critics Choice and won a WGA Award.
Barbara shares her experiences of winning a major screenwriting fellowship in the below video, and we add our own elaboration on her experiences to detail how such wins and placements can open vital doors for you and your screenwriting career:
Wins and Placements Offer Validation
“A major milestone in my life was winning the Nicholl Fellowship Award in 2013,” Barbara remembers. “It was an incredible validation of a script that people didn’t even really want to look at before the Nicholl.”
The struggle with relying solely on blind industry queries, submissions, and marketing is that you are continually fighting against the direct wants and needs of the industry contacts you’re trying to get to read your screenplays.
If they read your loglines and see that the concept isn’t something they want or need, the process is over before anyone has even read your script. And you have to continue on with this process until the stars align and you find somebody that’s interested.
Yes, that is part of the screenwriting process. You need to try your best to market to anyone and everyone that is a player in the industry — and those that your research has told you would be a good fit for your script. But, meanwhile, you’re engulfed in rejection, and a vast majority of those you contact aren’t even reading your script.
Where’s the validation all screenwriters crave?
With screenwriting contests, competitions, and fellowships, the readers and judges aren’t looking for specific wants and needs. They’re just looking for great screenplays. That’s it.
So it’s a wonderful place to find validation in your work. Whether you win or just place, you know that your writing is engaging industry insiders enough to take notice.
And beyond that, winning or placing in something like the Nicholl Fellowship, or the Launch Pad Feature Competition, validates you in the eyes of the judges and the industry contacts with that competition.
Be Prepared to Win
“I thought I was prepared because I had been working in the industry for about seven years before winning this competition, but I really wasn’t.”
Winning a major competition doesn’t mean that you are on easy street. It’s just the beginning of an onslaught of correspondence, meetings, and, yes, additional writing.
“The onslaught of emails and phone calls that came my way [were] quite extensive.”
You need to be prepared to win. And the best way to accomplish that is by expecting to win. And if you expect to win a major contest, competition, or fellowship, you will hopefully want to be prepared for any and all expectations the industry insiders will have when they meet you.
What can you do to prepare?
First and foremost, know your story, characters, and intentions with the screenplay. When you get those calls and meetings, they’re going to want to pick your brain and explore the project further.
Second, know what you want to accomplish in your career.
Do you want to take on studio assignments, or do you want to write indies? Do you want to write big movies or small character-driven pieces? What type of screenwriting career do you want?
Finally, do you have additional work that they can take a look at? The first question you’ll get during meetings after general discussion is, “What else do you have?”
Be prepared for the onslaught of questions and correspondence. It’s a good thing, to be sure, but just be prepared.
“It was a lot of meetings. And a lot of talking about future projects and what you want to do with your life. It’s an introduction to the industry.”
What Can Come from Meetings?
“It’s kind of a rollercoaster ride. You see what you can click with, who you can click with, and see what works on this road to something bigger and better. And this is where I got my reps from — my manager and agent.”
So you’ve won or placed in a major contest, competition, or fellowship. You’ve garnered access to the industry in terms of email correspondence, calls, and meetings with well-connected industry insiders.
Where these opportunities benefit you most is by getting you and your career started.
The Launch Pad Feature and Pilot competitions, much like Nicholl and other esteemed opportunities, launch careers.
To be taken seriously within the industry, representation is key beyond the contacts you’ve made and validation you’ve received. Agents and managers can get your work out to the power players and decision-makers. They can broker deals for your current projects or use your spec scripts to get you considered for key feature assignments or the writer’s room of a hit show.
“The first major goal after having a team and after getting everyone on board with you and the projects you have is getting work. [A win or placement] validates you as an amateur, but you need to take that next step. So for me, my first gig was a rewrite. I got a rewrite script, and I loved that script, and that’s how I started working professionally as a writer.
That’s the benefit of submitting to contests, competitions, and fellowships. They can jumpstart your career. They can take you from that unknown screenwriter nobody is willing to take a chance on to that hot new thing that agents, managers, producers, and development executives crave to discover.
Learn more about Launch Pad’s track record helping writers find success here.
Michael Lee has worked in development as a script reader and story analyst for a major studio, Emmy Award-winning production company, and iconic movie director.