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Sound Advice: An Inside Look At What To Do When Entering a Screenplay Competition

So tell us a little about your competition.
Cinequest is currently accepting submissions to the Cinequest 15 Screenwriting Competition. It's open to all screenwriters as long as their scripts have not been optioned, put into production, or have already been produced. A unique aspect about our competition is that the 10 finalists are given a chance to rewrite their scripts before they are sent to the final jury.

This is only the second year you've done this. How does that fare for the writers?
Well, it's the second year of the screenwriting competition but the 15th year for the Cinequest Film Festival. Actually, this works to the advantage of the contestants because we are still a smaller screenplay competition in terms of number of entries, but the winners get the prestige of winning at Cinequest, which is ranked one of the top festivals in the world.

How many entrants did you have last year?
271. So you can see that your odds are much better than a competition with 5,000 entries.

Tell us about your role in all of this.
My official title at Cinequest is the Director of Public Relations, but I'm also in charge of running the screenplay competition. To put it simply, I'm the go-between for the writers and the jury. Last year I was also the Cinequest representative on the final jury.

What makes you qualified to do this?
(Laughs) Well, I have a writing background that includes being produced and published. I spent a lot of time in Los Angeles working as a script consultant, so I had worked with a lot of screenplays before I ever took charge of this part of Cinequest. But what's important is to remember that I was one of only 10 jurors on that final jury, so as much as I hate to say it, it's not all about me.

Where does Cinequest find jurors?
The initial jury came from a variety of sources, all of whom had an excellent sense of story and what constitutes a great script. It was a combination of writers, producers, screenwriting teachers and filmmakers. The final jury was comprised only of people active in the industry and included myself to represent Cinequest and John Kim from Script magazine to represent the writing media.

How do you keep the judging fair for something subjective?
That's a good question. Jury members were given guidelines in terms of judging and we went from there. I spot-checked the jurors to check consistency. They were also allowed to opt out of reading a script if they wanted.

What do you mean?
Let's say they hated sports but were given a script that turned out to be about baseball. Then they would have a prejudice against the story and could swap it for a different script. I have to say that people were very good about returning commentary that included what could have been personal bias so that I could have a second judge take another look at it.

Is your judging blind?
Yes, until the ten finalists are announced, the jury members have no idea who wrote the script or anything about the writer period, including gender.

Did anything strange come out of the competition last year?
We had an unusual amount of baseball and Elvis scripts. The baseball stories I can understand because they are an easy sell, but the Elvis concepts surprised me. You know, really great scripts and really bad scripts have the same thing in common.

What do you mean?
They stand out, and it's easy to make a judgment. It's the scripts that are on the fence that the judges have the hardest time making a decision on. Whether to knock them out of competition or keep them alive.

Who won last year?
Lance Hammer's The Imperfect Cell. It was a perfect script that was completely unique.

Any advice for writers thinking about entering a contest?
Absolutely. Wow, where to even start?

Did you see the same mistakes over and over?
Yes. My first suggestion would be to make sure you run a spell check and a complete proofing before sending in your script. Spell check only gets half the problems. I saw a script that made it to the semi-finals, then get eliminated because of endless spelling and grammatical errors. They even spelled bullsh** wrong! I mean come on. It's completely unprofessional and really irritating to the judges to read endless typos.

What about formatting?
This is another problem. Your script should come in looking like a script. Not bound in a three ring binder or just a bunch of loose pages stuffed in an envelope. It sends a message to the reader that you don't know what you're doing. In general, people were good about the inside content being formatted correctly but sometimes it was completely off. If you don't know correct formatting then consult a recent book on screenwriting. And make sure you eliminate any notes to the director or editor. It's their job to decide what angle to shoot the scene with or how to cut from one scene to the next.

Dialogue should flow when read and actually sound like dialogue when read aloud. I always ask myself when reading bad dialogue "Did the writer have someone read this out loud and listen to how awkward and unnatural it sounds?"

Any advice on how to help with that?
Find a decent actor and have them read it. Most actors have good ears for dialogue and can tell you when a line is unnatural. Getting a group of actors together and having them table read your script can be very, very illuminating for a writer.

Any good plot advice?
Yes, ask someone to read your work and have him or her tell you if they would buy it. Do they think your characters are behaving like real people? I think a big mistake you see in beginning writing is a character who does something completely unjustified and out of left field where it's just completely unbelievable instead of a good plot twist. Something else writers should ask themselves is, "Have I seen this a million times on TV before?" If you have, then write something else.

So clichés were a bit of an issue?
Yeah. I remember one script that was every cop cliché you've ever seen sewn together. You knew how each scene was going to end because you'd been there a million times prior. You know you've got a winner on your hands when you have no idea how something is going to end because it seems fresh and vibrant.

What about genre films?
We accept any type of film script as long as it meets our length requirements. Last year entries ran the gamut from love stories, action, sci-fi, mystery, drama, comedy, you name it. I was surprised however at the calls asking if we'd consider a script that had an all Black cast to it. I guess they figured they wouldn't have a chance, which was definitely not the case.

Was there a lack of cultural diversity in the entries?
Somewhat. No gay and lesbian or Latino scripts and these are big markets right now. I actually felt that the scripts with minority characters and storylines seemed to grab interest because they weren't the norm.

So a Latina lesbian in Elvis drag might be a good idea?
Exactly! It would definitely be different and a far cry from the high-school coming of age stories that festivals are sick of seeing. Oh, this made me think of another big problem, stereotypes.

Yes. The only thing worse than cop clichés is stereotypical characters. Especially when they are just plain offensive. I remember a script where every Black character sounded like a moron from the ghetto and many scripts last year portrayed gays as mincing hairdressers with lisps. It just blew my mind. The judges hated this and nailed a lot of scripts for it.

What about script length?
Make sure you actually read the rules and regulations for any contest you are entering and then follow them. That was frustrating on an administrative end. We had people insist on sending in a script that was well over the maximum length we allowed. They were marked down because of it. I will say this, a lot of judges felt a script should be closer to 90 pages than 120.

Do you think that was because they were quicker to read?
Actually the feedback I received was that many scripts needed to be tighter.

Could you see the 10 finalist scripts from last year being produced?
Yes, though not necessarily for theatrical release. One script I felt would be great for Lifetime Television and another for HBO or Showtime. There are a lot of options these days for a feature-length script.

What in your opinion is the best benefit from entering a competition?

Well, the cash and prizes are always nice, but more importantly it's using a contest as an entrée into an agent or producer's office. Being able to say you were a finalist in a prestigious competition says a lot about your ability as a writer, they are going to take you seriously and look at your script.

Written by: Jens Michael Hussey of Cinequest Festival
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