READER QUESTION: Are there any good TV-writing contests?

Hey, guys– happy President’s Day… I’m not quite sure how we’re supposed to celebrate, but hey– day off, can’t complain.  Especially because I’m sitting at home, nursing a mild hangover from being at the Magic Castle all night.  And I don’t care what anyone says: the Magic Castle is the COOLEST PLACE ON EARTH.  Saying that, of course, may make me a complete dork, but I don’t care– it’s true (the Castle part, not the dork part, which is also probably true).  And anyone who denies it hasn’t been there or is lying.

ANYWAY… after Friday’s post about the Scriptapalooza screenwriting contest, I received a couple emails asking if there were any good TV writing contests, so I thought I’d take a minute to give you my thoughts on that.

First of all, are there TV writing contests?  Yes.

Are there any good TV writing contests?  That depends on your definition of good.

If your definition of a “good” TV writing contest is a contest that rewards its winner with bragging rights, maybe some cash, and hopefully a chance to get their work read or seen by agents, execs, showrunners, etc.– then YES: there is a tiny handful of TV writing contests (which we’ll get to in a second).

If your definition of a “good” TV writing contest is a contest that rewards its winner by landing them a staff job or getting their pilot made at a network or studio, then NO: there are no good TV writing contests.  And here’s why…

Movies (and, therefore, movie scripts) are finite pieces of work.  A movie lasts two hours, it’s over, done.  The story will never continue, go on, or repeat itself.  (Sure, there are sequels, but most movies aren’t written with a sequel already in mind… sequels are created as follow-ups to a proven successful property.)  Most movies, by design, are intended to be close-ended experiences.  This makes it very easy for producers, studios, or production companies to buy a script from a writer, say “thank you very much,” and dispose of the writer.  And I’m not saying “dispose of the writer” as a judgement call– like when we all hear screenwriters complain about how they’re treated like crap by the studios (which is often true, but a separate issue).  I’m simply saying that once a screenwriter has finished a movie script, his work is done.  The script does not go on.  (This is one of the reasons we say film is a director-driven medium; while the story begins with the writer, it’s really the director who brings it to life and puts his creative stamp on the movie.  The director has much more control over the film’s vision than the writer.)

But this doesn’t happen in television.  Television shows make mini-movies every week, so they need their writers to stick around.  When one script is finished, another must be written.  Immediately.  Thus, TV is a writer-driven medium… it’s the writer or showrunner’s vision which drives the show every week.  This affects TV in two big ways…

1)  It’s why TV shows have staffs.  One writer couldn’t write twenty-two scripts back to back and have them be very good.  (I know we read about Aaron Sorkin and David Kelley doing it, but they were clearly subjects in some bizarre genetic experiment that gave them amazing literary superpowers.)  (I’m kidding.  To be fair, no one knows how those guys do it.  Centuries from now, archaeologists will look back and wonder who made Stonehenge, who erected Easter Island, and how the fuck Aaron Sorkin and David Kelley wrote so many scripts.)  So writing staffs sit in a room together, for 8-15 hours a day, and write their episodes as a group.

2)  It’s why studios and networks rarely (and I mean rarely) buy shows and pilots from inexperienced TV writers.  Designing a TV show– and running it successfully– often takes years of experience, so buyers tend to buy projects only from writers who have proven they can be sucessful TV writers and producers.

And neither of these two points is very conducive to winning a contest. 

Winning a contest might get your script in front of people who could help you get a job– showrunners, execs, agents, etc.– but getting hired on a TV staff is about much more than just writing a good script.  Being a TV writer is 50% writing talent and 50% personality (and, in the cases of some writers, more like 10%-90%).  Thus, most showrunners hire people they already know: writers they’ve worked with, their own writers assitant, etc.  And when they do hire a stranger, they definitely meet with that person– at least once– and usually try to recommendations from other people who have worked with them.

And winning a contest definitely won’t get your pilot picked up or produced as a series.  (Of course, never say “definitely,” because now that I’ve said it, it’ll happen… but for the most part, I stand by my “definitely”).  In fact, the very notion of winning a contest is antithetical to what it takes to develop and run a series.  To be totally honest, if you see a contest purporting to give winners their own pilot or TV show: run– it’s probably not legit.  Any contest claiming it can give winners their own TV show clearly doesn’t have a firm understanding how TV shows are bought and sold.

HAVING SAID ALL THIS… should you still apply to TV-writing contests?

Sure, why not?  What they will give you is…

•  Something cool to put on your writing resume
•  A possible open door to execs, agents, and showrunners
•  Hopefully, a bit of cash
•  Maybe some constructive feedback
•  A giant warm fuzzy
•  Experience writing
•  Experience getting rejected (which is going to happen to you way more than getting accepted, no matter what level you’re at.  Even David Kelley and Aaron Sorkin’s shows get canceled.)

So, here’s a short list of TV writing contests that are– at the very list– legit.  There may be more that I’m missing… if they are, please let me– and everyone else–  know about them in the comments section below.

As for these, I know nothing about the talent pool that applies to them or how successful they are at getting winners through important doors, but they at least aren’t criminal fronts:

•  Writers Digest Screenplay and TV Writing Contest
•  Austin Film Festival Screenplay & Teleplay Competition
•  Scriptapalooza International TV Writing Competition
•  Larry Brody‘s Spec Scriptacular at TVWriter.com

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3 thoughts on “READER QUESTION: Are there any good TV-writing contests?

  1. Eme

    Wow. I just spent the last hour reading your blog and I just want to thank you for the tremendous amount of useful information that you make available to writers. I was sending links of your entries to the others in my tv-writing course until my wrists began to ache. Anyway, top-notch blog. Once again, thank you!

  2. BuffyFan47

    The Magic Castle is the coolest place on earth – which is why you are dead to me for not bringing me with you.

    But as a courtesy to others I won’t actually kill you since you do provide a LOT of valuable advice and are, overall, a very smart guy who knows a lot about writing.

  3. Charlie

    1. Chad, just because they’re pink, shimmery, and you get them at the magic castle, the drinks are by no means magic and you should watch how many you consume in an evening.

    2. What the archaeologists will discover about Sorkin and Kelley is lots and lots of coke.

    3. You missed a HUGE opportunity by not adding to the list of "legit" competitions Gervich’s Blogscript Fest ’08 Where for an entry fee of $75 dollars, Script Notes will find the best talent out there… with the best script to be posted as a PDF link for script note readers which we all know include agents (at least one), Charlie, Rick and, um… the other biggest names in the industry.

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