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  • How I Judged the PageAwards: Trends and Tips from a Contest Judge

    August 11th, 2011

    By Danny Manus

    For the last 2 weeks, I have been judging the semi-finalists of the PageAwards in the horror/thriller category. It’s my second year doing so and last year my 1st place choice ended up winning and 2 more of my top 5 scripts landed in the top 3. So…I have a legacy of taste to uphold.

    This year, there were some very interesting scripts and some very solid writing. Here’s an interesting break down for you…If all 27 of this year’s semi-finalist scripts had come to me through No BullScript for notes, there would have been 4 that got “Recommends,”  another 5 would have gotten “Strong Considers,” 7 that would have gotten a “Consider,” and 11 “Passes.”  And keep in mind this is the top 27 out of over 700 submissions in this category! So out of 700, only about 10-15 scripts were truly strong enough to stand out.

    What’s really interesting to me are the different (or similar) trends I discovered between the two years. Last year, out of 24 scripts, about 8 were horror, the rest thriller. Of those 8, they were all a mixture of torture porn, vampire, werewolf, zombie, or creature scripts (including 2 horror-comedies). This year, out of 27 scripts, there were 7 true horror projects but only 1 vampire and 3 creature movies.  No werewolves, no zombies, no torture porn.

    Why? Well, maybe writers realized that many of those trends are over in Hollywood and they have been done to death (pun intended). 

    Now, since these are the semi-finals, all the people who don’t know proper structure and format and can’t spell have already been weeded out. So here are the top things I looked for while reading these scripts (in no particular order):

    1. Does it grab me immediately, set the right tone, and make me keep reading?
    2. Is there an interesting and engaging voice from the writer?
    3. Do I care about the character(s) and do I want to know what happens to them?
    4. Is there something original and commercial about the story – is it sellable?
    5. Does the story exploit the concept and setup in the best way – did it go in the right direction?

    There’s plenty more elements – but those are the Big 5 for me.

    And do you know where MOST scripts fell flat for me? Number 5. Let me tell you – having a great first 15 pages is really important, but making sure your story stays at that level and goes in the best, most natural and commercial direction – is even more important!

    There’s nothing worse than falling in love with a script on page one, and falling out of love by page 30. It’s like breaking up with a girlfriend before you even get to sleep with her. Waste of time and energy. And it hurts a little bit…right…there. Because you saw the potential of that relationship, but it was never fully realized.

    And far too many really good scripts lost steam after the first act or half way through and just went in really wrong directions that were not natural to the story or characters’ set up.  There was one script that had the best first 10 pages I’ve read in a long time – but by page 25, the story had already lost its fire.  

    All of my top 5 scripts had good openings and grabbed me from the start, however 4 of them did not have the BEST openings. In fact the scripts that had my favorite openings, sadly, finished in the middle of the pack. They opened super strong, set up awesome characters and a great tone and story – and then went off-track. I was really disappointed.

    This is why plotting and outlining is so important, why knowing your characters and what they would (and wouldn’t do) is so important, why creating a fully fleshed-out antagonist in a horror/thriller is so important, and why keeping your story on its natural track is the key to a satisfying read.

    Here’s the other interesting trend – there were very few truly original concepts. There were many scripts that were well-written, but were exactly like other stuff out there and therefore, not really sellable. The ones that seemed to take two great concepts and blend them together really well to create this new, more original concept and hook – those were the ones I think I scored the highest.

    So, who will win? Your guess is as good as mine. Reading scripts is subjective and depends on 100 things including the mood and mindset of the reader. But I hope my top choices do well in the finals and I hope this helps you all with your next contest-winning script!

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