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  • Confessons of a Contest Judge: The Differences Between Semifinalists & Winners

    September 9th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    The last couple weeks I have been judging the semifinal round of the prestigious PAGE Awards in the Horror/Thriller category. It’s my fourth year as one of their judges and I have had a pretty darn good track record in choosing the top scripts, picking the winners 2 out of the last 3 years (this year’s still being decided).

    I know contests can sometimes feel like this vague guessing game to writers. They’re subjective, often inconsistent, some have anonymous readers and judges, and there are SO many out there, each with their own lofty promises and prizes, that it’s hard to know which are worthwhile and which are a waste of $40. And with every year, there are more submissions and increased competition to overcome.

    When I started reading for PAGE just 4 years ago, there were just 4,500 submissions. Now, there are over 6,000. Six thousand writers vying for 31 prizes, including the grand prize of $25,000 and of course all the access and accolades that go along with that. But those are some daunting odds – 31 out of over 6,000. THAT’S how good your script needs to be. And those are better chances than most other contests which only have a couple prize winners and don’t break it down by genre. This is also why submitting to nationally (or worldwide) recognized, prestigious contests have become a launching pad for new talent – because you have to be better than SO many other writers that Hollywood is almost forced to take notice.

    Yes, some good scripts don’t get through that should. And that goes for EVERY contest. I have a couple clients that won or were finalists in one prestigious contest that didn’t get to the quarters of another with the same exact script. It happens. Sometimes it just comes down to the reader and there’s nothing you can do but brush it off and try again next year.

    Contests aren’t a shortcut to getting discovered, but they are one major avenue that didn’t really exist 10 or 15 years ago that writers can use to break in. The prestige and results that winners of the PAGE Awards find, and the level of writing in the semis, is the reason I continue to judge for them (I’ve judged for other smaller contests as well over the years).

    However, the reason I wanted to write this article is to share with you some lessons and trends that I have noticed, especially this year, as well as give you some insight into what judges are looking for when they read and why, perhaps, your script has been a consummate quarterfinalist or semifinalist, instead of a winner.

    A script wins when the right story, writing, character, commerciality, voice, timing, and luck all come together. And you only have control over a few of those, which I know is frustrating. You could write an amazing script, but if it’s exactly like the film that just came out 2 weeks ago, you’re probably not going to win.

    Semifinalists are scripts with really strong writing and story and resonance for a reader. Winning scripts just have that something extra. They don’t read like a contest script – they read like a professionally written Hollywood film that just hasn’t been made yet. There are a LOT of really GOOD scripts out there. Winning scripts feel like films.

    I can’t speak for other categories, but every year in the horror/thriller section, there are clear trends that stand out. This DOES NOT mean that judges or readers are looking for any specific type of story – especially since there are so many different readers involved before the 25 semifinalist scripts make their way to my desk. Some of it may relate to what is commercial in the marketplace, but it really just comes down to the writing and hook on the concept.

    My first year, the trend was clear – zombies, vampires and werewolves. Those 3 types of stories made up for at least 10 of the 25 semifinalists (the winner that year, by the way, was MAGGIE which comes out this November and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin).

    The following year, there was an increase in creature features of the non-vampire/werewolf variety and that seemed to be the trend. Last year there were more supernatural projects and found footage stories, as well as a higher number of thrillers than horror.

    This year, the trends were glaring and possibly clearer than ever before…

    By FAR the biggest trend this year…was children. 13 out of the 25 scripts were based around kids being kidnapped, murdered, brutalized, and/or needing to be saved from something. Add three MORE to that list if including the unborn, older teens, or adult children of the protagonist.

    That is a HUGE number. And I think the reason is pretty clear. It’s not because the judges are sadistic or are enjoy reading about murdered children – believe me, that’s NOT the case as some were very hard to read no matter how well-written. The reason is because what could create higher stakes or more fear or emotional resonance than a missing, abused or murdered child? What could make for a stronger and more relatable motivation for a protagonist than trying to rescue their child or seeking vengeance for their death?

    There have always been “evil child” movies and they’ve always done well. But after the success of films like Taken (and its sequels), Prisoners, Gone Baby Gone, Lovely Bones, Insidious, etc., films about children as victims instead of being the evil entity themselves, are also succeeding. And this year, they have clearly succeeded in this category.

    Along the same lines, the second biggest trend this year was REVENGE. It was the guiding motivation, theme or driving force behind 12 of this year’s semifinalists. In thrillers and horror, revenge is always popular, and it was exploited in different ways in this year’s offerings. Revenge by the hero, revenge by the antagonist, revenge by society. It’s an emotion everyone can grasp and get behind. What makes it stand out is HOW it’s used – not why.

    Trend number 3 was a massive increase in the brutality of the action and gore contained in this year’s scripts. In a year where 15 scripts involved children or teen victims, the amount of sheer brutality and detail involved was sometimes a bit shocking.

    Brutality is different than “torture porn”, however, which hasn’t been selling for a few years. The difference between brutality and torture porn is purpose, context and literary quality, which can often bring out one’s voice. Torture porn is about finding new disgusting, extreme ways of torturing or killing people or ripping off their body parts for gruesome shock effect. It’s about resonance on a visual scale.

    Brutality is often about resonance on an emotional scale. It often makes you uncomfortable or makes you cringe – but not scream. It could be the same repeated simple action – a punch to the face – but when done 15 times, the description of the consequences of that punch become increasingly brutal and visceral. That being said, I feel like many writers were trying to get their Tarantino on this year – and for some it paid off, and for others it really didn’t.

    The final two story trends aren’t new, but combined made up for about 6 of the 25 scripts. These are – Military experiments gone wrong; and haunted locations. What’s odd is that the haunted locations were all the same type of location, and the “creatures” were all somewhat similar, which for me, made the scripts harder to stand out despite some very nice writing.

    When it comes to similar concepts, what makes them stand out is the originality in hook and voice. Sometimes the hook is related to the location or time period, sometimes it’s what the characters must accomplish or how or why they must accomplish it, sometimes it’s the characters themselves, and sometimes it’s the combination of two hooks that really elevate a project and make it different than the others. That was definitely the case with some of the stronger scripts this year.

    Another very interesting trend this year wasn’t so much story related, but structure. It felt like some writers hoped that judges would only read the first 20 pages and the last 10, and that is NOT the case. We read every word. There were a large number of scripts that had an AMAZING first 15-20 pages – but just couldn’t keep up that level of skill or consistency in tone, voice or plot throughout the rest of the script. You need to make sure that you’re not just starting strong with a great set-up, but that you have an EQUALLY strong execution and pay-off throughout the script. Keep in mind, writers – EVERY sequence needs to be as strong as your opening and closing sequences.

    At the end of the day, it comes down to the X-Factor. The voice. That THING writers have where you know it when you read it, and it just jumps out at you and grabs you (often) immediately. It’s a gut reaction and connection I get to scripts and the writing, and after doing this for over a decade and reading and evaluating many thousands of scripts, my instincts on voice and story are pretty darn strong.

    Sure, I look for strong complex characters with strong goals, motivations, and deeper needs and flaws. Sure, I look at the originality of the concept and hook on that concept and how that is brought out in the story. Sure, I look at the dialogue and if it flows and feels natural and genuine and tight and powerful and if it’s full of personality and DISTINCT character voices. Sure, I look at transitions and themes and structure and if the script moves well and is an easy, enjoyable read. And sure, I take into consideration if it’s something that could sell or garner attention in the marketplace or by a manager or agent. But then there’s the X-Factor. The question I ask myself is – if you had to stake your name and reputation on a handful of these scripts, which ones would they be? Those are my top choices.

    The past two years have been MUCH harder to judge and pick a winner than the first two years where it was pretty darn obvious (to me) who the winners were. Why? Well, with the increased number of submissions, it really is the cream of the crop rising to the semifinals. My first two years, I was scoring scripts in the 50s and 60s. This year, 73 was the lowest score I gave.

    For the first time, I could probably count on two hands the number of typos I found between ALL 25 scripts! That was NOT the case 3 years ago, believe me! It’s certainly not the MOST important thing, but if you’re not meticulously proofreading your scripts and making sure your formatting is professional, it may be the thing that keeps you from advancing to the later rounds. I’ve got 2600 pages to read – your job as a writer is to make reading them easier and fun.

    This year, it was a hard choice as all of the top scripts were executed well, but I am very content with my picks. I was so pleased with the quality of the writing this year and I look forward to seeing what takes home the big prize.

    In the meantime, good luck and keep writing!

    ***If you are a perennial quarter or semi-finalist, I encourage you to check out my services page and sign up for my 4-Week online course “Create More Compelling, Castable Characters” – guaranteed to help you create stronger, more elevated characters and stories to help get your scripts to the next level. Begins Sept 26th! Click here for more details – www.compellingcharacters.eventbrite.com

  • The Right and Wrong Way to Enter Contests!

    April 23rd, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    The next couple of weeks impose some hefty deadlines for screenwriters. Both the Nicholls Fellowship and Page Awards have their final deadlines coming up on May 1, Final Draft Big Break has its early deadline April 30th, and pitchfest season is about to start as well. And every year, about 1-2 weeks from the deadlines of these big contests, I start getting tons of emails saying “I just finished my first draft. Can you get my script ready for Nicholls?”

    This is the wrong way to enter contests.

    I’ve been a judge for the Page Awards for three years and I’ve had numerous clients win or be finalists in major contests including Page Awards, Austin Film Fest, Scriptapalooza, the Disney/ABC Fellowship, LA Scriptfest, and (the now defunct) CS Expo. So, can I help? Sure. But can we totally fix your script 3 days before the deadline? No.

    Especially with contests as big as Nicholls, Page and Big Break, where there are thousands of submissions, you need to take it seriously! And there are certain things you need to think about when entering any contests:

    1. Prestige
    2. Payoff
    3. Readiness/Preparedness
    4. Genre

    Prestige means – enter those contests that actually mean something. Enter ones that have a great reputation, that get great media exposure, whose winners get into the trades, whose winners get HIRED and REP’D, whose finalists get optioned, ones that are nationally recognized and get more than 500 submissions. Do you know what it means to be a semifinalist in a contest that only has 500 submissions? NOTHING. And enter ones that mean something in a query letter if you win. Enter ones where the judge of all the winners isn’t the ONE guy holding the contest. I’ve said it plenty of times, there are only about 10-15 contests that mean anything to Hollywood, including the ones mentioned above. Do your due diligence before shelling out $30, 40, 50, 60 bucks year after year.

    Payoff means the prize is worth it. Now, this may be subjective. Maybe you really need that iPad, or really want that steak dinner and $500 bucks. If so, great. But if I was paying to enter a contest, the payoff better be ACCESS. Yes, a cash prize is awesome and makes you feel like you actually earned money doing what you love – and that’s a great feeling. But the key to a great contest is one that is either going to help you vastly improve your writing or get you access to people and players or meetings that can actually help your career and get you exposure.

    Entering a contest just to get feedback from anonymous “readers” who are paid $20 bucks to write a paragraph about your script is just a stupid idea. You enter contests to WIN them. If you want feedback and notes, pay a consultant that you can have a 1-on-1 (and not anonymous) relationship with who can walk you through where your script needs improving. I’m not saying there aren’t contests that give great notes and that it’s not a nice bonus, but it shouldn’t be the reason you enter one.

    The third step is Readiness and Preparedness. And this one has nothing to do with the contests – it’s all about YOU!  I want to give you just a little glimpse into Nicholls. Last year there were 7,197 screenplays submitted (a new record). There were 368 quarterfinalists (about 5% of all submissions), then 129 semi-finalists (almost all of which got script requests), and then 10 finalists and 5 winners. So, just to get any notice by Hollywood, your script and writing has to be in the top 368 scripts out of over 7,000.

    Do you REALLY think your first or second draft is going to be good enough to do that? Do you really think that a script that you RUSHED to rewrite in a week is going to fare well? Let me tell you – it won’t.

    If your script isn’t truly ready to compete against THOUSANDS of others, then don’t submit it just because there’s a deadline. Wait until next year, or the next contest. Some contests do allow you to submit a new draft after the first round, but you still have to make it past that first round!

    Rewriting is a process that, when done right, should take more than a week for most. Are there exceptions and writers who can totally rewrite a script in a week? Sure. But most of them are trained, professional writers who know the tricks to rewriting or at least have been doing this a while. If you’re a new writer, your rewrite period will probably last months. Most non-professional writers aren’t actually rewriting- they are doing what I call polite polishes. Some consultant told you the characters weren’t developed enough, so you stick 2 lines of backstory on page 21 and suddenly you think you’ve rewritten your script. You haven’t.

    Rewriting is a process by which you re-examine everything and often eliminate or rework core parts of your script. Polishing is a process by which you just make the writing and characters and action shine a bit more. Polishing can be done in a week. Rewriting usually cannot be. And if you’re asking for notes from a consultant with 2 or 3 weeks to go before the deadline, that will only leave you a few DAYS to rewrite your script. This is what’s called – a bad strategy. You want to give yourself a solid month to get feedback, rewrite and review your script if you can.

    Writing to a deadline is great – it’s usually the only motivation that will get me to write. However, while contests may be a great way to break in as a first timer, they are not for beginners. There’s a big difference between beginners and first timers. If this is your first draft of your first script, do NOT bother entering it into contests. You’re wasting your money. That’s not what these contests are for! Just keep working on it, rewriting it, polishing it, learning from it. Then 10 drafts from now, maybe it will be ready for a contest.

    And finally, you need to think about Genre. The TYPE of script you’re writing and the type of contest in which it will succeed. Not every script is a Nicholls script! If you’ve got a raunchy teen sex comedy or a run-of-the-mill woman in jeopardy thriller or torture porn or slasher horror or an epic sci-fi action movie – Nicholls probably isn’t what you should be spending time on. Nicholls is looking for more PRESTIGE projects, stories where character and voice stand out.  Over 50 percent of applicants last year entered drama scripts, which interesting enough made for only about 15% of all spec sales.

    You should be looking at contests that are either broken up by genre (like Page Awards), or contests that are specific to your genre. There are some great genre contests out there specifically for horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. Look at the past winners of the big contests and see what types of projects did well and judge accordingly.

    I’m not here to tell you which contests to enter, or which ones I love the most. I’m here to impress upon you that just because there is a contest, it doesn’t mean you need to enter it. And if you’re going to enter it, make sure your script is in its best shape possible to stand out and WIN.

  • 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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