At a Career Coaching Intake Session this week, a new client just at the start of her screenwriting journey and wanting to make sure she goes about it in the smartest way possible, came to meet me armed with questions. She told me that she is currently focusing on the development of her craft and the writing of her first TV pilot, and asked me whether she should submit her pilot, which she is aware is not quite ready (so no delusions there!) to those competitions whose deadlines are coming up.
Over the years, many writers told me that they’ve submitted material competitions, knowing it’s not quite there yet in order to “see what happens” and at least take a stab at those all-important deadlines that roll around every 12 months. In most such cases, the writer was fully aware that the script was not ready to show but still decided to throw it in and hope. In every case that I am aware of, these screenplays and TV pilots, not yet ready for showtime, did not advance in any of the competitions to which they were submitted, specifically where those big competitions that receive thousand of submissions are concerned.
My general take on competitions is: If you have all the money in the world and want to use it to submit your screenplay to various competitions much like buying a lottery ticket… go for it. You will always be able to submit again next year when the material is in better shape. The only problem is, over time I’ve seen more than one writer get disappointed, despite knowing better when their not-yet-ready-screenplay didn’t move up in competition. Because it’s so easy to hope to be surprised. To want to find out that your writing is further along than you thought it was.
Labs and fellowships are different, and not to be thought of the same way as competitions, whether or not you have a bunch of cash lying around: more often than not, the fellowships (and labs) track your submissions, and have specific rules in place, dictating that you can’t submit the same screenplay or TV pilot year after year, i.e. twice. New submission materials are required year in and year out. So by submitting an incomplete work one year just to throw something in there before the deadline, you are barring yourself from submitting that same piece again next year, when it’s actually ready to make the right impression as part of your fellowship or lab application.
Even after vetting a screenplay or TV pilot enough to confirm that it’s “there,” some writers prefer starting their adventures in competition submissions by testing the water with smaller and mid-size contests. Nothing wrong with that! Those smaller contests can be a great next step beyond the vetting of it all, to see how your screenplay or pilot measures up against a few hundred, instead of a few thousand. Some writers opt to first confirm that their screenplay or pilot can become the big fish in the small pond before they throw it into the majors.
The important thing to remember, especially if you’re operating on a budget, is that there will always be more deadlines. While it is true that a lot of the major competitions are open for submissions during the first half of the year, for the better part of twelve months, there is always something worthy you can submit your newly finished and vetted pilot or screenplay to for the first time. And even a deadline that you missed because the work wasn’t quite ready yet will once again come around. Rejection hurts, even when you tell yourself that it’s the most likely outcome. Because of that, you want to submit your material to screenwriting competitions once you’ve vetted the work and have every reason to believe that it will and it can rise. In every step of your journey, you want to set yourself up for success.
Author of Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches from Focal Press and Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career published in 2014, I am a career coach for screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on the screenwriter’s professional development. My clients include working film and television writers, writers who sold feature specs, original pilots and pitches to major studios and networks, as well as contest winners, television writing program participants, feature film lab participants and fellows, and emerging screenwriters just...