The right competition can offer numerous benefits to up-and-coming film and TV writers, particularly those without representation, or other means of industry access. While cash prizes provide nice walking around money, the real value comes in having your work evaluated by knowledgeable experts. Advancing to the final round in at least a few competitions is not only validation that your writing is up to Hollywood’s snuff, but may also result in meetings with agents, managers, producers, and executives.
As a former literary manager and screenplay competition judge, I’ve seen many unknowns begin productive screenwriting careers by having their work recognized in this forum. However, not all competitions are created equal. Only a small handful are really worth their weight in entry fees.
1. Academy Nicholl Fellowship
You’ll likely find this one on most lists of top competitions. First, it’s put on by the same organization that holds the Oscars, so there’s a high pedigree. Second, the juries are comprised of top industry pros. Third, it’s ultra-competitive (in 2023, there were 5,600 submissions from 83 countries), so doing well means placing in the top 0.25% of all entrants. But the reward is unparalleled: five winners each receive a $35,000 fellowship, mentorship from an Academy member, and an invite to participate in events leading up to the Oscars.
2. Sundance Screenwriters Lab
Another perennial big shot shares its name with that equally famous film festival held each January in Park City, Utah. Competition is stiff thanks to a track record of jumpstarting careers, but at least submissions are limited to first- or second-time writers. Entrants can choose between several tracks, including the Screenwriters Lab, which includes a five-day workshop for 12 winners, the Comedy Fellowship, the Horror Fellowship, and the Screenwriters Intensive – a two-day online workshop for 10 winners from underrepresented communities.
3. Final Draft Big Break Contest
Big Break is sponsored by the company that makes the industry’s leading screenwriting software and is heavily promoted through media outlets. A total of 11 winners are crowned – eight for feature scripts and three for TV pilots – who then share over $80,000 in cash and prizes and receive a luncheon with the judges. Moreover, two grand prize winners get an all-expenses-paid trip to Tinseltown for schmooze meetings with producers and reps.
4. Script Pipeline
Since 1999, over $8 million in pilots and screenplays have been sold by finalists, including to major studios like Warner Bros, Universal and 20th Century, while several finalists themselves have been staffed on shows at ABC, CBS and Netflix. One winner gets $25,000 while the runner-up gets $2,500. Both get meet-and-greets with industry pros searching for new screenplays. Moreover, all semifinalists and quarterfinalists are provided with feedback on their material.
Begun in 2013, this is one of the newest and fastest growing competitions on the list. But its track record speaks for itself. In addition to awarding over $100,000 in prizes, winners and finalists have been hired to write for Apple TV+, FX, NBC, USA, Hulu and the CW, among others. All winners are invited to join the ScreenCraft Development Program, which includes one-on-one consultation with industry vets. Competition categories are parsed by genre such as action/thriller and sci-fi/fantasy.
Sundance’s slightly less ubiquitous cousin has been discovering emerging screenwriters since 1997. Unlike most others, they provide constructive criticism to every entrant, not just quarterfinalists and above, while offering more in-depth coverage for an added charge. Every entrant also gets a one-year subscription to their film channel. The competition consists of four categories: features, shorts, TV pilots and horror/thriller. A single grand prize winner collects $10,000 in cash while prize packages are given to the top three scripts in each category.
Founded in 1998, this competition endorsed by story guru Robert McKee has separated itself from the pack by using only working producers, agents and managers as judges while promoting the work of all semifinalists and higher for a whole year. Hundreds of entrants have sold material, been hired or found representation. Submission categories include features, shorts, TV and podcasts. A separate fellowship program offers three to six months of mentoring by a known producer and access to dozens more.
8. PAGE International
PAGE was started in 2003 to discover scripts by talented novices from across the globe. Feature film submission categories include seven different genres, including historical and family film, plus separate competitions for TV comedy, TV drama and shorts under 30 pages. One grand prize winner gets $25,000 cash, a fellowship to the Nostos Screenwriting Retreat in Italy, and promo packages with several online script marketplaces. Gold, silver and bronze “prize packages” are also awarded in each of the 10 categories.
Filmmaker and educator Gordy Hoffman founded BlueCat in 1998 to develop new and noteworthy writing talents, which is why story notes are provided on every entry for no extra cost. Winning writers are introduced to over 400 agents and managers, with a grand prize winner earning a cool $7,500. In addition, $3,000 each is given to the best short screenplay, feature screenplay and TV pilot, while the Fellini Award pays out another $2,000 to the best script by a foreign writer from any category.
10. Austin Film Festival
Awards are given in nearly every genre under the sun, from feature comedy, horror and sci-fi to more obscure areas like women in animation, scripted digital series and fiction podcasts. In addition, the WGA East sponsors the drama screenplay award where a winner is named at a gala luncheon. Only 15% of entrants advance past the first round, but second-rounders and up (not just winners) are given certain rewards and opportunities, often in the form of industry networking. Entering the competition also gets all entrants discounted admission to the festival.
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Mark Heidelberger co-founded Beverly Hills-based Treasure Entertainment in 2000, serving as a film executive, producer and literary manager until 2011 before going freelance. Film and TV credits include Harsh Times, Comfort, Ninja Apocalypse, The Basement, Take the Night, Pray for Rain, Hallmark Channel’s You’ve Got a Friend and the soon-to-be-released Last Night on Earth. Often times, he performs ghostwriting services on screenplays in addition to his producing duties. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America. He holds a BA in Film Studies from UCSB and an MFA in Producing from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television.
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