I’m an (Almost) Award-Winning Screenwriter

Like, legit, I nearly won a couple last year.

And I haven’t really cared about it until now.

Here’s the thing: my beloved golden, Jenny, passed away on October 30th of 2022. I’m writing this on the last day of August, nearly one calendar year later, and I continue to partake in grief education and support groups, which has proven to be immensely helpful. Shortly after she passed, however, my feature thriller script, Skull Creek Canyon, placed as a finalist in two middle-upper tier competitions: Roadmap Writers JumpStart Writing Competition (top 25) and Final Draft Big Break (top 10 thriller). The finalist placements also jettisoned the script up on Coverfly’s Red List. It ranked in the top 1% of all projects (more than 100,000), and peaked as the #9 thriller feature on the entire site.

It was cool to see my script listed in a trio of top-25 lists, but I obviously wasn’t feeling too celebratory following Jenny’s loss.

The thing is: competitions are as much luck as they are skill. Yeah, you have to have a solid piece of writing, but it also has to resonate with the judges who are reading it…and they can be anybody on this planet. Or any other planet for that matter.

I’m not joking but I totally wish I was.

For example, I used to work for a now-defunct education company that taught children how to make movies in the early days of digital cameras (circa 2007). Part of their business was running an also-now-defunct film festival which had its own screenplay contest. Who were the judges reading the screenplays? Why, people from around the office, of course. Some were highly qualified with impressive Hollywood resumes. Others? Not so much. I remember one individual didn’t even know how to properly format a screenplay, yet she was apparently qualified to judge them.

Another example: earlier this year I applied to be a reader for a screenplay competition that operates out of New York. Someone from the organization got in touch to inform me that the position was unpaid. This may not sound like a big deal, but because a lot of competitions shroud their judges in secrecy, learning that a contest uses volunteers tends to discredit it. And it’s not like this competition was highly thought of to begin with.

Other competitions tout their judges as being “industry professionals,” which as empty of a term as companies claiming they offer “generous and competitive pay” in job postings but refuse to post any figures. I mean, technically you can call me an industry professional as well.

I’m not saying these competitions are bad or their judges are full of crap. Not at all. And it may not be a good idea to identify the judges anyway since there are so many weirdos out there.

What I’m saying is that, well, competitions are a total crapshoot.

The Academy Nicholl Fellowship (yes, that Academy) assigns each script to two readers. If the script scores high enough, then it goes to a third. That’s it. Essentially, two people stand between you and an infusion of pride for placing in the quarterfinals of the most respected competition out there. Last year, I actually purchased reader comments to see inside the mindset of the judges who read Skull Creek Canyon. The first reader wasn’t a huge fan, but their feedback was helpful. The second reader’s notes didn’t talk about much of anything beyond the first 10 pages, and what it did focus on wasn’t helpful at all. So, those were my two readers.

The thing is, I know that Skull Creek Canyon is a polarizing script. The fact that it has placed so highly in a few contests and then totally flunked out of a couple others I think reinforces that idea. It’s not for everyone.

So, how do I interpret my success? I actually break apart the original luck/skill ratio and ask myself the question: is the success of Skull Creek Canyon based more on luck or more on skill?

If it had placed in just one contest, then I would suggest it’s more luck than anything else. But finishing as a finalist in these two generally respected competitions starts to legitimize the idea that this is a frickin’ awesome script.