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Is there a “Best-Time” to enter a Screenplay Competition?

by Arik Cohen

When it comes to the best time to visit a buffet, there are two competing philosophies:  1) You want to go when it’s not busy.  This way when a good dish comes out, such as delicious crab legs, you don’t have to fight a swarm of guests all trying to grab at it, and possibly leave with only one skinny leg on your plate.  2) You want to go to a buffet when it is busy.  When it’s busy, that means the buffet is in constant turnaround.  Platters are being emptied quickly, so they’re being refilled with fresh foods at a rapid pace.  You might have to battle for the crab legs, but you know the crab legs will always be fresh.   

Is it better to be one of a few or one of many?

Last year the Fresh Voices screenplay competition had over 1400 entries.  That’s 1400 different stories, 1400 different adventures, and (at least) 1400 different lead characters. 

No one judge has to read all 1400 by themselves (the first round consists of a group of judges tackling the ever-growing stack of submissions as an organized unit), but each judge reads a large chunk of them.  Assuming an average page count of 110 per script, I personally probably read close to 50,000 pages during my most recent season judging the Fresh Voices Competition.

I’m not just writing all this to impress you with my screenplay-reading prowess (a talent that has yet to impress the pretty bartender at my local dive in Hollywood, but I’m still trying).  I’m writing this to give you an idea of how much of an undertaking judging a screenplay competition can be.  When you see a movie it’s two hours of your life.  When you make a movie it’s two years.  Similarly, when you submit a screenplay to a competition it’s 110 pages of writing, when you judge a screenplay competition it’s 50,000 pages of reading.  Don’t feel bad for me, though.  I know what I signed on for.

But I want to alleviate some possible concerns that are probably swirling in your noggin at this moment: “My gosh, if you’re reading so many screenplays, do you ever get tired?  Does your constant workload ever affect how you feel about a particular script?  Is there a best time to submit?  Are you referring to the brunette bartender with the short hair or the blonde bartender that has all the bracelets?” 

The honest answer to the first question:  Yeah, we get tired sometimes.

Who doesn’t get tired at their jobs?  Video game testing seems like a great job on paper, but I’m sure by hour 8 you’d rather put down the controller and pick up a book.  There is someone who works at Ben & Jerry’s as quality control whose primary responsibility is to try a spoonful of ice cream from every batch to ensure that it is up to snuff.  That’s right, someone literally GETS PAID TO EAT ICE CREAM.  But I’m sure that by their second week on the job they’d kill for some chicken wings.

But Fresh Voices knows this, and that’s why when we judge screenplays we do so on our own time.  We of course have deadlines, but we have the freedom to read the script when we’d like within that time frame.  If we sit down with a script and realize we’re just not in the right state of mind, we’re more than free to take a walk and revisit it in an hour.  This is to ensure every script gets a fair shot.

Trust me, we want your script to be good.  We want to enjoy the read.  Nothing makes the day go by faster than reading a good batch of entertaining screenplays.  It’s moments like this where it becomes the dream job.  The last thing we want is to have to slog through a screenplay, so it’s in our best interest to be in the right frame of mind before beginning page one. 

So, our constant workload doesn’t particularly change how we feel about a specific script on a specific day.  There’s never a case of the 4pm script that we won’t like no matter what.  If anything, we want that last script to be a winner so we can end our workday on a high note.

So is there a best time to submit?  Yes, I suppose there is.  But not for the reason you think. 

Like anyone would predict, we receive more submissions as it gets closer to a deadline, and usually receive a large majority of our scripts right before the regular and final deadlines.  This creates a pattern where we have scripts trickling in over the period of a few weeks, followed by a truckload in a few days.  So we have sporadic screenplays to read, then a full plate of work for the next month.  It’s an interesting cycle.  One might think that the scripts that trickle in would get more time and focus, and the big rush of scripts would all overlap and cause confusion.  This isn’t true.  We have it set up so that we increase judges when the workload increases, so you never have one judge having to read screenplays for 16 hours a day.  For that reason, don’t feel you should submit early simply to avoid having your script become lost in the shuffle.  It won’t.  It’ll always get its fair shot.  But perhaps you should submit early for an entirely different reason. 

When you walk into one of those $60 Vegas buffets it’s hard to not get excited about the myriad of crazy and expensive dishes you can sample.  You grab a plate and you throw crab legs and sushi and Kobe burgers on your plate with all the giddiness of a third grader running into a Toys-R-Us.  But by the fourth plate, something has changed.  The food still tastes great.  And you’re still able to recommend the amazing beef & broccoli, but your enthusiasm has lessened.

It’s similar in the screenplay competition.  When it begins there’s an open-ended excitement.  Who knows what the competition will bring!  Every judge begins the competition as an idealist.  As the competition continues, you’ll still enjoy the great scripts, but that sense of discovery will naturally wane.  Every year I recommend scripts to progress to the second round that came in on both the first week of the competition and the last week, but I will have to admit that discovering an amazing little gem is much more satisfying on the first week than the last.  In much the same way that your first bite of shrimp always satisfies a bit more than the last.

We’re professionals.  We know the gig and we have all been doing it for years now.  We know how to always give your script its due consideration. We want your script to be fantastic no matter when it comes in.  Though much like that first plate, you’re always a tad more excited at the start.  Damn, writing this just made me hungry.