Screenwriting contests have been a fixture of the entertainment industry for decades. Photoplay Magazine invited contest submissions as a form of interactive fandom as far back as the 1920s. Later during the 1950s, Samuel Goldwinn Jr. gave a platform to emerging talents like Francis Ford Coppola, Pamela Gray, and Allison Anders. More recently, the internet has made screenwriting contests even more accessible and democratic, disrupting the often unruly film landscape and bringing diverse talent to the forefront.
Screenplay competitions mine the unrepresented and underrepresented storytellers from all walks of life, shedding light on their unique vision
Today, the modern screenwriting contest serves as a scouting mission for the voices that will shape film and television for years to come. And with the combination of networking, mentorship, and accessibility, screenwriting labs and competitions are doing more today than ever before to make Hollywood more diverse.
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Screenwriting competitions create advocacy networks
Having an advocate in the industry is absolutely paramount — but having a team of them is essential. As a writer’s career progresses, management and agencies function as professional advocates, relying on their own reputation and relationships to bridge connections and grow a writer’s network by leveraging their own. For an unrepresented writer, relying on a personal network for support and advocacy is a key factor in taking their work to the next level; but that broader audience can prove out of reach for diverse creators when access to industry networks is limited.
A study in the American Sociological Review showed that two barriers to accessing professional opportunities, which affected minorities more severely are:
- Network access
- Network returns
Candidates from diverse backgrounds were less able to generate leads from within their organic networks, and the leads they did generate were often less able to produce lasting results in terms of professional elevation. Screenwriting competitions help broaden a writer’s network while introducing them to advocates better able to connect their voice to the environments where it will be engaged, elevated, encouraged, and — most importantly — employed.
Competitions highlight emerging talent (and new IP)
Hollywood has hindered its progress through exclusion. Since 2007, the film industry has failed to increase diversity organically, with 65% of the speaking roles in 2019 films going to white men. At the same time, reboots, prequels, and sequels dominated the box office — and even before the COVID-19 shutdown, theater attendance was down 4.6 percent in January of 2019.
While this can be attributed to the growing number of OTT (“over the top” platforms, aka streaming services like Hulu and HBO Max) — the issues of accessibility and diversity are inextricable. Over 20% of Netflix’s U.S. based films in 2019 were directed by women (compared to 10% in the realm of movies produced by legacy studios). Films with diverse leads like Uncorked (Netflix); the airing and subsequent cancellation of high-profile, diversely cast shows like the Get Down, One Day At A Time, and High Fidelity — reveal these platforms to be, like the current national conversation, wrestling with diversity and inclusion. Meanwhile, the film industry at large has failed so significantly to even acknowledge the changing demographics of its audience that it has implemented strict standards as a triage measure to increase on-screen representation.
With all of these high-level conversations revolving around a more inclusive Hollywood, some of the ground level access for diverse talent — and their upward mobility within the industry — tends to be overlooked. Screenplay competitions mine the unrepresented and underrepresented storytellers from all walks of life, shedding light on their unique vision. As a result, they also highlight new intellectual property, potential future franchises, prestige films, and shared universes that will compete for marquee space and market share.
It’s clear that diverse stories are marketable; and diverse talent — highlighted in screenwriting competitions and labs — is the best place to source that IP. With a more diverse generation of consumers coming to preeminence, the next multi-film YA sensation is likely to be an Afrofuturist adventure from a writer like Tomi Adeyemi, rather than eurocentric fantasy from the next J.K Rowling.
Screenplay contests build new pipelines
By offering mentorship, in addition to access, screenwriting competitions also provide a springboard for self-sustaining progress in industry representation. Applicants are granted exposure to a panel of judges ranging from producers to showrunners and literary agents. As these connections foster success, they also provide a framework for future diversity.
Leaders with diverse backgrounds have been shown to provide a framework for fostering diverse talent, and building a more organically inclusive culture within organizations. With an audience base en-route to a minority-majority and the most progressive generation soon to represent over 40% of consumers, these pipelines will broker the talent that will help the industry meet the demands of the future.
Screenwriting competitions increase diversity in Hollywood
Whatever the future of Hollywood may hold, we know it will look more like the America it depicts — a cosmopolitan, polyglot nation with a wealth of stories and a diverse, engaged, multi-generational audience. Screenplay competitions are taking an oversized role in grooming diverse talent, accelerating the natural arc of growing inclusivity into high gear by building platforms and pipelines to empower the storytellers of tomorrow.
Enter one of these upcoming screenwriting competitions and share your story with Hollywood.
Joshua Noble is a Puerto Rican writer, actor, and producer based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his career in TV and film, he is a founding producer of The American Playbook, a series of conversations and new works highlighting historically underrepresented voices, and currently serves as Director of the National Actors’ Retreat. Joshua received his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.