Today I got a question about the reputability of yet another contest: the Breakthrough Script Showcase for TV and film writers, conducted by Studio Readers, Inc. According to the website, the contest was "...created for screenplay and teleplay writers seeking to have their scripts professionally packaged with the additional elements required to attract interest from major distributors, studio executives, production companies and top screenplay agencies."
Ignoring for the moment the issue of a contest for writers that describes itself as "very" unique (and I can't help pointing out that, word usage aside, the uniqueness of the concept is, well, not very), there are a number of red flags.
- Other than a couple of names on the Contact Us page (which are common enough that they're difficult to research), there's no info on who is behind the company or what their credentials are. So there's really no way to verify whether these people have the industry experience and connections they claim. They say they've been around since 1990, but Whois data indicates that their domain name was registered in October 2004 (the cached version of their website goes back a little farther, with a copyright date of 2000-2006), and there's no sign of them before that. If indeed they're such well-established behind-the-scenes players (according to the blurb on the opening page of the website, "SR clients include leading film & television producers, studios, networks and distributors"), shouldn't they have a bit more of a footprint?
- There's no info on who will be judging the contest. Sure, the website claims that entries will be judged "by a panel of 5 leading Union Story Editors", but who are these editors? The prestige of a contest has a lot to do with the qualifications of the judges, which is why you want to see their names. If there are no names, you have no way to know whether the judges have any industry standing. Plus, it's in a contest's interest to name the judges, since their caliber speaks to the contest's reputability--so when judges aren't named, you have to wonder why. Are they underqualified? Do they not exist? A contest that's really a moneymaking venture doesn't need judges--or even a judging process. Or maybe the (unknown) staff of Studio Readers will be doing the judging, a la the contests at Writer's Digest.
- The website provides advice "Just For Writers" (for example, here's what it has to say about finding a literary agent) and "Just for Producers." Apart from the fact that much of this information seems to be directed toward convincing writers that entering the Breakthrough contest is better than submitting scripts directly to agents or production companies, it's shallow and generic--less like the product of real expertise than something whipped up with the help of a little Internet surfing.
- The prizes look seriously overvalued. With the exception of the Apple laptop that's part of the Grand Prize (priced, according to the Apple website, at $1,299), I don't see any component of the prizes that couldn't be created in-house by whoever is running the contest, with the aid of a computer program or two. And there's another question. Even if provided by professionals, would this kind of "development package"--a coverage report, a budget, and, for the grand prize winner, casting analysis and a "sell sheet"--really make a script more attractive to an agent or production company? I'm by no means an expert on screenplay submissions, but this strikes me as awfully similar to the promises of phony "book packagers" who charge an outrageous fee for gussying up book manuscripts with pointless extras that agents and publishers don't want to see.
All in all, this contest looks suspiciously like a moneymaking venture to me. It's conducted quarterly; with entry fees of $50 (not high by Hollywood standards), a tidy sum could be earned from just a few hundred entrants in each round. Probably more important, it also creates a pool of potential clients for offers of fee-based services such as editing. Studio Readers' current website, which claims that the company accepts clients only by referral from "A list" agencies, production companies, etc., and doesn't offer services to "non-represented writers, producers or artists," provides no detail on what those services are or what they cost. But here's a cache of the Services page from the company's old website, which gives an idea of Studio Readers' fees.
Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong. Perhaps the Breakthrough contest isn't a moneymaking venture; perhaps it's completely virtuous and well-intentioned. But even if that's so (and I'm not holding my breath), there's nothing to suggest that winning will be a worthwhile addition to anyone's writing resume.