November 4, 2009

CONTESTS: LEFT BRAIN, RIGHT BRAIN, NO-BRAINER

Heather Hale did a cool article about screenwriting contests in the last issue of Craft & Career, so I just wanted to add my 2 cents and give you a certain way to look at contests. Full disclosure: I have won a couple of contests, been in contention a handful of times and I started or helped to start 3 contests and I wrote a foreword to Erik Joseph’s book on contests, but alas the publisher used a different one.

In this blog I will look at a way to look at contests from a mathematical and logical perspective and then in couple of days, I will follow up with a way to look at contests in a more emotional way. Is either way correct? Nah. It’s like who’s the coolest character? Spock or Bones? Neither, it’s Kirk, the guy who is an integration of the logic and emotion. (reminder: blog about character orchestration sometime) Like Kirk, you must use your left and right brain to protect the 400 people on the ship, uh, I mean, your screenplay contest budget.

On a cold and calculating level, you can look at contests like a poker hand, a calculated risk. It’s a pure mathematical equation of EV (Expected Value). “If I spend $50 to enter and so do 999 other people and the only prize is $50,001 for first place and my odds of winning are 1 in a 1000, then it’s a good risk for me.” If the grand prize is only $25,000, the question to ask is simply, “Do I have a better than 500:1 shot to win this contest?” If so, then it’s a good deal from a pure mathematical point of view.

You can modify this equation in several ways. The Nicholl Fellowship gives away $150,000 but since it gets more than 5000 entries, the math doesn’t work out to give it a positive expected value for every entrant. But if you are sure you are better than half the writers that enter (or are sure that your material is the sort that fits their taste(check out Scriptshadow’s review of recent Nicholl winner Victoria Falls)) and are willing to ride out the element of luck and chance, then it’s a great deal. (You only have to be a little bit better than the average entrant to make it +EV.) 

But you may even factor in the fact that, say, 5 percent of the people are going to be a semifinalist and for your ability to promote that fact if you win is worth $2,000. Even if you are only a 5% chance to make the semifinals, your expected value just from making the semifinals is .05 X $2000 which is $100. So from a mathematical standpoint, entering this contest is a no-brainer.  (Do the math with the real numbers and your own estimation of the value.)  The priceless (IMHO) nature of getting into the Sundance Lab is why I keep banging my head up against that wall of "almost."   Curse you, John Leguizamo!

You can also use this principle for contests that offer other prizes. In your calculations, consider the cash at 100% of its value obviously and then assign a subjective percentage to the other prizes. Maybe the $5000 in notes, classes and promotion is really worth only about 50% of the retail value to you in your subjective opinion. So add the cash value plus the adjusted prize value to determine your overall potential gain versus the number of entrants and your predicted chance to win.

An obvious corollary to this approach is that if you are a very good amateur writer and your script is a professional read (tight and polished) and fits the scope of the contest’s tastes, then many contests are worth entering from the perspective of expected gains. I know a few writers who made a living off of contests for a couple of years because their stuff was really good and they entered a lot of contests. Have faith that quality will eventually get noticed. (However, if your script fails to advance in 4-5 contests in a row, think about putting some of your contest resources into verifying your script is ready to go.)

The Nicholl isn’t a profit making endeavor; their money comes from a trust, so that’s why they can be so generous. But contests run by companies that can use their promotional power to generate a bunch of additional prizes can also be really worth it. If a company is giving away $20,000 in seats to a class or event you really want to attend, then that can be really valuable too.

Not every contest by this method will be wonderful, but you can use this approach to sort of determine the ones to stay away from. If a contest gets 4000 scripts at $50 a pop and gives away only $15,000 in cash, you gotta break it down and ask yourself where is the money going? $200,000 in revenue, $40,000 to readers, $15,000 to prizes, $10,000 to administration, maybe $10,000 in advertising? That leaves $115,000 unaccounted for. Do you want to enter this contest? I don’t. I want them to give away another $25k in cash or do some work and find another $50,000 in decent prizes.

As I mentioned, I have been involved with several contests and have entered several contests, so I am not going to make any judgments or point out what contests score well or poorly in this paradigm. Just giving you some ways to think about it.

I am currently reading the last 25 feature quarterfinalists for the Champion Competition (retail value of prizes =net revenue (entry fees minus Withoutabox fees)), so expect some news in a few days. I will take a break from reading in a day or two to discuss an alternate way to look at contests: from an emotional perspective.

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