Confessions of an AFF Contest Reader

Nine Things Writers Should Know

Note: Contest readers are not staff members of the Austin Film Festival

Hello screenwriting colleagues!

You still have a couple of days to refine and polish your script into a potential winner and submit it to the final AFF deadline on June 1.

I want to share a few things that might help you through the excruciating wait through this year’s contest season once you submit. We all know it well –  the nail biting period between your smartly timed, money-saving early-bird entry … and the announcement of the first round of winners. Interminable.

My gleanings as an AFF reader so far this year:

  1. The competition is steep. Overall, the quality of the scripts is much higher than I expected. When I coach writers at earlier stages of a WIP, I rarely see scripts as well-written as those I’ve seen so far as an AFF reader. Which makes this voluntary task even harder.
  2. The process is as fair as it can be. AFF readers are vetted professionals. The conference dedicates a solid team to coordinate the readers. To be accepted as a reader, one must pass a test in each category we want to read. For example, if I want to read a dramatic feature or a comedy pilot, I must have read and made notes on a sample script in each of those genres and passed that reading test. A second reader must confirm the ‘no’ for every script that doesn’t advance.
  3. All scripts contain mistakes. Grammar mistakes. Formatting mistakes. Spelling mistakes. Homophone mistakes. There isn’t a single script that is perfect. So don’t tear your hair out while guzzling a double because you noticed errors after your 11th hour submission. Your script has errors. It’s not a dealbreaker. Readers turn a blind eye to most lapses.
  4. There are no grades for grammar, spelling, or formatting at first cut. Contrary to internet rumors, you won’t lose a contest because your particular reader has a problem with ubiquitous wrylies. But just because we don’t directly score those, it doesn’t mean they are unimportant. Your script must follow standard industry guidelines and look like a script. Writers who have mastered both language and craft are more likely to progress. And when all things are otherwise equal, a neat and tidy script will win over a sloppy one.
  5. Yes, I can tell that you used Word. No, I don’t care and it doesn’t make a difference in your script’s advancement.
  6. Yes, there are subjective elements. We all do our utmost to be impartial, but of course, it’s not entirely possible. We read your script imagining we’re watching a film. Your job is to connect with a broad audience and ours is to assess how well you’ve done that. Which is why your script will have at least two readers (more if it advances or if you entered into the additional competitions like the Enderby Entertainment Award).
  7. Readers are NOT looking to pounce on small things as an excuse to not advance your script. Quite the opposite. We’re all hoping to find that diamond in the rough. Every single one of us wants your script to be the winner and we fervently hope that it lands in our queue. We let loads of little things slide if the story reads well and the world and characters are compelling.
  8. The hardest scripts to judge are those that are super wellwritten and present an interesting world. There is always one thing that turns a reader, either makes us lean forward and cheer the writer on, or shrug in mild disappointment and file the notes on a script that won’t advance. The latter could be as simple as an unearned payoff or illogical character behaviour to force a particular end, or a deus ex machina decision that changes the emotional response.
  9. A high percentage of potentially great scripts get stuck and crash in Act 2. They sing along through the second act turning point and hum confidently forward…then out of nowhere, they hit the molasses. The writer knows it in their deepest heart, but it’s a niggle they’ve ignored.

No matter which contests you submitted to, it’s always a thrill after they announce the first cut and you’ve made it, putting you in the top 10% of contestants in most cases.

Is it possible we could have missed a jewel? That we overlook a brilliant story? Perhaps. Especially when the reading pace escalates closer to the next level deadlines. So, yes, it’s possible that two readers could miss a gem. There are certainly stories all over Hollywood about more than two studio readers passing on blockbusters.

But remember, we consider this a scavenger hunt for buried treasure that every one of us is on the lookout to find. At the very least, we’ll be tickled pink and quietly self-congratulatory if one of the scripts we send up the line ends up in the winner’s circle. Maybe it’s yours.

Good luck to all who entered Austin Film Festival screenwriting competition.

Author Disclaimer: If I’ve previously read and given feedback on your screenplay and it lands in my AFF reading queue, it will be returned to the coordinators and redirected to a different reader.

About the Author: Penelope considers herself an “Encourager” – a term she hopes will one day become a respectable job title. She describes this role as a kind of Counselor Troi meets your inner Muse; a writer’s writer. As a writing coach, she helps screenwriters attain an appropriate level of professionalism in their WIPs without sacrificing their voice. Her goal when reading a script is to identify what works, what doesn’t, and discuss ideas for improvement before the writer submits to Austin, Nicholl, or Page or starts the query process.

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