Austin Make You Mad, Bro? | Script Revolution

Austin Make You Mad, Bro?

Introduction: 

The recent Austin Film Festival screenplay competition controversy regarding their reader feedback has ignited a heated debate about the quality of competition readers and their ability to give considered feedback writers can work with to improve their material. In this article, Lawrence Davidson highlights a concern that we may be failing to see the wood for the trees. It's time to reconsider why so many of us screenwriters enter competitions in the first place - CJ

A lot of people are pissed off with the Austin Film Festival, and maybe you’re one of them. You get your notes from the Austin Screenwriting Contest back, and you hate them. They’re sheer garbage. Fuck Austin, and fuck these notes, am I right? Nope, dead wrong. 

Let’s be very clear. There are some very valid complaints that Austin’s free feedback this year was tone deaf, or showed major bias, perhaps seemed to miss the point completely. Austin even sent out a mass apology, with a promise to take action against their responsible readers, to look at each complaint on a case-by-case basis, provided the feedback is, in fact, insensitive. If your feedback was such, or downright offensive, you are owed an apology. However, all of this is irrelevant to the argument. Austin’s free feedback has no bearing on your career, and it’s not why you entered. 

I’m not an established career screenwriter yet, but I am a paid reader in a screenwriting contest. I am going to establish myself as a screenwriter, and I’m going to use contests as a piece of that strategy. To do that, I need to have a very clear picture of what contests do for me, and more importantly, how they do it. 

Here’s a fun anecdote: I once pitched my script to a producer, who loved the idea, and asked to read it. They really enjoyed it, they claimed, but did not take it any further, for whatever reason, though they said they would keep hold of it for the future. At that same time, I entered a contest where this particular producer was a final judge, and I didn’t even make it past the first round. Now, you can claim the producer didn’t like my script and lied to me, but in this particular platform, he had no reason to do so. I had no way to contact him, only he me, so he could have said “eh, it was alright” and left it at that. I’d argue the script was well received because it’s a good script, based on that knowledge. So why didn’t it advance in the contest? 

Contests suck, that’s why. Let’s break down how they work. A series of readers take scripts, read them, and give numerical values to those scripts in a variety of different parameters set out by the contest itself. These values cover the gamut of a script breakdown, plot, character, etc. After reading your script, the reader will give you their judgement, and ideally, have to justify their response. This is how a contest can conduct a QA test on their readers. If one reader constantly rates scripts very low, and none of the other readers do, it may be that the reader is a bad apple. Or maybe they’re catching something unique and valid. We won’t know without their reasoning. 

You don’t get to learn why you don’t advance in contests. If you paid for feedback, your reader will express their notes in a cohesive way (which is definitely QA checked), but otherwise, you don’t get to know the myriad of reasons some random reader opted to kick your precious baby down the road. Except with Austin. They’ll straight up tell you, for free, exactly what they were thinking. Odds are, you’re not going to like it. You won’t like it because the reader’s feedback was quick and pointed, as they ultimately have more to read, so there’s no point in spending time here. The decision is made. 

I did not advance in Austin this year due to a stylized choice I added to my script, which my reader completely misunderstood. I was livid. I took that anger, vented privately, and then addressed the feedback. I ensured this couldn’t happen again. There’s a golden rule which applies here: Don’t write for idiots, but do make your scripts idiot-proof. There’s only one person to blame if a script is misunderstood: ME. I am the writer. I created it. Am I annoyed? Absolutely. Am I grateful Austin told me? Absolutely. Who knows how many other contest readers didn’t understand my intentions for the same reason? I don’t, you don’t, nobody does. Austin is the only festival with transparency in their decisions. 

Now, let’s be very clear here, this argument is all well and good, but many of you are screaming at me to address the elephant in the room. Austin does not pay its readers. From my understanding, as an outsider looking in, they offer readers discounts into the festival. This may affect the quality of their readers, depending on who they ask, and how they monitor them. It might not. We can make conjecture here, but it’s reasonable to believe either situation is correct. We can dive deeply into this, but none of this matters. Austin’s free feedback doesn’t matter. Their unpaid readers don’t matter to us. Here’s why: 

I didn’t enter Austin for the feedback. I entered for the prestige. Austin is currently, inarguably, regarded as among the top three festivals in the screenwriting world by the industry. Austin’s badge on my scripts is a mark of skill. It turns heads, a lot of them. 

To really hammer this point, it’s time to talk strategy. If you’re entering contests for feedback, or validation, you’ve picked a seriously rough road to get either. There are way better places to get feedback. In fact, shouldn’t you have the feedback before you enter the contest? A need for validation in the screenwriting world is the surest route to disappointment and despair. It’s too cruel and fickle an industry. You entered the contest, so that if you won, you would have the prestige. That’s it. 

This is why your anger is misplaced regarding Austin. The only difference between Austin and other contests is transparency. Austin is up front about what’s going on in your script. Every other contest has no problem saying, “tough competition this year, pay us again next year!”

Every single writing contest of note sells you hope. Lottery tickets sell you the same thing. You’re buying a ticket, or an entry, but they’re selling hope. You are only buying because you hope you’ll win. It is a business, and a business makes money. That’s the end result. Contests that can give writers success in an industry that’s nasty to break into, is a great business model, because there’s so many writers vying for this chance. 

I buy the hope, from a select number of contests. More importantly though, I am striving to gain prestige. My scripts haven’t done their job unless they’ve placed in one of the contests I enter. If they don’t, it’s back to the editing room. 

My goal is to build a career. I do that by working extremely hard at my craft. I surround myself with positive people, who are intelligent and will often say “I hate this script, here’s why.” To continue that upward trajectory though, I learned quickly: “don’t sweat the petty things (and don’t pet the sweaty things).” 

You’re probably dying to point out one final argument. If you had had another reader, then perhaps you would have advanced as you deserved to. Maybe. Austin chooses its readers, and sets its parameters. Those readers made a decision. It wasn’t you. Brutal, right? If your script is so good that this was an error, it’ll make it in a different, prestigious screenwriting contest. If you didn’t advance in any others, though… Why not? Who’s fault is that? Can’t blame Austin on that one. 

Here’s the takeaway: contests suck. They’re also awesome, if you win, as they’re one path potentially (and expensively) that can lead you to success. They’re not the only path. Like everything, contests have their drawbacks, some of which are detrimental. You have two options when you don’t like their decisions: examine the contest, as I did for you today, or examine the script. 

And the script is the only path to success that, if done right, is enduring. 

About The Author

Lawrence Davidson's picture
Real name: 

I am inspired by hearing and telling stories, especially the grand adventures.  I've loved using the written word to make people laugh for as long as I remember.
I attended a Screenwriting Intensive at a small institution called SchoolCreative, which really pushes it's students to churn out scripts, take and give notes, and re-write like crazy.

Two of my scripts have become Second Rounders in the Austin Film Fest. I tend to enjoy writing comedy most of all, live-action and...Read more

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Comments

Marven Likness's picture

Great article. Thanks for putting it out there.

Kristina Lindstrom's picture

Great article!! One thing I would point out for your readers though concerning your last point of “what if another person had read my script instead”. At AFF all scripts that receive a NO rating automatically get sent to a second reader. If that second person agrees it is a No then it is done. BUT, if they disagree and think it should move on then it is sent to a THIRD person to read and break the tie. So, just know that when a script does not advance it has been seen by more than one set of eyes. Hope that clarification helps a little.

Andrea Zastrow's picture

Yes, I also entered Austin for the prestige--no doubt about that. My feedback wasn't at all insensitive, but there wasn't one suggestion as to what the reader thought was missing or how to improve it. I wasn't even a "Second Rounder," yet I received a paragraph filled with nothing but compliment after compliment! The reader obviously read the script carefully, as their statements were very specific and in line with the emotions/reactions I always hope to evoke. While encouraging to read, it wasn't helpful. I'd have appreciated some insight as to why my comedy didn't advance. Come on, give me a nugget!

Bamutiire Jerry Edmund's picture

Do screenwriting contests recruit a reader considering his/her academic qualification in literature? I think it's essential for the readers to be of such academic affirmation to avoid mistakes in rating and ranking submitted works, and to as well find it easy giving sufficing feedback. But I think critiquing feedback is a different service altogether, right? So perhaps that's why all you may get from a contest is commendation feedback.

Kristina Lindstrom's picture

Andrea: Yes that is incredibly frustrating. A lot of times we are cautioned to not make too many suggestions so as to not appear to be “taking over” the script but I at least do try to make general suggestions that can be helpful to the writer.

Jerry: we do have to submit a resume and provide samples of our script coverage abilities but as for general literature I am not aware of anything specific in that area.

Bamutiire Jerry Edmund's picture

Thanks for the informative elaboration, Kristina. Am happy to learn from you that keenness is taken on eligibility of the readers selected.

Cynthia Uhrich's picture

This is a terrific article. I enter the lower-fee contests/less prestigious ones to get some initial feedback. While I know lots of people, I cannot tell you how many times I've given someone a screenplay and THEY NEVER READ IT. I also have given (free) feedback on the work of other writers...and in a few instances--have heard NOTHING back. Not even a Thank You! Mind you, I worked as a reader for a pretty large literary and screenwriting competition for three years--so I'm not a complete idiot in providing both support and constructive criticism (I also taught acting classes from 2004 - 2019.) I'm just DONE with relying on friends and other screenwriters to offer me support or feedback. I could see if I were a slouch of a writer--but I'm not. It has led me to seek outside, paid entities for critique. I'm pleased to share that by taking one of my screenplays through this process that I got it polished enough to make it to Quarter-Finalist rounds with both the Sedona International and the Nashville Film Festival. So that's a good start!

Patrick Grant's picture

Great article! The script reader process is broke, inconsistant and preys on other writers more than producing better writing.

As in my stories this is area where AI will revolutionize.

Days of 1st cut script readers are numbered. Scriptbakery, a german startup, is using AI to evaluate manuscripts. The only english site to give details https://www.startuprad.io/blog/scriptbakery-taught-an-ai-to-analyze-manuscripts-and-the-emotions-of-a-potential-reader/

Imbd has caught notice. Youtube posting too.
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Kristina Lindstrom's picture

Patrick Grant, yes it is inconsistent but I don't think it is broken. There are people, like myself, who actually have gone to school to learn how to do this job properly and take great pride in doing a good job. I don't think AI will be the answer, just as ATS systems often miss great job candidates. There are ways that contests can up their game in reader consistency, but it will take time to get more readers properly trained. Given how important this job is, I am hopeful that it will continue to evolve and gain respect industrywide. Just my .02 :)

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