OWA SciFi Screenwriting Deadline Looming Like Page 120 (or 110… 100...)

August 31st will be ‘Fade Out’ on this year’s SciFi Screenwriting Contest. Sponsored by No BullScript Consulting, the best feature, teleplay, and short will receive a Development Notes Phone Consultation with Danny Manus, CEO of No BullScript Consulting, a top 15 script consultant according to Creative Screenwriting. In addition, the top feature, teleplay, and short will win $250, with the grand prize winner taking home an additional $250. More information can be found here.

Last year’s winner was teleplay pilot JEN-16 by Craig Berger in which a genetically engineered teenage superweapon must lead a group of misfits through a brave new world when they escape from a secret Russian laboratory.

Teleplays have a bit of an advantage, though, when it comes to that final page, because they don’t have to tie anything up. Sure, you want that opening episode to feel complete and resolved, but the main goal is to leave readers wanting more. Feature writers not only have to supply a satisfying conclusion, but in SciFi, that often includes world building and lots of backstory.

So just how many pages do writers have in which to do it? If you look at screenwriting books written twenty years ago, almost uniformly they declared the same: 120 pages. The first book I remember offering another recommendation (and in fact an entire rubric based around it) was Blake Snyder’s "Save the Cat" which called for 110 pages.  

For years we’ve been told one page of script equals one minute of screen time. Is this true? Well, yes and no. It’s all about pacing. The first cut of my 102 page feature was 144 minutes. After much editing and scene cutting, the final running time… 102 minutes. The reality is your page count has little to do with actual running time of a final film. So why not make it 150 pages? If this is an Aaron Sorkin-style film in which everyone talks really fast, then you can cram 150 pages into 100 minutes. But you are probably not Aaron Sorkin… at least not yet.  

Here is the thing that most unproduced writers don’t think about enough: your screenplay is not really a film.  Shocking, right? If you are at the stage in your career where you are entering contests, writing query letters or leaving unsolicited submissions under car windshield wipers at the Marina Del Ray Yacht Club, your unproduced screenplay is not really a film, it is a proof of your writing ability.

Your spec feature (or spec teleplay really as well) proves that you can tell a compelling story according to industry standards. It should look professional, use proper formatting, be free of spelling errors, and be 90 to 110 pages. Your main goal is that you want someone to read it. And that by the end of reading it, still think you can write.
Of course, a contest has to read your script (it wouldn’t be very ethical if they didn’t), but a spec script should be written so that when it does win a contest and gets to an industry decision-maker, it is ready to impress. No one in the industry wants to read your 170 page epic. And that 70 page feature is always going to feel slight.  
Screenwriting is a job - it may not pay like one, but you have to treat it as such. Just like a sous-chef has to cook the head chef’s menu and an electrician works as an apprentice for years before joining the union, your spec screenplay is your proof that you can do the job before you get the job. In fact, it would be doing the writer a disservice for a screenplay contest (ours included) to raise up an entry that does not meet industry standards. It may make the writer some prize money, but they won’t get past the next gate keepers, the ones that really matter.

So if your screenplay is longer than 120 pages or shorter than 90 is it even worth entering a contest? Of course it is. Especially if the contest offers feedback (as ours and many others do), because this can help you hone down your script to its essence. If contests announce finalists, that can be the encouragement you need to keep at it on the rough days. And of course, your screenplay might be the one that is so good, it proves this entire blog wrong. I hope it is.

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