Screenwriting competitions: The gatekeepers

An article by Barry John Terblanche


Screenwriting competition companies, through their advertising will boast about their JUDGES. All being either successfully produced screenwriters, agents, managers, producers, etc. Would it not be great to have your script read by these “Gods”! But, just as getting to the holy God, you first need to get through St. Peter, heavens gatekeeper. So too do screenwriting competitions have their gatekeepers… otherwise known as the first round readers. And they no St. Peter. They’d sooner send your script down to hell. So what does your script need to have… or not have, to get through the gatekeeper?


Firstly, let’s look at what it takes to be a competition reader (gatekeeper). He/she would be a seasoned screenwriter of at least 3 years, mostly 5. And, would have written across most genres of both feature and shorts. T.V, if reading for a competition that is doing T.V pilot scripts. Some of their scripts would have been placed in a competition, been opinion, or sold. Their scripts would have to be impeccable. They’d have to know the industry norms and standards. A competition company will do a background check on them, review their scripts, resume, test them, have a zoom interview with them. Sadly, this is not the case with some small companies.




The readers’ job is to filter through the thousands of entries. They not so much looking for the winning scripts. They looking to toss the bad ones… and they’ll see them after reading the first 10 or so pages, some are so bad they don’t get read past page 3. Now the competition company will advertise that all scripts are read in their entirety. And, whilst yes they instruct their reader to do so… some don’t, and the company would not be the wiser, nor would you. But, hey a professional reader can see a total no-no script within the first 3 pages – the one’s that have no regard for format and are layered with grammar issues. Can you blame them? If however you have entered the competition and are paying the extra dollars for feedback or coverage, the reader is left with no option but to read your script in its entirety, in order to so write the feedback or coverage. Which you may not like, but hopefully, you will take it as constructive and learn from it. It should after all have been the purpose of you requesting the feedback or coverage. Cause, if you are a talented screenwriter you’d know you are and would not concern yourself with this. You’d know as well as the reader what your script will go through… and it will advance.


Competition companies differ in what they looking for in winning scripts and have different score sheets and a rating structure. For all with feedback notes or coverage reports. But, all look for the following core elements of what makes a good or bad script… which is what the reader will look for and score on. Some companies score between 1 – 5 and other’s 1 – 10. Let’s refer to the latter. Generally, a script would require an accumulative total of 7+ to go through to quarters. But, even a 5 can go through if its concept/unique, story and plot are very strong… with just fair writing style and structure. That said, a unique great story and plot is the key element the reader is looking for.


As mentioned, all competition companies and readers differ. But, generally what they look at and score on is;




– Is the premise and world naturally intriguing and does the story fit into it.

– Is it relatable.

– Is it intriguing, captivating, a page-turner. Or predictable – boring.

– Is it confusing – non-linear subplots.

– Would you watch the movie.



– Identified early, or at least a hint of it.

– Does the storyline follow it… towards it.

– Do subplots support it.

– Twist – ending.



– Main theme was identified early and does storyline follow it.

– Are sub-themes relatable and support the main theme/storyline.





– Is the concept original.

 – Have we seen this – do we want to.

  – Is it a copycat movie.

  – Marketable.




– Arced.

– Roleplay according to arc.

– Protagonist and antagonist are identified.

– Engaging, relatable.

– Do we emotional care for them, bond with them. Do we root for them.

– Have a unique voice.



– Unique.

– Visual. Show, don’t tell.




– Is it correctly formatted.

– Directing – transitions.

– Spelling, punctuation. Sentence fragments.



– Set-up.

– Act breaks.

– Subplots structurally connect to the storyline.

 – Sequences build pace.

– Flow – easy to read.



– Characters have a distinctive voice.

– Tone. Tone to emotion.

– On the nose.

– informative.

– Exposition.



– Platform.

– Audience attraction – race, gender, age.

– Production difficulty – cost.


Before sending your script, reevaluate it against above mentioned… how does it weigh in? And remember, the reader is looking more for what’s wrong than right. In essence, the reader is making the job “read” easier for the judges to concentrate on the story of the script than its write ability.




All scripts that make it to the quarter-finals are then reread by the more experienced readers. Cause they swapped around so that a script is not reread by the same reader. Here the reader is looking for the overall great scripts that will go through to the semi-finals – the judges. And that’s my next month’s article; Screenwriting competition – the judge.





Barry John Terblanche is a passionate and experienced screenwriter, competition reader and analyst; who hails from East Cape, South Africa. He has dedicated his life to films and so far he has written 16 scripts across most genres.







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