How to win a scriptwriting competition – or why I stopped worrying about scriptwriting competitions and just got an agent

As a UK script consultant and scriptwriter for hire my career as a scriptwriter goes back to 1993, when I had my first credit on Channel 4 in the UK with a short film called ‘Family Style’ which starred a then unknown Ewan McGregor and was directed by a young chap called Justin Chadwick who went onto direct The Other Boleyn Girl and The Long Walk to Freedom.

I was 19 years old when ‘Family Style’ was aired on a Wednesday night on Channel Four after a pretty good episode of Brookside.  So, how did this happen?

UK scriptwriting competitions

This is a blogpost about scriptwriting competitions. For clarity, as a scriptwriter, I have won the first ever Lloyds Bank Channel Four Film Challenge in 1993 (which resulted in ‘Family Style’ being made).

After that I was a runner-up in a BBC competition which I forget the name of (it will have been something like ‘New Voices’ etc).

I also won the Oscar Moore Screenplay Prize – which I won in 1999, I think.

When I had an agent, I entered a BBC competition for writers with credits to pitch new series ideas (I got down to the final six). But by that time I had numerous credits on Eastenders, Emmerdale and others.  Nothing became of the series ideas that were entered or the winner.

Back in 2005 I entered a script to the BBC Writersroom – which reached the top of the pile (and subsequently nothing ever happened, except congratulations from the Writersroom team – hey thanks guys!)   

The two screenwriting competitions which I won and are to be the focus on here are:

·         The Lloyds Bank Channel Four Film Challenge

·         The Oscar Moore Screenplay Prize

The Lloyds Bank Channel Four Film Challenge was a very rare beast among screenwriting competitions.  Firstly, YOUR SCRIPT GOT MADE.   Secondly, they made sure the writers were involved in the whole process.  Thirdly, the competition had a huge amount of money thrown at it and the backing of Channel Four and Lloyds Bank and both of their very active PR arms.

Scriptwriting competitions where THERE are FUNDS for PRODUCTION are now rarer than rocking horse shit. But when they come up – these are the competitions to aim for. To put all your efforts into.

The Lloyds Bank Channel Four Film Challenge was an amazing experience and probably changed my life.

So, how did I set about trying to win it?

I was only 18 when I wrote the first draft of my winning script, but I’d been making short films (on Super 8mm) since my early teens. I was desperate to win the competiton and saw it (rightly as it turned out) a chance at a ‘Big Break’ as a scriptwriter.

The competition had very specific rules. There were to be only two locations, the script had to be under 11 minutes and you could only have three characters.

I had existing ideas for scripts and some existing scripts.  But nothing that fit those two rules. Now, I’m sure I could have sent a script off, which was well enough written, and that the team would read and consider it, even if it didn’t fit the rules. But I didn’t do that.

I sat down specifically, and came up with an idea that fit the rules, but not just that, I wanted as much as I could, to make the requirements work for my script as drama. I wanted to pick two locations that were inherently cinematic – and I wanted to pick three characters locked in those locations, that were inherently dramatic.

The film (which is remarkably close to the draft I sent off) is below on YouTube.

‘Family Style’ is a script very much written by an 18 year old. But it worked well within the framework set up in the competition. I didn’t bend or break or try to get round the three specific rules – instead I tried to get the rules to work for me, and my story.

The first Lloyds Bank Channel Four Film Challenge had around 3000 enteries, and they narrowed this down to 6 winners. Nearly all six of the winners ended up working in TV. The competition ran for a few more years after I won, and unearthed more talent that is still working in film or TV today.

‘Family Style’ helped me get an agent, it helped Ewan McGregor get other parts (he used it as a showreel for a while) and it helped Justin build a career as a director.  These types of competitions are rare now.   But when they come up, budding screenwriters need to be switched on, and make the most of the opportunities offered.

Don’t turn your nose up at competitions for SHORT films.   Short films can be a fabulous showreel for a writer, but more than that – they’re great experience.

The second competition was more traditional

The Oscar Moore Screenplay Prize, was backed by The Guardian Newspaper, and had a real who’s who of judges in the UK film industry – including people like Duncan Kenworthy who is exactly the sort of person you want to get your screenplay in front of.

When I entered the competition, I didn’t yet have an agent – when I won it, I had a top London lit agent within weeks – the script I entered generated a lot of buzz – enough to get meetings with Duncan and Andrew Macdonald (Trainspotting) , and it looked like the script actually might get made (it didn’t in the end as it was a bit risky for Universal and other American studios who were potential backers).  But, the script, alongside the buzz – got me an agent and in the bizz proper – as the win meant a lot of meetings were easy to set up with interested parties.

The lesson from winning The Oscar Moore Screenplay Prize, was that I used the buzz – to get an agent and to generate meetings – and I acted rapidly.

The agent ended up getting me work on Emmerdale, Eastenders etc etc.  My career started properly.

The script that I entered into the The Oscar Moore Screenplay Prize was a full length screenplay I’d been working on for about a year – the genre for the The Oscar Moore Screenplay Prize was comedy – which my script fitted into. Again, make sure you stick to the rules, I wouldn’t have entered a drama script into The Oscar Moore Screenplay Prize, you’re just wasting their time.

So, a couple of three things to note.

·         Follow the rules to the letter

·         Make any constraints work for you

·         If you win, or get listed – be ready to make the most of the opportunities

·         Short film competitions are great too.

·         Pay special attention to any comps where your work gets made

I’m often a judge in screenwriting competitions now. The competition is fierce but not as fierce as you think. And I’d always advise before you enter anything – you need to get your script read by a professional UK script consultant first (like me).   

Sometimes, script consultants can recommend changes that WILL make the difference between winning and losing a completion – so pay for some script coverage.  It will pay dividends further down the line.

Below is a documentary made about the Lloyds Bank Channel Four Film Challenge which features a very young ME!   More important than my teenage self is that some advice given to writers in the doc, that still stands today… It’s worth a watch…

Matthew Cooper has been a  and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer.

His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller ‘Markham was released in 2020, his second feature film as director ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ hit the screen in 2021. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director here.

You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.