Setting Yourself Up to Win (the Short Film Fund)

By: Julia Morizawa (Short Film Fund Manager)

 
 

You’ve got a script. You’ve got the skills. You’ve educated yourself about the craft of screenwriting. Now, how do you set yourself up to win (or place) in a screenwriting contest? In this article, we’re going to explore some of the less subjective areas of short screenplays, specifically from the perspective of contest readers and our Short Film Fund, which currently awards a $15,000 cash production grant twice per year. We’ll explore some of the more common technical issues we come across while reading for the Fund – not about plot, characters, or structure – but rather about taking that extra step to ensure your script will be seen in its best possible light before submitting. Let’s jump right into it.

 

 

Instill Confidence in Yourself (and the reader)

 

You’ve written a script that you are passionate about. You know why this story is important to you – the infamous “Why me?  Why now?” Perhaps you’re a writer-director who is already envisioning how this script will be shot and edited. For some of our readers, sometimes preludes or in-description explanations can set up an unintentional indication that the writer is concerned the script won’t stand on its own. We’ll see outlines of how the scene should be shot and/or edited in the scene description, and explanations of why the script is important or justifications of the writer’s intentions on the title page or at the top of the first page. Shore Scripts reader, Jess Marie Timlin explains, “It reads as though the writer doesn’t have enough confidence in their script to let it stand on its own, and if the writer doesn’t believe in the script, I’m left asking, why should I?”

 

When submitting to the Short Film Fund, there is an opportunity to include “Comments to the Reader” for writers, directors, and/or producers who want to include information about their vision for the film, why they feel this story must be told, why they are the best person to tell it, cast and crew that may already be attached to the project, etc. (do note, supplementary information is not compulsory for the Short Film Fund). The suggestion here would be to keep those types of explanations out of the script itself so that readers can simply focus on the story.

 

 

Proofread, Proofread, Proofread (and then ask a friend to proofread)

 

It’s easy to forget the importance of presentation. After all, a couple of typos should be forgiven. If the story is strong, readers won’t be bothered by an error here or there. However, if a screenplay is littered with typos and/or spelling, grammatical, and formatting errors, no matter how strong the story is, we won’t be able to share it with our Industry Judges.

 

Here’s a quick list of some of the most common presentational errors we see:

    • The script is not in standard screenplay format. This probably most often occurs when the writer does not have access to screenwriting software and is forced to adapt using something like Microsoft Word, Pages, or Google Docs. Check out our free resource about proper screenplay formatting here, and explore some options for free software here. Also, Celtx offers a free limited version of their software and free trials of their subscription services.

    • General typos. This can range from misspellings to grammatical errors to sentences simply not making sense because they got cut off somewhere in the process. This is where proofreading, asking a friend to proofread, and utilizing the “spellcheck” function in your software are necessary.

    • Your software is sabotaging you! Somewhere in the process, the screenwriting software decided to change a line of dialogue into an action line or a scene heading into a transition. Technology isn’t always right, so take that extra time to manually fix those software errors that may have affected the formatting of your script.

    • Inconsistent character names (i.e. “John” in one scene but “Dad” in the next, or “John” and “Jon” throughout). Remember to check character names both when listed above their dialogue and when mentioned in your action lines. Sometimes this can be due to changing a character’s name during the writing and rewriting process. So remember to use that “Find/Replace” option in your software too.
    • Inconsistent scene headings (i.e. “Car” becomes “Toyota Corolla” or “Woods” is sometimes “The Forest”; when dates are included, “20 years ago” becomes “2004”). This is a normal part of the writing process. Sometimes we just don’t remember what we called that location back in Act One and I’m not going to scroll back to find it right now so I’ll fix it later. And then we forget to go back and fix it. This is where something like the “Scene Breakdown” or “Scene View” part of your screenwriting software can help you easily catch inconsistencies in your scene headings.

 

Remember, you’ve likely read your script a hundred times, meaning it will be easy for you to overlook typos that are obvious to someone who has not. So when it comes to catching grammatical and formatting errors, enlisting a friend (or hiring a professional) to proofread is one of the best ways to set yourself up to win.

 

 

Avoid Directing from the Page (and save your production drafts for later)

 

When you are a writer/director, it can be especially challenging to avoid “directing from the page.” This means, including camera movement and angles, suggesting post-production edits that aren’t imperative to the plot, describing sets and costumes, and more, in the scene description. If you feel a certain shot is necessary to convey the intended plot, consider suggesting it through description rather than specifically mentioning the camera angle, focus, and movement.

 

It’s a bit challenging to explain why this affects the read so much. But, for me, when I’m reading a script (particularly in the context of a contest submission), I’m only interested in the story and I’m analyzing the execution of that story. I’m hoping for emotional impact. When a script “interrupts” my experience with a specific such as, “DRONE SHOT of Protagonist from behind, walking along the beach,” my brain can’t help but stop and visualize a drone shot of the protagonist from behind, walking along the beach. And now I’ve been interrupted from the story.

 

Directing from the page might also entail extensive descriptions of set pieces, costumes, and make-up that don’t serve the plot. If it serves the plot (and/or character development), keep it. But sometimes writers may, for example, choose to describe the furniture in a room in detail – the color, the fabric, the placement. As a reader, I’m naturally going to assume those details are important to the plot. So when they’re not, again, I’ve been “interrupted” from the actual story.  If you are, in fact, intending to direct your script, details such as set pieces, costumes, props, hair and make-up, etc., will all be discussed in detail during pre-production with your department heads. For now, in your screenplay, just stick to the story.

 

Sometimes we see “unfilmables” in screenplays, which can similarly distract us from the story. As implied, these are things that cannot be filmed. One reminder I personally tell myself is that when the film is produced, the audience will not also be reading the script while watching the movie. So something like, “The room smells like rotting fish” needs to be changed to “Protagonist gags and covers her nose with her hand.”

 

Along these lines, we recommend avoiding submitting the production draft of your script to the Fund for the above reasons. It’s likely that your production draft may look a bit… well, messy. Asterisks along the right-hand column, color-coded edits, in-description notes to your department heads that you discussed at your last production meeting. This typically only happens with submissions that are already in pre-production, production, or post (our Short Film Fund accepts projects seeking finishing funds!). So the suggestion here is, when submitting to the Fund, send us a previous version of the script that doesn’t include all those production notes.

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Less is More (aka keep it simple)

 

Shore Scripts reader KT Parker shares, “Fancy formatting will not disguise poor writing, while good writing doesn’t need cosmetic embellishment.” Sometimes we come across scripts full of quirky formatting – bold, underlining, capitalization, italics, color-coding, multiple font types, multiple font sizes, images or drawings inserted into the page, etc. “It always makes me want to have a quiet word with the writer and encourage them to trust in their writing to convey emotion and pace without gimmicky formatting, and also to trust that the reader knows how to read a script and will get it.”

 

The suggestion here is to trust in your writing. Similar to the above, “Instill Confidence in Yourself (and your reader)” trust that your writing – your story – is good enough.

 

Specificity is Your Friend

 

Less is more, but… specificity is still your friend. And this can be where writers let themselves spin out from overthinking. When specific information is necessary to or will serve the story and/or character development, it is worth including. This does not include the antique pinstriped loveseat with ebony feet in the far-left corner of the living room that is never referred to again. But this does include, for example, specifying the date and location of your scenes. This can be included in your scene headings (which is particularly helpful if your script jumps back and forth between different time frames), or in the scene description. If you intend for text to be shown on screen, indicate this with “TITLE:” (sometimes “CHYRON:”).

 

Shore Scripts reader Christine Reklaitis offers this simple example:

EXT. STREET – DAY

EMMA (18), in a silk brocade gown, steps out of a carriage and looks up at a sandstone building.

“Without a place and date, readers will struggle to orient themselves. Is this London, 1650, or New York City, 1900? Even if this information is included in a logline, tagline, or title page, never assume the reader has instant access to anything other than what’s on each page.”

 

Make Your Script as Long as It Needs to Be (and then make it shorter)

 

One of the most common questions we receive from writers interested in submitting to the Short Film Fund is: How long should a short film script be? Well, the old adage goes, a script should be as long as it needs to be. The challenge here, as a writer, is allowing yourself to take a step back from your story and get honest with yourself: Is every scene, moment, or line of dialogue in this draft necessary? With short scripts especially, it’s imperative to trim the fat.

 

Our Short Film Fund accepts scripts between 2-30 pages, although we will allow submissions up to 45 pages for an additional fee. Because these scripts are intended to go into production and, eventually, distribution, it’s important to remember the saying, “short and sweet.” The most common length for a short script is in the 10-15 page range. When it comes time to submit your short film to festivals, some argue that there’s a “sweet spot” in the 8-12 minute length that tends to get more traction than longer films. Think of it this way: It’s often more beneficial for a festival to program three 10-minute shorts than one 30-minute short, particularly in terms of getting audiences into the seats. Also remember that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences defines a short film as 40 minutes or less, including all credits. Many festivals and distribution outlets abide by this standard.

 

To give you a glimpse into how page count plays out in the Short Film Fund, let’s take a quick look at the numbers for the 2023 Fall Season:

 

Total Submissions (1860 scripts):
2-9 pages – 346 scripts – 19%
10-15 pages – 804 scripts – 43%
16-20 pages – 416 scripts – 22%
21-30 pages – 239 scripts – 13%
31-45 pages – 55 scripts – 3%

 

Semi-finalists (50 scripts):
2-9 pages – 7 scripts – 14%
10-15 pages – 24 scripts – 48%
16-20 pages – 12 scripts – 24%
21-30 pages – 6 scripts – 12%
31-45 pages – 1 script – 2%

 

What’s great to see here is that the percentages pretty much align, meaning when it comes to page count, the number of scripts that progressed to the Semi-Finalist round accurately represented the number of scripts that were submitted. But when we compare with the Finalist scripts, the percentages notably shifted.

 

Finalists (15 scripts):
2-9 pages – 0 scripts – 0%
10-15 pages – 11 scripts – 74%
16-20 pages – 2 scripts – 13%
21-30 pages – 2 scripts – 13%
31-45 pages – 0 scripts – 0%

 

11 out of the 15 scripts that progressed to the Finalists round fell in the 10-15 page range. Now, it’s worth noting that these numbers are 1) A representation of correlation, not causation, and 2) Only representative of a single season of our Short Film Fund. But I hope that this provides a little bit of insight into this common question.

 

Enlist Help When Translating From Another Language

 

For the Short Film Fund, we require that all scripts submitted are written in the English language, even if the produced film will be shot in a different language. This is so our reader team and Judges can read them. Christine states, “As a reader, I love reading scripts that take place in countries and cultures where I don’t live. They usually offer a fresh perspective that helps the script stand out. With these scripts, I always try to be forgiving of grammar mistakes. Writing in a second language is extremely tough! However, if there are too many grammar and spelling mistakes, it becomes distracting to the story, even if it’s wonderful and original.”

 

If possible, asking a native English speaker to review your script is highly recommended. If you cannot translate the script into English yourself, please do not rely on AI services such as Google Translate to assist you. The technology isn’t there yet – it won’t work. Usually, scripts that have been translated using AI are easy to spot because, ultimately, they end up being gibberish. The technology tends to translate words one-by-one literally, resulting in sentences that don’t make sense, which further results in the story becoming extremely difficult to comprehend. The suggestion here is to enlist a qualified friend or hire a professional translator to do the job. And even after the translation is complete, ask a native English speaker to review it to ensure it all makes sense.

 

Even Shorts Have a Beginning, Middle, and End

 

This one is going to lean a bit into subjectivity more so than the above suggestions. We are huge fans of short scripts that are adaptations of longer projects such as features or TV pilots. Many of our submissions fit into this category. In most instances, it is necessary to adapt your scenes from that longer script for them to work as a stand-alone short. When it comes to proof-of-concepts for feature films, submitting your first 10 pages (or up until the inciting incident) often doesn’t work because readers will inevitably feel like the story ends just as it’s about to begin. When it comes to proof-of-concepts for TV pilots, we sometimes see scripts that introduce secondary characters early on (as you would often do in the first act of a TV pilot) but then those characters never return within the short adaptation, resulting in those scenes feeling unnecessary. The suggestion here is to ensure that your proof-of-concept short has its own beginning, middle, and end – even if the end is “open” in order to leave room for that, “Ooh, I want to see more of this” reaction.

 

Now, this isn’t always the case. A great example of a short film that was quite literally the opening to a feature screenplay is SEMBLANCE written by Bill Whirity, which was the Horror Genre Winner in our 2020 Feature Contest. You can read our Anatomy of a Contest Winning Feature Script article to get a closer look at Bill’s feature script, as well as view the complete short film to see the comparison.

 

Having said all that, there is always room to break the rules and go against the norm. Sometimes things that don’t usually work will work for a particular writer and their script. Subjectivity plays a role in the craft of screenwriting and it can sometimes feel like there is so much about this industry that is out of our control. Hopefully, this article provided a tiny bit of insight into some of the things that writers can control. And that brings me to my final piece of advice…

 

Ask Questions

 

We’re very accessible over here at the Short Film Fund. So don’t hesitate to send questions to shortfilmfund@shorescripts.com. You can learn more about the Short Film Fund here, dive into our rules and FAQs here, and explore the films we’ve previously funded here.

 

The 2024 Spring Season of the Short Film Fund is NOW OPEN! The Early Deadline is February 28th. The Grand Prize includes a $15,000 cash production grant, free camera equipment rental from ARRI Rental, mentorship with Oscar-nominated producer Maria Gracia Turgeon, a film festival strategy package with Tribeca programmer and Academy member Kimberley Browning, and more. Prizes for Finalists include script circulation to our Industry Roster and Directors, with the writers’ permission. We look forward to reading your work.


Interested in learning more about our Short Film Fund? Click here!


Julia Morizawa is the Short Film Fund Manager at Shore Scripts. She is a writer/producer with over 20 years of experience in film, television, new media, theater, and fiction podcasting. Original projects include JESUSCAT (OR HOW I ACCIDENTALLY JOINED A CULT) (feature film), SIN & LYLE (short film), TWENTY-TWO (stage), and AMERICAN COMEDY HORROR STORY: ORPHANAGE (fiction podcast). Her most recent project, DRAGONFLY (animated short film), premiered at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in 2023 and was awarded Best Short Screenplay by Scriptation Showcase and Screenwriting Master in 2019. Listen to Julia talk more about the Short Film Fund on the ISA podcast Just Click Submit.

 

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