What is a Screenwriting Lab, Anyway?

how to be a screenwriter

by Angela Bourassa

If you’ve been entering screenwriting competitions for a while, you’ve probably come across a few screenwriting labs. But what are these labs? Who runs them? What value do they have for writers? Let’s take a look…

Defining the “Lab”

Think about science classes that you took in high school or college. Science classes often have a lecture component and a lab component. The lecture is when the teacher tells you what you need to know. The lab is when you get your hands dirty.

You can think about screenwriting labs (and also directing and novel writing labs) the same way. As a general principal, a writing lab is an opportunity to get together with other writers and, with the guidance of experienced teachers or mentors, work on your craft.

Here are some principles that tend to be true of screenwriting labs:

  1. You almost always have to apply.

Screenwriting labs tend to be exclusive. If you can just hand over money to attend, that’s probably better categorized as a writer’s retreat, not a lab.

  1. They’re small.

Labs are not conferences. Screenwriting labs generally accept just a handful of writers.

  1. They’re overnight.

In most cases when you attend a writing lab, it will be a multi-day affair, sometimes up to a week long.

  1. They involve actual writing.

In a lot of writing classes, seminars, and even “workshops,” you’re not actually doing any writing. At a lab, expect to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and actually work on your characters, breaking stories, refining scenes, and more. The same goes for directing labs – you should work on actual projects, not just learn theory, at a lab.

What to Look for in a Screenwriting Lab

The “lab” term doesn’t carry any legal weight. Anyone can call their contest or retreat a “lab,” and that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. So, if you’re interested in attending a screenwriting lab, there are a few things you should look for.

  1. Pedigree

Probably the most respected and well-known screenwriting lab is the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. This is a five-day workshop in January at Sundance. It’s very prestigious, and they don’t advertise (as far as I know), so the people entering are independent-film-minded writers who are in the know and serious about their careers.

Most screenwriting labs don’t have a pedigree like this one, and a new lab isn’t necessarily a bad lab. But before you hand over your application fee, it’s important to think about whether the content of the lab makes up for its limited renown.

  1. Cost

Beware of competitions that position themselves as labs or exclusive retreats but then charge the people who “win” to attend. Any lab worth its weight should cover all of your accommodations and much of your food, if not your travel expenses, as well.

  1. Content

Who are the people who will be leading the lab? What is their focus? Do they have a particular genre preference? Do they promise continuing mentorship from industry insiders?

Many small film festivals have started tacking on a screenwriting lab, and these small labs could be well worth your while if the content is useful. You could pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to attend a large screenwriting class or conference, or you could pay $50 for the chance to win one of just a few seats at a personalized, intensive, hands-on lab. Or you could do both! But if your budget is limited, a few smaller labs with low entry fees might be a great way to gain contacts and experience, especially if you don’t live in New York or Los Angeles.

Screenwriting Labs to Check Out

This is a list I put together based on some Googling. I’m sure there are more labs out there, and I am not endorsing these particular labs. Look through the list yourself and see what’s on offer and what might make sense for you.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Write/LA, a new screenwriting competition which I co-founded that has a two-day private screenwriting lab component. In addition to the lab, three grand prize winners will get put up in LA, meet some industry folk, and see 30 pages of their scripts performed at an invite-only live read event. The early bird deadline is 4/30 – learn more at write-la.com.

The Big TV Fellowships

These function just like screenwriting labs, but they are run by the big networks, and they are usually free to apply. These ones are the most revered (and most applied to):

In Conclusion…

Maybe the best benefit of a screenwriting lab is that – if the lab is any good at all – you’ll walk away a better writer. You may not get your “big break,” but that’s never a guarantee. What you will get is a few great contacts (your mentors and fellow “fellows”), insights into what it takes to be a professional writer, and new writing tools to apply to your next project.

LA Screenwriter screenwriting

Angela Bourassa is the founder and editor in chief of LA Screenwriter. She is also the co-founder of Write/LA, a new screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.