Friday, September 17, 2010

Writing competitions - should the keyword be caution?

A guest post by Guild member Julian Williams

Funny old life this with its unwritten question conventions, like 'never ask a colleague his salary' or 'whatever you do, don’t ask a woman her age'. Deep down it would be fun or useful to know but hey, we’ll just keep guessing.

On the other hand, asking a writing competition organiser its financial credentials…well, who’d have thought of asking that in the first place?

Okay, not so pressing a question if the competition is free to enter but what if it’s not? What if it charges and promises a financial prize or meetings with publishers, agents or pro readers. Even more worrying, what if it offers to publish or film the winners’ work?

Are they able to deliver on their promises as we’ve delivered our manuscript or screenplay? And entry fee!

Hang on a minute, asking for financial credentials? Don’t be silly. It would jinx our entry, upset the organisers, give us a bad name in the industry. And anyway, their website looks okay and I want to win!

Let’s put a brake on our honourable yet sometimes blind writing ambitions for the moment.

As you may have guessed by now, I have a small example of a recent and potentially on-going situation where asking questions of writing competition organisers could very well have proven a good and proper thing to do. It also highlights the importance of a Writers’ Guild membership.

There’s a screen competition called BSSC – British Short Screen Competition to give its full title. The carrot for the £30 (final deadline) entry fee is that 'the winner will be made'. And true to their word, in past years the winning entry has been made although for some reason I’ve never been able to find out where I can see the winning film.

This year the BSSC announced its call for entries. Eagerly I did – enter that is. My choice, I know. And then the website disappeared. And there were no emails or newsletters telling me why. And all of a sudden my £30, my hopes, the hard work in getting a script together, the triumphant moment of posting – and the deliciously frustrating wait for a first round announcement seemed lost.

So I took a deeper look. I asked that great unwritten, forbidden, question: 'What are the organiser’s financial credentials?'

Turns out (at Companies House) the financial credentials of what appears to be the organiser’s company are listed as 'Status: Active - Proposal to Strike off'. Not really a funding proposition for the winning entrant is it?

Time to call in The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain plus enlist the help and contacts available through Twitter, on which there is a strong and vibrant screenwriting community.

The Writers’ Guild posted a request for further information. A very highly respected script editor created #kaosfilms and a number of responses from writers floated in.

And then all of sudden this happened:

The Kaos Films website was re-instated. An apology came through the Kaos Films Twitter account that read: 'we haven't closed shop the website has been shut down because our email addresses have been hi-jacked by spammers' and then, only a few days ago there was another Kaos Films announcement, this time that the 2010 BSSC first round qualifiers and the 2010 BFSC semi-finalists will be published in a few days time.

By the way, Kaos Films also run a feature film competition – that’s the BFSC bit – where, in line with their USP, they promise to make the winning entrant.

So all seems well again, yes? All back on track? Hang on a moment…back to Companies House and the statement about Kaos Films. 'Status: Active - Proposal to Strike off'. According to a Solicitor and an Accountant, 'proposal to strike off' isn’t an overnight thing – it’s a decision made over a long period of time.

I asked Kaos Films about this via Twitter, but I have had no reply.

We know our motives for entering writing competitions but isn’t it now time that we should start asking not only the motives but the financial credibility of people who organise competitions? Of those who charge an entry fee?

Should writing competitions be better regulated? Should there be a code of conduct – starting with actual dates that various round judgements will be announced (there are competitions that do – one comes to mind which is held by Euroscript). And shouldn’t there at least be a financial or credibility check prior to any organisation launching a competition?

If The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain hadn’t stepped in to help, I very much doubt that any BSSC or BFSC website/announcement information would have come to light because we writers just don’t ask the questions. I did and with the weight of the WGGB behind me we got an initial result. It’s why I am proud to be a member.

However, my fundamental question still remains with Kaos Films: 'Did you announce the BSSC 2010 before or after you knew you were in financial difficulties, as shown by Companies House records?'

To put that into context, the entry fee before final deadline was £20 – the cheapest one. They have claimed in the past they receive over 2000 international entries. That makes, at minimum, 20x2000 = £40,000. And the company has not registered accounts since, from what I can see and understand, 2008.

So let’s finish with the question we first started with: 'Writing competitions, should the keyword be caution?'

I’m afraid the answer is yes.

Writers, especially those yet unpublished who, like me, are more likely to enter writing competitions. Please join The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain – the candidate membership isn’t a second class writing ticket, it has real power as proven here. Not least, a membership will give you the confidence – and the WGGB will give you the support – to ask the questions we so often think are unaskable. But that must be asked!

Phew, that was all a bit heavy, so here are a couple of final words of advice about unwritten question conventions.

Yes, DO ask your colleague or writing friend what they’re getting – it always helps to know. And no, whatever you do, DON’T ask her age, whoever your “she” may be. There’s not a Guild on planet earth that’ll protect you from the reaction to that one!

Julian Williams is on Twitter @OnewordTF

Postscript: As I write, Kaos Films have promised to announce BSSC first round qualifiers and BFSC Semi-Finalists by “the end of the week”. That day is today, 17th September 2010. Whether they do or not the real proof of the pudding will be the making of the winning entries to both competitions. On that we can only wait and see.

Update: True to their word the qualifiers and semi-finalists are now listed on the Kaos Films website.


  1. Anonymous1:41 pm

    On a similar note, does anyone know what happened with the Rise Summer Challenge from two years ago?

    "RISE films and Casarotto Ramsay & Associates, together with Sight & Sound, bring you the ultimate film challenge: write a script this summer and then get it made."

    I can't recall seeing an announcement of the winner and there is nothing about it on the website apart from the two-year old competition announcement.

  2. I've asked about Rise Summer Challenge on Twitter to see if anyone knows anything.

  3. Anonymous2:58 am

    Was this article inspired by the comments concerning Katapult Theatre in relation to What Members Are Doing (David Barry)?

  4. Anonymous5:38 pm

    Interesting article Julian, but as someone who's been knocking around in this business a while I would just like to say that most film companies have financial problems. I remember years ago when I was dealing with a very well known company who shall remain nameless they had produced about twenty feature films and won a couple of BAFTA awards but couldn't afford to pay the office rent. But they continued and infact they are still going and still in the same office building. I'm afraid financial difficulties goes with the territory. What we must consider is the track record. To my knowledge Kaos thus far have kept to their word. I saw two of their films at Bafta namely "The Handyman" and "The Happiness Salesman" both were extremely well produced with high production value and named actors.
    I also remember when Kaos Films first set up the BSSC how everyone including myself thought they will never honour their promises - this is a pure scam we all thought. I had to eat humble pie when I met up with Arif Hussein at BAFTA after the premier of "The Handyman".
    My point here is if we go around looking at the finances of the production companies before submitting our work to them we'll have a list of about three companies to submit. In which case we might as well give up now.

  5. I 'won' a competition - the 2009 Writers' International Premier Screen Talent (Wipst) run by Vibe TV in Swansea. Have yet to see my 'prizes' - Vibe TV making my script into a short film and a chance to quiz the judges about screenwriting. Last time I spoke to Vibe TV in July they told me the film was in the editing suite and it would be ready first week in August. Haven't seen any sign of it and they don't return calls or emails. So yes, approach competitions with caution - but I still think they're worthwhile in terms of supplying motivation and encouragement when you get somewhere (I reached the semi-finals of the PAGE Awards this year).

  6. Anonymous7:27 pm

    It's not much better when an "Equity Member" newly established Theatre Company out in the back and beyond in Broadstairs solicits Professional Writers' organisations like the WGGB and SOA for scripts that turn out to be a competition the prize of which is probably to be performed to a small provincial audience for nothing (for four nights?). No doubt the Equity members got paid from the box office or the venue.


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