Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Oscar 154

Jake Barnes has kindly shared his rejection for this year’s Oscar Moore competition (in which they’ve announced they’re not going to have a winner at all). It’s fascinating stuff, and will probably provoke a wide debate on the quality of UK screenwriting that everybody bemoans about around award season. Here’s the rejection:

“It has been an interesting year for the competition for reasons that I will come onto, but you might like to know that yours was one of 154 scripts submitted; showing a continued high level of interest in the competition and evidence of the standing that this Oscar Moore Screenwriting Prize has now come to enjoy.

As in previous years, all the entries were carefully considered by a panel of approved readers before being passed for second-reads and ultimately for the eventual short-listing by the judges. It is a long and careful process, as you would expect.

This process has reached its conclusion now and I have to inform you that The Oscar Moore Foundation has decided not to make an Award this year. There will be no winner of the Oscar Moore Screenwriting Prize in 2006.

As trustees of the foundation (as well as judges), the final panel has the responsibility of ensuring that the good standing of the Oscar Moore Screenwriting Prize is maintained and its judgements are consistent with the qualities of previous winners. This year, though a number of scripts were deemed notable either for the quality of writing or originality of premise, it was the final opinion of the judges that none reached the requisite quality to merit receiving the prize this year. It is noted that ‘comedy’ is often claimed as one of the hardest genres to write for.

As disappointing as this news is, it is only by reserving the award in years where the requisite standards are not achieved, that The Oscar Moore Screenwriting Prize can continue to be a mark of high attainment and a competition worth winning.”

It’s an incredible ballsy decision by them not to give the award to a script they thought was better than the rest, after all, isn’t that what a competition is about? As an independent observer, I can respect and admire their choice but for someone who’s entered, this decision must be the most hair-tearing and frustrating announcement ever received. It’s got to be exceptionally disappointing to think that your script is good but not good enough to beat a lot of scripts that Oscar Moore has deemed mediocre or rubbish.

How could this be? The question needs to be asked. Everyone has read at least one screenplay book and attended an equal number of courses. They know the craft, they know the procedure, so what is it about this year’s entries that have failed to make the grade?


As the chairwoman of Oscar Moore says herself, it is the hardest genre to write for. A comedy script has to make you laugh. End of. Unfortunately, ‘comedy’ is the Lord of Personal Taste, proudly chuckling over his subjective kingdom while his loyal subjects ‘Drama’, ‘Thriller’ and ‘Horror’ scurry around in the forecourt. It’s usually easier to make something dramatic, thrilling or scary than it is to actually make someone laugh.

But what about the Oscar Moore competition itself? Let’s break it down: it’s the UK’s leading and highest profile screenplay competition. It doesn’t cost anything to enter (a donation can be made at your discretion, no-one’s putting a gun to your head) and there’s a great song and dance within the industry once the winner is picked (ahem, usually). They give you ten grand and you get to meet just about every mover and shaker in the biz at their award party, which doubles as a film quiz (usually hosted by Jonathan Ross).

Then they send you to Italy with Arista for an intensive development session and after all that exposure and hijinks you’d probably get an agent if you didn’t have one already, and you’d option your winning script with a production company (but to-date no winning script has been made).

It really is a terrific opportunity and a great prize. But only 154 people entered a free and extremely high profile competition?? A genuine chance to get your career off the ground? And all they wanted was one good comedy script but not one screenplay could tickle the judges’ funny bones? Oh dear. This is not good. I don’t know if the announcement will be of interest to anyone outside of the industry - whether it will get a mention on any news item anywhere - but it’s not good news for new writers.

I doubt that an award jury would choose NOT to pick a best director or best comedian from similar minded competitions because it just wouldn’t wash. But for writing, and screenwriting in particular, it seems it is easy to target the writer and say: “sorry, not good enough, we’ve got standards y’know.” Wait till you get a chance to read a couple of comedy scripts that are on companies’ development slates. Some of the howls you’ll hear won’t be of laughter; I can guarantee you that…

Heartfelt commiseration to the ‘Oscar 154’ (let’s coin a phrase shall we?). At least you tried.


Dom Carver said...

If James's script showed a, "continued high level of interest... and evidence of the standing that this Oscar Moore Screenwriting Prize has now come to enjoy," surely he fulfilled the majority of the requirements to win the competition. As comedy is the hardest genre to write for, and as you say everyone's opinion of what is funny differs, then the judges were highly unlikely to agree on one single script anyway. Taking that into consideration, and the fact James's script 'fulfilled the majority of the requirements', he should have been awarded the prize.

What happens the next time they choose comedy as the genre and the judges can't agree on what's funny, are they going to pass on a winner again?

I think they should have gone with the majority vote.

Lucy said...

I agree with Dom.

I've written comedy scripts and here's some of my feedback from a couple of literary agents I approached with one about 4 yrs ago:

"This is a fun, fun read...There's a lot I like about it. Some moments had me laughing out loud."


"This writer clearly hasn't got a clue about what makes good comedy and worse, what single motherhood is all about." (I was a single mother at the time)

Comedy is subjective - and so is screenwriting. Combine the two and there will be alot of arguing about who "deserves" to win, more than say a horror, thriller or Western comp. However, if James did "fulfil" any requirements, then he deserved to win! As did any of the other 154.

BTW, I missed this competition this year - I didn't notice it! How did this happen?? Where did they advertise?? When??

Danny Stack said...

I don't think it's ever advertised (they'd get more than 154 if they did). It just happens. Keep their page bookmarked on your browser, that's the best thing...

bumbawumba said...

Yup the lack of entries was more disappointing than the lack of prize. Also a bit weird is the fact that about two months ago the word on the website was that 'due to the high standard of shortlisted entries' the announcement would be late. maybe that was just blag. I entered a script which was definitely winging it as a comedy but which had been commended by BBC writersrm. Maybe the issue is more about 'fit to genre'? It would be good if anyone else could illuminate...

Optimistic_Reader said...

Lucy - apparently this year's competition will be announced in June. As Danny says, I think you just need to keep an eye on the Screendaily website for updates.

I'm not sure what the other script readers here think, but in my experience the comedy scripts I read are usually the weakest. I would say the biggest problem is that the writer's don't treat a comedy script in the same way as they would a drama, action, thriller etc. Comedy needs just as much tension as those genres, it just needs to be comedic tension! A good comedy script is about more than just a few good one-liners or some slapstick situations. Also, I think characterisation is often a weakness in comedy scripts - the humour often feels forced rather than natural to the character. On that basis though, I think if any genre needs development it is comedy, so I agree it is a disappointing decision not to pick the strongest script and invest in some solid development. There is such a wonderful tradition of comedy in the UK, but it needs to be nurtured.

Lucy said...

I think you're right as usual, OP.

Comedy in the UK has gone through a very self-indulgent phase these past ten years or so as far as I'm concerned... Green Wing is one of the only UK comedy programmes I've seen in a LONG time that has actually made me laugh. As for films...I can't think of many to be quite honest at all. I think this can be reflected in writers' attempts to be funny - it's more imitation than innovation in my mind. Breaking the mould is what's funny, not copying a formula that apparently "worked" once.

Robin Kelly said...

While comedy is subjective, I'm not sure screenwriting is subjective. Hold on while I scramble about for a poor but adequate analogy. Got one.

There are certain requirements you need for a car: wheels, engine, steering wheel, brakes, etc. They are the basics, it can be agreed that every car should have them and they should be of a certain standard. What is subjective is how it is put together and the overall design. Just because I prefer the design of Minis to Astras it doesn't mean Astras are bad, they both work very well and both have their markets.

I think once we get our screenplays to a certain objective standard then any rejection is going to be on the story or genre or marketability which is subjective.

James Moran said...

I'd never heard of this contest until now either. While I think it's a good idea to say "sorry, none of the scripts were up to scratch", at the same time, it's a competition, so by definition the best one really should win. Then again, the prize is a proper leg up in the industry, so the winner really needs to deserve it. It's difficult, I can see both sides of it - but I'd have to come down on the side of the writers in the end. Give someone a prize!

Have to agree with Optimistic Reader - the few unproduced ones I've read haven't had much of a story or discernible characters, they just think it's enough to make every line a gag. But without good characters and a decent situation to put them in, it just isn't going to be funny.