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12/21/2001
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Cynosure Screenwriting Awards

The number of screenwriting contests continues to explode because many of the contests are specialized. Got a sci-fi script? Slamdance and the Sci-Fi Channel teamed up to sponsor a contest. Got a script set in Arizona? Check out the Film in Arizona Screenwriting Competition. One of the more altruistic contests out there is the Cynosure Screenwriting Awards. Their goal is to find scripts with strong female and minority characters. I'm a woman. I'm a minority. And I've been hesitant to write such a script because it's not "commercial." Movies like that do get made, but they are considered chick flicks or black movies (Hollywood doesn't think Asian or Latino movies come without subtitles), usually tailored for a particular star, and a hard sell as a spec script for a newcomer. I spoke to Andretta Hamilton at Cynosure about their goals and the contest overall.

Q: How did the contest get started?
A: My partner and I graduated from the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC and we started our own production company in 1998. We were looking for scripts with strong women and minority roles, but we weren't finding them. We started the contest as a way to encourage writers to write that type of material. 2002 will be our fourth annual contest.

Q: How many entries do you receive?
A: 250. We ask the writer to submit the script in either the female protagonist category or the minority category. The female protagonist usually outweighs the minority category. And we've seen an increase in diversity in the minority category. More Asian and Native American entries, as well as disabled and gay-themed scripts. We're open in the definition of minority.

Q: If you have a script with a female protagonist that's a minority, how do you decide which category to choose?
A: Think thematically. If it's central to the story that the protagonist is a person of color, then choose the minority category. If the protagonist just happens to be a person of color, then choose the female category.

Q: What happens to the script once it arrives in the mail? What's the selection process?
A: We make sure the entry meets contest requirements; some don't, so everyone should read the requirements carefully. We then give the scripts to our readers. We use five to six readers, volunteer professional readers and fellow USC students we knew in the program. There is a one-page coverage form where they do a one paragraph synopsis and one paragraph of comments. We do pass the coverage on to the writer after the contest.

Q: Are there specific things the readers are looking for in the scripts?
A: Premise is the most important thing. Is the script non-stereotypical? We also look at character, dialogue, structure, and story.

Q: What happens after the first read?
A: The top 20% go to our industry professional judges, such as Jodie Foster's Egg Pictures and Edmonds Entertainment. We want judges that come from female and minority driven production companies. We also look for agents and executives who are female or people of color. The winner is chosen through scores and lobbying by the judges. The judges' comments are also passed on to the writer, though the judges' names are omitted.

Q: Who are your success stories?
A: Several of our finalists have been contacted by production companies and agencies. My partner and I optioned the script of our 1999 minority protagonist winner, Kimberly Reid, and we're hoping to be in production next summer.

Q: What are your plans for next year?
A: We're looking for ways to grow. We may seek sponsorship or merge with a festival. We're not sure yet, but we're looking to do more for writers.

Cynosure is now accepting submissions and their early deadline is February 25, 2002. You can check out their complete rules at www.broadmindent.com. You don't have to be female or a minority to write a script with strong protagonists who are. I think that's the ultimate goal of diversity. But if you are female and/or a minority, and you have a story to tell, go ahead and tell it. I finally wrote my female/minority script once I realized that people expected me to have one. Will it ever sell? Who knows? But with people like Andretta Hamilton, someone else's story may get sold, and that's a step in the right direction.

Monica Zepeda
iam_monica@excite.com

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