Impress the Judges: How to Succeed in Video Contests

Movie festivals and competitions are an excellent and effective way to show your productions to large audiences. Winning a video contest can also improve your resume and score you some valuable prizes, but first you have to make sure that your tape will be seen and that it is put together in a way that will catch the eye of the judges.

As a judge of a popular student video contest in New York State, I have a pretty good idea of how judges evaluate movies, so I can offer some advice about entering and winning video contests. We’ll look at the sorts of things that might disqualify a tape immediately, how judges react to movies and what sets average submissions apart from those that win contests. Even if you don’t aspire to win a contest, the same principles that interest judges will also help you captivate your audiences. Your reputation as a moviemaker will spread from family to friends to an ever greater circle of viewers.

Don’t Get Disqualified

The first step to winning a video contest is not getting disqualified. When it comes to entering contests, the organizers might disqualify your tape before the judges even see it for simple, easily avoidable reasons. To avoid that fate:

  • Read and follow the entry instructions thoroughly and carefully.
  • Fill out the application properly.
  • Work within the time limit.
  • Follow the subject matter (topic) rules.
  • Print your name and address clearly both on the application form and on the media label (tape or disc) itself.

    It’s a good idea to include your name and contact information as a graphic at the head and tail of your video as well. If a judge likes your production, but doesn’t know whose it is, it may be lost or even disqualified.

    Pay particular attention to:

  • Tape Format – If the contest requires you to submit your movie on a VHS tape, for example, do not submit it on DV, S-VHS or DVD. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised what people send in.
  • Subject Matter – If the contest is for nature videos, don’t bother sending your family’s funniest home videos. Make sure that your video matches is appropriate for the contests you enter.
  • Length Limit – Many contests have a time limit in minutes. Judges tend to be strict on this point and will likely stop watching your video as soon as it reaches the time limit. That can be disastrous for you.
  • Entry Deadline – Send your entry only if you are sure that it absolutely, positively will arrive before the contest deadline. If you miss the entry deadline, there’s always next year. Certain contests, however, require that your movie be completed within the last year, prior to entry. Be sure to read the fine print on the application instructions.
  • Entry Fee – Many competitions require an entry fee, usually a modest one, but don’t forget to enclose a check along with your tape or DVD if you’d like your production judged.

    What Makes a Movie a Winner?

    Over the years, judges have identified the three most important elements of movies. They are: story, story and story. As we all know, a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. You will need a clear vision of what you wish to accomplish. Every scene should work towards that end. By the time the movie is over, the judges will know what you had in mind all along.

    Previous issues of Videomaker magazine are good sources of advice on script writing, scenarios, location scouting, costuming, directing, camera handling, editing and everything else you need to tell a story from start to finish. Many amateur movies, however, are disjointed, confusing or downright pointless. Worse yet, some are unoriginal. If your movie has an interesting, original story that is well told, judges will feel comfortable giving a good grade to your movie. They may even be willing to overlook minor technical problems and amateurish acting.

    In general, keep your story simple, yet engaging. If you start with a disorienting shot at the beginning of your work, be sure to resolve the plot or character’s conflict by the end of your movie. You want to draw each judge into your world through your video. You want the judges to identify with a character, whether it is human, animal or even mechanical. As soon as possible, you want the judges to root for the character as he, she or it encounters bumps along the road.

    If you produce a documentary, assume that the viewer knows little or nothing about your subject. You will have to lay out your scenes in a logical manner from the very first shot. A satisfying conclusion is a necessity.

    Technical Technique

    There are technical issues to deal with, of course. For example, with only rare exceptions, judges will expect you to follow fundamental filmmaking techniques. These include:

  • Sharp Focus – Enough said.
  • Proper Exposure – Well-lit and consistently well-exposed shots take time and effort, but are worth it.
  • Limit Zooming – Your intention is to entertain or inform your viewing audience, not to make them nauseous.
  • Limit Camera Movement – Again, with only rare exceptions for achieving a specific, special effect, consider using a tripod for every shot. Creative camera movement can be effective, but only if you shoot them smoothly and transparently. The movement of the camera should not call attention to itself, distracting viewers from the action in the movie.
  • Clear Dialogue – The dialogue should be intelligible, warm toned and dynamically balanced. An external microphone is essential for good audio. Make sure that the sound in all shots has the same volume. Since you never know what equipment will be used to display your movie, consider auditioning your tape on different sound systems (e.g. a super surround sound stereo and a monophonic television) before you put your tape in the mail. Sometimes what sounds like satisfactory sound on one system can sound messy and muddy on another.
  • Music – The music should be appropriate and evocative to the audience. For amateur moviemakers, finding suitable legal music to use can be a serious problem. Unless the music was composed before 1923, you may infringe on the copyright rights of the publisher, the composer, the performer or even their estates. Using music without proof of permission may get you into legal hot water, but it will definitely get you disqualified from a contest. Always submit proof of permission for any and all copyrighted materials you use in a video.

    The best advice is to use royalty-free music or commission a composer to create music for you. Hiring an amateur composer, especially if he or she is a student at your local college, can be surprisingly inexpensive.

    Winning Subjects and Approaches

    Certain subjects and approaches do better in competitions than others. Almost everyone likes to see home video of a child doing something cute, but unless the child’s antics are part of a good plot, don’t expect the judges to toss you a ribbon.

    Action plays better in competitions that dialogue. Videos consisting primarily of a long conversation between characters do not typically win contests. Actions really do speak louder than words, and video contests are about telling stories with images.

    Comedy can be hard to pull off. Simply turning a joke into a video rarely impresses the judges, especially if everyone has already heard (or can predict) the punch line. You’ll also find that humor categories are more crowded in many competitions. The key to producing winning comedies is to make the joke, get the laugh, and get out. Leave them laughing and they will remember your tape.

    As you have no doubt discovered, it is difficult to compete with Hollywood. Your equipment, crew and your cast are simply no match for major motion-picture blockbusters. The solution is obvious: don’t try to compete with Hollywood. The good news is that many, many subjects are not suitable for motion picture studios, for one reason or another. Often, the subject itself is simply not worth producing and distributing as a two-hour film to general audiences. In other words, professional producers have left behind many niches that amateurs can fill.

    Beyond Your Control

    Despite your best efforts, you may not win an award. The very act of judging a work of art is subjective. Each judge comes to the judging event with a unique set of experiences, education and sense of humor. Unfortunately, there is simply no way to know how a judge will react to a given movie in advance. The fact that the number of judges is often relatively small can result in unpredictable outcomes based on any one of the judges reacts to your movie.

    Another unknown that impacts your chances is the quality of the competition. Large contests and festivals that attract many entries are more difficult to win, because of the sheer number of contestants. Even in small competitions, you never know how good other submissions may be. While your video may be very good, another may be outstanding. Only the judges get to compare the entries and cast a vote. To improve your chances, enter a number of different competitions and to target your entries to specific contests that match your work.


    For a moviemaker, winning an award is a wonderful, sometimes exquisite event. But you can’t win unless you enter. Look for suitable competitions open to the public and send for more information. The festival coordinators sometimes make past winning entries available for viewing. This is a good way to see what the judges thought were the best movies of the contest, sop you can compare your work and gauge your chances. When it comes to making great movies, it’s never too early to plan ahead.

    Good luck, and check out our Current Video Contests Page

  • Videomaker
    The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

    Related Content