Paul, that’s a good question. As far as the industry is concerned, I don’t think anything other than winning or being a finalist in the non-Nicholl contests has much meaning. And frankly for most of the contests, winning doesn’t mean much beyond whatever prize you receive, again at least as far as the industry is concerned.
Final Draft Big Break, Page, Tracking Board, Tracking B, perhaps a few others have developed some inroads over the years, but as always buyer beware as all of them are money-making operations.
Note: When querying or interfacing with someone in the business, saying / writing that you were a quarter finalist in some non-Nicholl (or I suppose non-Austin) screenwriting contest not only doesn’t mean anything, it can come across as amateurish. At least that’s my experience of talking with managers. What they REALLY care about is the logline and some sort of legitimate imprimatur as to the quality of the script’s writing. That’s why the annual Black List has become such a powerful ally for writers who make the list because it’s universally accepted in the industry as legit. I think it’s increasingly similar with the Black List hosting service. Scripts which get 8s and 9s get read. A lot. Even scripts with 7s, if the logline is eye-catching, get reads.
[AGAIN: I do not get paid by the Black List. The Go Into The Story partnership with them as its official screenwriting blog is entirely voluntary on my part so I can keep my objectivity and independence.]
One thing you mention, Paul, which is interesting: Using contests to assess one’s own development as a writer. There may be some merit to that. But even then, there’s so much subjectivity to the process of determining what constitutes a ‘good’ script. Sometimes, it’s completely obvious. But many times, not. Just yesterday, I interviewed a 2017 Nicholl winner who told me she submitted her script to the Nicholl and 6 other contests. Her script did not advance AT ALL in the other 6 contests… then WON the Nicholl.
That said, it is perhaps possible for a writer to zero in on a handful of contests and from script to script get a general sense of whether they are improving as writers by how well each script fares in the competitions.
Ultimately, however, it’s how people in the industry who can say ‘yes’ respond to your scripts that matters. The Nicholl and the Black List website are direct access points into the system, and largely transparent. The rest of them I think it’s fair to say are pretty much crap shoots.