In 2001 or 2002 (or maybe earlier, but I didn’t pay much attention until 2002), Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios launched an interactive component of their website. A social networking site in pre-social networking days, it allowed writers—and later all manner of other film-industry wannabe-creative-types—share their work in an honest, encouraging, semi-anonymous forum. It surged in popularity because of a (most likely bullshit) carrot dangled at the end: legend started to spread that Coppola himself was known, on occasion, to download the most popular scripts on the site and take a look at them. I believe Pumpkin was a Zoetrope.com find, and how you feel about that movie might gauge how you feel about the whole project.
It shared the same problem as a lot of screenwriting contests; I would say it was worse because it didn’t cost anything to submit a script, but at the same time you didn’t “win” anything for writing a good script, so maybe it broke even. Point is, people will pick up Story or Screenplay or just write a script on a whim and send it to a contest. I don’t want to denigrate those people, because I’ve long been of the opinion that the only formal training needed to write a good script (or make a good film, for that matter) is to watch a shitload of movies. But watching a shitload of movies and/or reading a book on screenwriting doesn’t guarantee the screenplay won’t be a piece of shit.
I can’t tell you how many “amateur” screenplays have loglines like this: “A waitress/single mother struggles against adversity in the small town where she grew up. Based on a true story.” This was especially true when I browsed the material available on Zoetrope.com. While it follows a basic “beginning-writer” tenet—“write what you know”—and could make for a good movie (last year’s Waitress was pretty great), it also ignores another basic “beginning-writer” tenet: the things that happen to you in your day-to-day life are not necessarily the stuff of great drama. Never say never, but I know my day-to-day is boring as shit, so when I write I take the emotional truth of what is happening or has happened to me in reality and apply it to something that is 100% fictitious.
There’s also the Hemingway-Cézanne philosophy: if you have something that’s real and true but isn’t quite dramatic, change it until it is. So many beginners fall into a pattern of writing “what they know” while neglecting basic principles of drama because, in their reality, “it didn’t happen that way.” So, to go back to the waitress/Waitress example: the arc of that story is centered around the effects of a pregnancy on an unhappy marriage. Meanwhile, your “based on a true story” waitress has crafted a supremely uninteresting story in which she leaves her husband around the time her kid is six. What’s more dramatic—leaving your husband because you don’t want him to destroy the life of your newborn baby, or leaving him because, eh, you just got kinda tired? You try to explain this to the writer, and they come back at you with, “But that’s not how it happened!” Who cares?