How to Run a Small Costume Contest
AKA: What's the Bare Minimum I Need?
So you want to run a small costume contest at your con. Maybe you don't have the space for a full Masquerade. Maybe you just want a contest for your track/fandom/interest group. But where to draw the line as to what's needed and what isn't? Hopefully this article will help you organize your thoughts some and help you organize the awesome contest you've been dreaming of.
First every contest needs rules. Yes, even yours. Rules allow everyone helping you out to determine what is and isn't allowed without bugging you about it every 10 seconds. Here are some rule categories you should consider covering:
How much will you allow? How much is too much? Yes, even if it is an NC-17 contest, if you're charging to get in (to the con OR to your little contest) you should check to see if you're covered by public entertainment laws on nudity and conform to them or risk getting yourself and your contestants arrested.
Which ones are covered by the contest? How much crossover is allowed? You'd be suprised at how a clueless Trekkie/Stormtrooper/Anime/Furry/Comic/Whathaveyou character will want to enter your Star Trek/Star Wars/Cosplay/Furry/Comic/Whathaveyou contest. Have a rule in place as to what you'll allow, or someone will sneak through and make the audience say WTF?
Have a hard and fast ruling on bought costumes. Are they allowed? What if only part was bought? What if it was bought from a thrift store then changed by the entrant? Giving your staffers rulings ahead of time prevents drama.
Will you allow any costume? How about the fairy that's throwing glitter everywhere? Who's going to vacuum afterward? How about the guy that's covered in peanut butter, glopping all over the floor (yeah, it's a famous story, google it). How about people throwing things into the audience? Set a limit or you'll be left cleaning up the mess.
Next you need to decide on prizes, both what you'll award and what you'll give to winners. First decide what kind of things you want to award. Is your contest for well made costumes, great skits, crowd favorites, or a combination of the above? Even if you want to say it'll be even, it never will, so decide now what's most important for the winners to have. This helps you pick the right judges and advertise to the right crowd. You also need to decide what you'll give the winners. JMO, ribbons with nothing printed on them or blank certificates where prizes can be filled in are better than dictating awards. Especially at a small contest you can try to give a 'Best Child' award, but if no children enter you're stuck with a ribbon you can't use. If you have access to a computer and printer consider making up a template and printing out awards as the judges decide. Also, decide if you'll be giving honorable mentions, and how many prizes total you will give out. It's rather obvious and disheartening when you give out 6 awards in a contest that had 8 entries, and the 2 that didn't get an award are going to be more heartbroken than if you only gave out one prize. I recommend not allowing more than half the contestants to get awards. Consider how much space and time you have and determine how many entries you can handle from that. Too many entries can wreck a contest even more than too few.
Next your contest needs judges. Your judges should really be tailored to your award emphasis. Try to get experienced costumers to judge a contest for well-made costumes, and great skit people or guest actors for skit-centric contests. If you want audience favorites, consider letting the audience decide. If at all possible don't rely on applause, though. If your audience and number of contestants are small enough you can give each audience member a token, colored toothpick, or other small item and have them put them in jars/tissueboxes/whathaveyou to vote for their favorites. It's also better if the jars/boxes/whatever are closed and opaque, or you might get hurt feelings from Joe's friends who tell him he only had two tokens in his box. Also, you can give prizes to first, second, and third using the counts, or you can use this to give an 'audience favorite' award in addition to awards given by judges. Final note on judges - odd numbers rarely have ties.
Next determine your resources. Will you have a stage? How about a cd player or sound system? Do you have an MC or announcer? Is that person NOT you? It really shouldn't be, because you have too much to do, and leaving the big decisions during the event to your staff is cruel. Consider how much space and time you have and determine how many entries you can handle from that. Too many entries can wreck a contest even more than too few. Consider how much space you have. Contestants need somewhere to sit, minimum. Making them stand the entire time in a back hallway makes for unhappy contestants. They can sit in the audience, but then you have to rope off your best seats, or you'll delay the contest by the contestants coming from the back. How much time do you have? Skits take time. Presentation time, setup time, and judging time. If you don't have a lot of time consider not judging skits, just costume workmanship, and consider having the judges work without the audience (during a social hour or break in the schedule), then pull all the contestants on stage at one time for the audience to look over as you announce winners. Takes very little stage time, and contestants are happy they got to talk to judges personally. Also, provide your judges with some paper to write on. A judging form is nice if you expect more than 20 contest entries, but not necessary. While you're thinking of forms, make up an entry form, too.
Finally, figure out your staff requirements. You should have one door guard to the contestant area pre-contest. One person should be in the contestant room before and during the contest to answer contestant questions and line them up in order. If you have an announcer/MC they can go around ahead of the contest and collect names/announcements. Provide them with a stack of index cards and a bundle of pencils/pens. Have someone to keep track of the order people go onstage and help line up groups during the contest and escort them to stage. Have a judges' assistant if you have more than one to take their award list and organize them for the MC. If you're doing an audience vote have a staffer to guard the jars/boxes/whatever. Above all, try for none of these people to be you so that you are free for the major emergencies. If there are none just help out where you are needed in a place where all your staff can find you.