Saturday, June 07, 2008

The winners' tales

Okay, so this year's Nicholl deadline is well in the rearview mirror by now. I didn't make it this year but it's never too early to start thinking about May 1, 2009. To which end, I recently attended a panel of past Nicholl Fellows put on by The Scriptwriters Network. The panelists had lots of great stories on their own paths to the top of Greg Beal's heap (as seen in the picture) and advice for those of us still trying to make the quarterfinals for the first time.

The panel was a mix of some recent fellowship recipients and others going back several years into the competition:

Patrick Gilfillan, 1995
T.J. Lynch, 1999
Annmarie Morais, 1999
Pamela Kay, 2002
Arthur Jolly, 2006
Scott Simonsen, 2006

Annmarie wrote the recent feature How She Move and T.J. penned the family film A Plumm Summer, which had just opened at the time of the discussion. The other panelists were in various stages of development on their own scripts and writing assignments.

As to what it took to finally crack through and win the contest, people's experiences varied. T.J. had worked in and around the industry for several years, writing scripts in his spare time. Annmarie worked for a talent agency in Canada, writing scripts in her spare time. Patrick was an attorney in D.C. who moved out here for the MFA program at UCLA. Pamela lived in Washington state, taught dance, and did stand-up comedy. Arthur cashed out of his day job and spent one year writing five (!) scripts. Indeed, perhaps the only common thread to each of their success stories is that all of the fellows wrote multiple scripts (most between five and ten) and went through multiple drafts of their winning scripts before it happened. As in the business generally, there seem to be few overnight Nicholl triumphs. Annmarie, however, did have the distinction of winning with the identical script that got her to the finals (but did not win) the previous year. Didn't change a word, just sent it back in as-is.

The other experience that seemed to be universal is that none of the fellows' winning scripts had actually yet to be produced. In part, this seemed to be a result of the kinds of scripts that the Nicholl judges select, which tend to be personal and dramatic. In Hollywood parlance, "small" films. The inevitable response from agents and producers to the fellowship winner is "I love this but I don't know what to do with it." Ultimately, the value of winning the Nicholl to a writer's career is not in selling that script (though it increases your odds exponentially). Rather, it establishes the writer as credible with others inside the industry and opens doors for subsequent scripts and assignment work. Although it can be a huge first step in a writer's career, what I took away from the discussion is that it is just the first step.

And the one universal piece of advice the fellows had was to write your passion. Beyond mere excellent screenwriting, what the Nicholl judges consistently appear to reward is the more elusive "voice." In the fellows' experience, that is more likely to emerge when the subject matter and the story is one to which the writer feels a personal connection. And even though dramas have historically outperformed other genres, comedies, thrillers, and even action scripts have all made the finals in years past. So that's all there is to it. T-minus 11 months and counting to put it together for next year's competition.


  • So would you say that an action movie stands next to no chance to win the Nicholl?

    By Blogger Emily Blake, at 8:57 PM  

  • hey emily!

    whether it would win the whole competition, i'm not sure. they do seem to prefer the character study dramas. but, as James Simpson's "Armored" proved a couple years ago, a well-written action script can easily be a finalist. which he used as leverage to sell it to screen gems before the winner was even announced. and if that's the result you're ultimately looking for, would be arguably better than winning the fellowship itself.

    By Blogger Chris, at 12:28 PM  

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