Expert screenwriting tips by working screenwriters
The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Competition is by far the undisputed king for discovering new screenwriting talent. It has launched more successful screenwriting careers than probably the cumulative total of those launched by every other screenwriting contest.
It is a not-for-profit screenplay contest run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, i.e. the folks behind the Academy Awards (aka the Oscars). It was started by Gee Nicholl in memory of her husband, successful British teleplay and screenwriter Don Nicholl.
Up to five $35,000 Fellowships are awarded annually.
The Nicholl also pays for winning Fellows to attend the prize ceremony in Los Angeles - they’ll pay for your hotel and flights (if you live outside LA). The LA festivities typically last 2-4 days and you’ll attend events and personally get to talk to numerous Academy members. You’ll likely get to talk to a Best Screenplay Academy Award winner or two.
Being a Nicholl Fellowship or Finalist (10 or so) will guarantee you dozens of read requests from agents, managers and prodcos. It will open numerous doors - the Nicholl is held in the highest esteem by those within the industry. Simply mentioning in a query letter that you are a Nicholl Fellow or Finalist will exponentially increase the chances of you receiving a read request.
The Nicholl is the only contest that offers at least two professional reads for every script during the first round. That’s a huge benefit to every entrant.
The Nicholl also tries to allocate your script to a reader who enjoys its genre - again, another huge benefit.
Judging takes place at distinct stages:
Every script will be read at least twice. High-scoring (typically 80% or higher) scripts will be read three times.
Circa 800 scripts are read three times. After the third read, each script’s best two scores are tallied. The highest scoring 350 (or so) scripts advance to the quarterfinal round
Every quarterfinalist (circa 350) script will be read by three different judges.
All semifinalist (circa 130) scripts will be read by four different judges drawn from Academy members.
The Nicholl website states:
“The ten scores from the first, quarterfinal and semifinal rounds are compiled to determine the ten scripts that advanced to the finals... We typically select 10 finalists, occasionally fewer, and twice we’ve selected 11. It’s a matter of making a determination based on the judges’ scores and comments... Given our judging process, at least eight different people have to like a particular script for it to advance to the finals. How many times do eight people agree that a particular movie, let alone a screenplay, is wonderful? Not very often.”
The Nicholl website explains the process as:
“The scripts are forwarded to the Academy Nicholl Committee, which in 2012 consisted of 14 members: Gale Anne Hurd, chair, John Bailey, Naomi Foner, Ron Mardigian, Bill Mechanic, Dan Petrie Jr., Steven Poster, Tom Rickman, Eva Marie Saint, Peter Samuelson, Vicki Sanchez, Robert Shapiro, Buffy Shutt and Dana Stevens. After reading the scripts and the supporting letters, the committee members gather for an often spirited two-to-three-hour meeting to discuss the merits of each script, and then cast their votes to select the fellowship recipients.“
The Nicholl opens in late January or early February:
No. Based on the statistics available as of 2015, drama screenplays accounted for 39 of the 127 Nicholl Fellowships awarded. That's 30%.
The breakdown is:
The goal of the Nicholl Fellowships is to encourage and identify talented new screenwriters. They're basically looking for the scripts whose writers demonstrate the best screenwriting ability - irrespective of genre, budget and commercial potential.
The Nicholl website goes into further detail. E.g. these guidelines are handed to first round readers:
WHAT ARE WE LOOKING FOR?
The best scripts, the best stories, the best storytelling, the best craft, the best writing, the best execution, the most intriguing characters, the sharpest dialogue, etc. You should reserve your highest scores for those scripts that you believe to be the best that you have read during the competition.
There should be no prejudice for or against any particular subject matter or any genre. It should not matter whether a script is about terrorists or the holocaust or about a talking dog or dumb teenagers. It should only matter whether the script is good -- in your opinion. Similarly, a serious drama should not score higher than a fantasy comedy simply because the former is serious and the latter is not. The quality of any script is all that should matter.
You should not hold a script's commercial potential or lack of commercial potential for or against it. If you believe that a particular script could be made tomorrow and it's good, then you should give it a high score. If you believe that a particular script could never be made because of its subject matter or approach but you love it, then you should give it a high score.
You should also not consider a script's potential budget. It should not matter whether a script, as written, would be the biggest, most expensive studio movie in history or if it's a tiny, independent film that could only be made on an iPhone by a writer-director as a personal project.
You could consider these scripts as 'writing samples.' It's as if the competition were a production company with an endless slate of open writing assignments. And that we plan to find the writers to fill all of those assignments through the competition. So, we're not seeking scripts; we will not buy any of the scripts submitted to us. Instead, we are seeking writers -- and the only means we have of identifying the talented writers is through their scripts.
The readers for the Nicholl have an outstanding reputation.
Most screenplay contests don’t pay their readers well so they (a) can never hire the best and (b) those they do hire sometimes don’t give a script a fair chance due to their low pay and frequent time pressures.
The Nicholl website says this about their first-round readers and quarterfinal-round readers:
"First-round readers and quarterfinal-round judges are all involved in the industry, but none of them are Academy members. We assemble a good mix of people. While a majority are writers, some of whom read to pay their bills, we also get a number of producers and development execs as well as those who work in other areas of development or production. The key attributes we look for are skill and experience in reading and evaluating scripts."
Scripts that progress to the semifinal round are read by Academy members:
"The judges are drawn from a number of Academy branches, covering all aspects of the creative and production process. In 2012, 35 of the Academy member semifinal round judges had either won or been nominated for an Academy Award during their careers."
Unlike most screenplay contests, the Nicholl promises to assign your screenplay to a reader who enjoys its genre.
They explain the process used in the Q&A below:
HOW ARE SCRIPTS ASSIGNED DURING THE FIRST ROUND?
It's a relatively complicated and painstaking process. With first reads, let's say 1200 are currently confirmed and ready to be assigned to readers.
We start by doing some counting. How many of the 1200 writers have entered previously? How many advanced to the quarter/semi/finals in a prior year? How many are first-time entrants? Next we count scripts by genre. How many dramas? How many comedies? How many of all other genres?
This gives us a template. Let's say 500 scripts are from new writers, 500 from prior entrants and 200 from past quarter/semi/finalists. Since we tend to assign in script batches of 12, this means that a batch would have five scripts from new writers, five from prior entrants and two from past q/s/f writers.
Simultaneously, we repeat the process with genres. If 500 scripts have drama listed as their primary genre, then each batch would include five dramas. If comedy were 200, then two comedies. If all other genres numbered 500, then five of those scripts would be included in a batch.
That's the starting point. But there are still other factors: Every reader has told us what genres they like and which they dislike. The dislikes are excluded from the potential assignment pool. Plus we can exclude from the potential pool for an individual reader all writers that reader has read in a previous year.
That's for first reads. With second and third reads, the process is much the same, only with current scores substituted for past performance and new entries. The available scripts for each reader are sorted by current score into 12 groups, and one script is then assigned from each of the groups, with every batch to every reader balanced in this fashion.
Whoops - and we didn't even mention that log lines are considered during the assignment process, helping us fine tune the assignments. Every script is assigned individually to a reader within this framework.
The goal is to make every batch the relative equivalent of every other batch, thus being as fair as possible to every entrant.
We have written a series of articles offering advice and tips to Nicholl entrants (distilled from hundreds of posts by the Nicholl Fellowship team on the Nicholl's website and Facebook page, and interviews given by the contest's Director, Greg Beal):
In addition, the website here at Reel Authors has dozens of articles on professional screenwriting techniques, advice and tips. They can help you raise your game, and write exponentially better. Our professional analysts and the Analysis/Coverage service they provide can be invaluable to your screenwriting career - we guarantee their advice will make your script better.
The Nicholl website and Facebook page offer a wealth of great advice for screenwriters:
The Nicholl values great screenwriting irrespective of genre, budget and commercial potential.
Their Facebook page contains sections on some of the important foundations of great screenwriting: a great story, well crafted characters, engaging dialogue, pages that emote well, drama and conflict etc. It also contains reader comments from high-scoring scripts.
If you live in L.A., they are all available for you to read at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library.
The Academy's library includes a collection of over 11,000 feature film screenplays.
With permission from the writers, the Nicholl has been able to make a small number of Nicholl-winning scripts available online.
The scripts can be difficult to find on the Nicholl website - they're here:
The Nicholl has helped launch dozens of successful screenwriting careers.
Below is a list (from the Nicholl Website) of Nicholl semifinalist, finalist and fellowship-winning writers
who went on to have highly successful screen or teleplay writing careers:
Due to production work we have suspended our coverage service for now.