Nicholl Fellowships offer writers the right to write

BECOMING A SUCCESSFUL HOLLYWOOD screenwriter is about as rare as winning a lottery jackpot. This is especially true for writers out in the hinterlands, whose dreams of being the next Robert Towne or Callie Khouri can seem almost impossible to translate into reality.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is trying to do something about the problem. Largely without fanfare, the Acad’s Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting program has given 25 writers a shot at the industry over the past six years.

As many as five more Nicholl fellows will be chosen today by the Nicholl committee in the culmination of this year’s competition, which attracted 3,514 screenplays from entrants in 48 states, the District of Columbia and 13 foreign countries. Entrants must be non-pro and can’t be immediate family of Acad members.

“To encourage new vision” is the goal of the fellowship program, says Greg Beal, its coordinator for the past three years. The winners have included writer-directors Allison Anders (“Gas Food Lodging”) and Radha Bharadwaj (“Closet Land,” her Nicholl entry script); 11 other Nicholl fellows have found work in the industry as writers.

EACH WINNER RECEIVES a $ 20,000 fellowship to spend a year writing a screenplay. The fellows have ranged in age from 22 to 61–the oldest was Mississippi grandmother Laverne (Cindy) Stringer, who has written four spec screenplays since winning her fellowship. The average age of the fellows since the competition was broadened beyond college students in 1989 has been a mature (by Hollywood standards) 38.

Veteran producer Julian Blaustein (“Broken Arrow,””Khartoum”), who has been chairman of the Nicholl committee since its inception, says “Our motivation is simply to offer a chance to people who want to write screenplays and may have talent but are not close to the local scene. It gives them a chance to pay their bills while they write a script.

“Our criteria do not include commercial value when considering a script. As a matter of fact, many of the (winning) scripts have no commercial value, but the writer shows promise of being able to knock off a good screenplay if he or she gets a story that might sell.”

The program was started by Gee Nicholl, widow of TV writer-producer Don Nicholl, who provided the funding in his memory. She remembered her husband’s struggles as a young writer and wanted to give back something to aspiring scripters from his success with such shows as “Till Death Do Us Part” and “Three’s Company.”

Completed scripts remain the property of the writers, with the Acad taking no commercial interest in them. For legal reasons, the Acad also doesn’t distribute copies of the winners’ work, but it provides contact numbers for people in the industry who want to meet with the writers.

Beal hires film industry people to sift through the initial submissions, asking them to evaluate “good writing and craft over any other aspect.” From that huge pile, about 1,200 were given two readings and 201 were chosen for readings by Academy members.

The 205 Acad members who read scripts for the program this year included directors Irvin Kershner and Randal Kleiser; producers Gale Anne Hurd and Al Ruddy; writers Tom Schulman and Bob Gale; actresses Louise Fletcher and Vera Miles; and lensers John Bailey and Jan de Bont.

The 201 scripts were winnowed down to 37 and then to nine for the final selection by the committee. The finalists are Jonathan Michael Cody, Robert N. Cohen, Cynthia Gold, Susannah Grant, Arnold S. Greenspan, Andrew W. Marlow, Terri Edda Miller, Daniel Weitzman and Michelle Wollmers.

“Unfortunately, most of the finalists are from California–it’s the first time,” says Blaustein. “We prefer if they come from Bosnia or Louisiana.”

The winners will be given their awards at a Nov. 12 ceremony at Chasen’s.

Blaustein says the finalists’ scripts are so different it’s hard to make general comments about them, other than to praise their quality. But after reading many of the submissions and cataloging all of them, Beal has been able to offer some interesting statistical breakdowns and possible trend indicators.

While the great bulk (1,289) of this year’s scripts were dramas, the genres of mystery/thriller (643) and romance/romantic comedy (487) also held strong interest for aspiring writers. Comedy/black comedy (379) and comedy-drama (155) scripts are less plentiful.

Though 67% of the entrants were men (2,359, compared with 1,156 women), minority group concerns were strongly represented this year, Beal says. The Acad does not ask for a writer’s ethnic group, but Beal says about 300 of the scripts dealt with black-white issues, and many others with Hispanic or Asian themes.

AS FOR OTHER HOT TOPICS, “There were a great number of scripts about serial killers this year,” Beal says, no doubt due to the success of “The Silence of the Lambs.” The year before, the influence of “Ghost” meant that “there were a lot of afterlife movies, a lot of devil or angel movies.”

The winners tend to write on more esoteric subjects. A case in point is Bharadwaj’s “Closet Land,” which deals with political torture. The script “couldn’t sell 12 tickets and we knew it, but this woman seemed to have imagination,” Blaustein notes.

But Blaustein makes a point of sitting down with each year’s winners to acquaint them with the hard facts of life in Hollywood:

“The best way to write a dog is to say, ‘I’m going to write a commercial script’–you’ll go right on your face. But don’t resist an idea just because it looks like a picture that grossed $ 200 million. I assume they want to earn a living in the industry.”

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