Scribe sez: 'That letterhead, with the little Oscar on it, usually wakes people up.'

Erik Venema is an ex-cop in Princeton, N.J. collecting a pension after 18 years of service. He lives at home taking care of the kids and writing screenplays. He’s entered the Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting four times, never making it to the finals.

It sounds like a recipe for discouragement, but when it comes to the Nicholl Fellowships, finalists aren’t the only ones who benefit. Of the 4,250 scripts entered this year, Venema’s made it to the top 30, his best finish yet.

“If I send a query letter now, I’ll send my most recent Nicholl letter,” he says. “That letterhead, with the little Oscar on it, usually wakes people up.”

As mention of the Oscar suggests, the Fellowships is run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Surprisingly, perhaps, that bastion of mainstream Hollywood conducts what is generally considered the most literary of screenwriting contests. But perhaps more importantly, the Nicholl name is the closest thing in Hollywood to “open sesame.”

Venema may not have had his work optioned yet, but the fact that he’s placed in the top 30 is enough to get it read by agents and producers.

“The Nicholl Fellowship was responsible for my entire career,” says Susannah Grant, whose winning script “Island Girl” was never made but whose “Erin Brockavich” was, six years later. “There are tons of scripts out there. But every year a really respected institution gives its blessing to a little handful, and it means your script will be read.”

Unlike its counterparts, the Nicholl Fellowships imposes no option on work, and ignores the experience and race of the authors as well as the castability and commercial appeal of the writing. “Our goal is not to look for commercial scripts or ignore them, but to look for talented writers,” says Greg Beal, the Fellowships’ program coordinator.

Apart from a $30 entry fee, the contest’s only criteria is one’s unprofessional status. Anyone who has sold or optioned a screenplay or teleplay for more than $5,000, received a fellowship or prize that includes a “first look” clause, an option or any other quid pro quo cannot apply. As determined by four-tiered judging process, the winners are those who tell the best stories the most skillfully.

But while the Nicholl Fellowships strives for literary purity, the commercial success of its winners is hardly beside the point.

In his opening remarks at the recent gala dinner for this year’s Nicholl fellows, Academy president Robert Rehme mentioned that Nicholl alumni wrote eight films released theatrically this year — the best year ever commercially.

They include Raymond De Felitta’s “Two Family House,” his Nicholl entry script from 1991; Susannah Grant’s “Erin Brockavich” and “28 Days;” Ehren Kruger’s “Reindeer Games” and “Scream 3;” Andrew W. Marlowe’s “Hollow Man;” Randall McCormick, who received co-story credit on “Titan A.E,” and Mike Rich, whose Nicholl entry script from 1998, “Finding Forrester,” opens soon.

If you include Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” based on the novel written by 1986 Nicholl Fellow Jeffrey Eugenides (“Here Comes Winston, Full of the Holy Spirit”), the total is nine.

“But we’re not really concerned with financial results here,” Rehme adds afterwards, as if chastened by his momentary lapse.

Overall, 68 fellows have received the $25,000 award since it was established in 1985 (the first seven years gave $20,000 stipends) with a gift by Gee Nichol in honor of her late husband Don.

Those 68 have either written, co-written, received story credit on or adapted the novel for 28 films. Just in case anyone should ask, the Academy has even gone to the trouble of calculating the total box office value of those projects: $1.87 billion. “And if ‘Finding Forrester’ does anything over Christmas,” adds Beal, “it’ll go over $2 billion.”

Paradigm’s Valerie Phillips, who represents Ehren Kruger, puts the Nicholl Fellowships in a broader perspective. “Nicholl and other contests don’t play a big role in terms of my signing new clients. But that said, I wouldn’t dare not read those scripts,” she explains.

Nicholl relies on a judging process that the Academy itself confesses is imperfect, but which has established a track record of successful writers. The initial mountain of submissions is read by a corps of readers (46 this past year) over five months, who reduce that number to around 250.

These quarter finalists are read by one group of volunteer Academy members, cutting the number to roughly 110 semifinalists. Another group distills those scripts down to 10 finalists. Those, in turn, are read by the Nicholl Fellowship Committee, the 12 or so keen-eyed men and women who must separate one layer of cream from another to arrive at the five winners.

There is always the chance, says Beal, that a very good script will never make it to the quarter finals because of one reader’s errant judgment.

“Over the years, I’ve been told that it’s great to read for a competition because they get to look for good writers and not pay attention to commercial appeal,” says Beal. “But I’ve also heard that it’s difficult not to look for the commercial, that people can’t divorce their reading from their training in the industry.

“In the end,” he adds, “the winners end up winners because of a mix of people who look at a script in a subjective way.”

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