Out of 6,730 script submissions to the 2011 Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, five earned the prize and were celebrated at a well-attended dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel last night.The 26th annual event has become a place where agents and managers can spot new talent and where newly-minted Nicholl fellows can say, “I’d like to thank the Academy,” for the first time in their careers.
Oscar-winning “King’s Speech” screenwriter David Seidler shared his experience as a writer in Hollywood, though pointing out that it’s still a difficult business and if anyone knows how to land a three-picture deal with a studio to please let him know after the program. His keynote address was filled with laughs, but he also said that any writer must be in the business because of their passion for telling stories. The minute you start writing for a check is the minute you lose yourself, he explained.
Nicholl committee chair Gale Anne Hurd served as emcee, and a committee member introduced each winning fellow with more detail on each individual’s backstory. Fellow Dion Cook, who received a laudatory intro from cinematographer John Bailey, wrote a “Cutter” about the Rwandan genocide. Cook, who’s from Oklahoma, movingly explained that a single scene of a man being attacked by a machete-wielding mob in a documentary, the title of which he no longer recalls, inspired him to research Rwanda and begin writing.
Buffy Shutt introduced Able & Burlee Vang, who won for “The Tiger’s Child,” and explained that they had to scrape together the $45 submission fee for the screenplay, which is the first full-length script they’ve ever written or submitted anywhere.
Though many of the stories about each fellow demonstrated the struggles required to earn their place in an exclusive Academy club, patience was the key. As fellow Matthew Murphy (“Unicorn”) pointed out: “When you become a screenwriter, you give up the right to make your parents proud for 5-7 years.”
Other winners this year include Chris Bessounian & Tianna Langham for “Guns & Saris” and John MacInnes for “Outside the Wire.” Each fellow receives a $35,000 prize, $5,000 more than in previous years, and they’re required to complete another feature-length script within a year.
Though fewer than 20 Nicholl-winning scripts have been produced since the program started in 1986, the 2012 Weinstein Company release “Butter,” comes from one of last year’s Nicholl fellows, Jason Micallef.
“It’s definitely regarded as the best competition for screenplays in the world, and it’s run by the most prestigious organization in Hollywood,” Micallef says.
Being a part of the Nicholl community has been the best part of becoming a fellow, says Micallef, whose second fellowship screenplay is called “Good Vibrations” and will star Charlize Theron.
“It’s business based on opinion, and it helps for a new writer to have a group of people say, ‘This is good.’ ” It assuages a lot of fears, especially when you’re doing a movie that’s not super mainstream,” he says.
Other notable fellows include “Gas, Food, Lodging” writer Allison Anders, “Castle” showrunner Andrew Marlowe and “Akeelah and the Bee’s” Doug Atchison.