Nicholl winners get the write stuff from pros

Writers receive $25,000, advice from Norman, Kanter

Mark Norman, who knows a thing or two about weaving through the Hollywood maze, had a message for the five winners of the Nicholl screenwriting fellowships.

Don’t take any nonsense.

Norman, who shared an Oscar this year for writing “Shakespeare in Love,” said studio execs, agents and other industry heavies “are lucky you exist, lucky that you took the time out to write something.”

In the audience at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the five winners — Chris Balibrera, Thomas Lynch, Annmarie Morais, Jamie Silverman and Rebecca Sonnenshine — and the five runners-up listened attentively, no doubt aware that, historically, writers have rarely been afforded great respect in the Hollywood pantheon.

“It’s pretty much up to you,” Norman said at the recent ceremony. “You’re the storytellers — you dream this stuff up. Your mission is to go through the swirling bullshit confusion that goes along with getting something made in this 500-year-old entertainment industry.”

Norman’s reference to this sesquicentennial came at the tail end of a story about his research into “Shakespeare,” during which he discovered that the first showbiz lawsuit was filed in 1620 by an English theatrical company against one of its contracted writers. The scribe had agreed to pen three plays, but finished just one.

“It wasn’t his fault — there was a plague,” Norman said, relating the poor writer’s excuse. Every since, he went on, scribes have been held to constraining contracts, to the detriment of their craft.

Veteran comic writer Hal Kanter, who addressed the audience earlier in the evening, said writing is “an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.” Nevertheless, Kanter said, he loves the job — “I just can’t stand the paperwork.”

Gee Nicholl — who, with her late husband, Don, initiated the awards program in 1985 through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — looked out at the crowd and said, “It’s so nice to see people working and actually being paid.”

Nicholl also complimented one of last year’s fellows, Michael Rich, whose screenplay “Finding Forrester” is in development at Sony-based Fountainbridge Films, with Sean Connery set to star.

Each of the winning writers receives $25,000, with the understanding that each will complete a feature-length screenplay during the following year. The Academy does not involve itself commercially with the finished scripts.

Since the Nicholl fellowships were founded, 40,000 scripts have been entered, and $1.5 million awarded.

This year, Balibrera won for “Harvest”; Lynch, “The Beginning of Wisdom”; Morais, “Bleeding”; Silverman, “Last Meals”; and Sonnenshine, “Mermaid Dreams.”

Silverman, a Hollywood High School teacher who was a quarterfinalist in the contest once before, said the Nicholl is “one of the few awards that appreciably changes people’s lives.”

Nicholl Fellows have been busy. In the course of this year, 10 screenplays written by various winners have gone into production, including “End of Days,” “Scream 3,” “Mary Jane Can’t Dance,” “Erin Brockovich” and “The Hollow Man.”