A Year In The Life of An Academy Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship Winning Team
by Alisha Brophy & Scott Miles
What’s the biggest mistake of your life? While we don’t have the word count or therapy sessions to go into ours, we’ll tell you what it easily could have been: we almost didn’t enter the Nicholl Fellowships. It was a last minute decision. Staring down the final deadline, we were convinced that we didn’t stand a chance. And not taking that chance would’ve been a shame because winning the Nicholl Fellowships will change your life. It changed ours. Twice.
The first time was in 2012, when one of our scripts quarterfinaled. Placing in the Nicholl means two things. One, you feel validation as writers that the Academy felt you worthy; and two, you get emails from managers and producers asking to read your script. Screw validation, those requests were what we were really after. So, we sent our script off to a handful of promising leads, and then… nothing. We brushed it off and got back to work on our next project. It turns out that maybe the validation to keep going was more important after all. We worked our respective day jobs, and continued to write every evening.
A year later, we finished an R-rated comedy based on America’s Founding Fathers going on a Hangover-type adventure, thinking it would be a fun script that might end our career before we even had one. Once “United States of Fuckin’ Awesome” made it to the Nicholl finals, we tried not to get our hopes up. Keep in mind, in our script Ben Franklin is naked. Frequently. But, when the committee members called to say we’d won, the Nicholl Fellowships changed our lives for the second time.
The week of the Nicholl ceremony tends to be a blur of handshakes and hugs, but here’s generally what you can expect: You’ll have a whirlwind of meetings with agents and producers, teaching you all you need to know about taking meetings with agents and producers. You’ll have lunch with the esteemed committee members. These are the same people who had, just a few weeks earlier, gathered in a room to champion their favorite scripts and choose the winners. It’s a fun guessing game of who liked your script — and more importantly, who didn’t? You will fret all week over writing your acceptance speech for the Nicholl ceremony. Remember, it has to be great because you’re a writer. But, it’s all worth it because you’re rewarded with hearing your script’s dialogue spoken aloud by incredible actors during a live reading. Though this is a ceremony to celebrate your achievements, just know that you will be trampled by a hundred teenage girls who are really there for an Ansel Elgort selfie.
With most awards, the laurel comes at the end. The Nicholl is different. It’s a celebration of promise. The script is really just a blueprint for a future project. And so began our “Nicholl Year,” the most difficult months of our professional lives. We’re a bit of an anomaly as a writing team, in that Scott is based in Austin with his wife and Alisha lives in Los Angeles with her cat, so it’s a long-distance partnership. But coming off the momentum of the Nicholl, Scott packed his car and headed cross-country. Somewhere around Albuquerque, his Airbnb host called to say that, due to bed-bugs, the room wouldn’t be available. So Scott’s first month in LA consisted of an empty room at Alisha’s house with nothing but a camping cot and space heater. Coincidentally, this was the same month that she was being evicted. We were truly living that LA showbiz dream! Life has a way of keeping you humble, but this was a tad jerky on the universe’s part.
Regardless of your housing situation, here’s what to expect from your Nicholl Year: You’ll sign with an agency. Choose an agent who is invested in your overall career and not those who simply namedrop their biggest clients. Oh, they rep Scorsese? Guess which one of you gets your calls returned? You should also expect to go on more general meetings than you thought humanly possible. Your status in Hollywood can be determined by whether they offer you an option between water and coffee before the meeting (coffee’s for closers). Once we were offered fresh squeezed orange juice and never felt better about our careers. Sadly, it has yet to happen again. Pro-tip: Meetings will zap your writing time, so stack as many appointments as you can on the same day. Keep a pillow in your car for between-meeting naps. You’ll thank us later. Also, don’t bother writing anything original for awhile. You’ll only be offered the opportunity to adapt studio-purchased IP based on blogs, twitter feeds, and bumper stickers. For the record, we are 100% available to write a script based on your blog, twitter feed or bumper sticker.
The months of tireless meetings and writing sessions finally paid off when we earned a chance to pitch, alongside Elizabeth Banks, on a project at Lionsgate. Everything about the experience was intimidating, right down to the hundred square foot conference table between us and the execs. The studio had bought us lunch, but when could you take a bite? You’re pitching for thirty straight minutes, trying to remember every line, and burying the inner voice repeating, “Do they like me? Do they hate me?” So, when we left, we did what any starving artist would do and we took those sandwiches with us. Thankfully, we got more than a meal out of it. We were hired! And so we dove into our very first big studio gig. The lesson is clear: always pitch alongside Elizabeth Banks.
Having never written at the studio level before, we needed guidance. Thankfully, once a month the Academy provides a lunch for the fellows, which is another way the Nicholl Fellowships fosters success. Through these get-togethers, we’ve developed lasting friendships with those who have already travelled the same twisty roads we’re blundering down. In fact, we have past Nicholl winners we consistently seek advice from, and when we landed that first job, their numbers were saved to speed-dial.
We spent the rest of the year writing our studio feature, while following the subsequent crop of fellowship entrants as they were slowly whittled down to the winners. When the next Nicholl ceremony began, we saw the same look of bewilderment as the new fellows processed the blur of hugs and handshakes. And so the cycle continues. Hopefully, in time we’ll have learned enough to earn a spot on their speed-dials.
Our “Nicholl Year” may now be over, but we’ve found that the support is lifelong. Without this fellowship we would still be resigned to slogging away at our day jobs, while cursing the screenwriting gods. Instead, we’ve been gifted the chance to turn our writing into a career, with a network of peers, and access to mentors. Oh, and a monthly free lunch. We can’t stress that one enough.