What It Takes To Win The Movie Industry’s Most Prestigious Screenwriting Competition

The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting is an international screenwriting competition established to identify and encourage talented new screenwriters. Each year thousands of scripts are submitted and judged. The scripts that make the final round are judged by the 17 members of the Nicholl Committee. This year’s winners are Elizabeth Chomko, “What They Had;” Andrew Friedhof, “Great Falls;” Anthony Grieco, “Best Sellers;” Sam Regnier, “Free Agent;” Amy Tofte, “Addis Abeka.”

On Wednesday night we honored this year’s new Nicholl Fellows. We sat down with five members of the Nicholl Committee, here’s what they had to say about the competition and writing for the screen.

What do you look for in a winning Nicholl script?

Stephanie Allain (Dear White People, Hustle & Flow): I look for voice. Originality of voice and the ability to tell a good story.

Albert Berger (Nebraska, Little Miss Sunshine): It’s crucially important to me that I’m moved and compelled by the story and the characters. It has to have a certain level of craft and it has to feel honest.

Julia Chasman (25th Hour, Quills): We do have kind of a rubric of qualities that we look for. On our website, applicants can find some questions to ask themselves about the story they want to tell, meant to guide them to include the qualities that we care about: obvious things like character, plot, structure, tone, but also things that are more subtle too, like finding a voice. More than anything we look for a voice that’s authentic, that pulls the reader in with a sense of, “Someone’s telling me a story and I’m involved in it.” Of course there’s also a lot of hard work that goes into getting that voice disciplined.

Peter Samuelson (Arlington Road, Revenge of the Nerds): We’re not only judging the script. We’re also judging whether we think the writer has a professional future and we are encouraging them to spend the next year writing their next script, so it’s not so much a script competition as it is a writer competition. I look for a script that moves my heart. I want a script that makes me cry or makes me laugh. I want strong characters in a well crafted narrative. I want to see something I feel as though I haven’t seen before and, most of all, I want an authentic voice.

Dana Stevens (Safe Haven, Life or Something Like It, For Love of the Game): We are trying to find people that we can encourage in their writing career. Sometimes the scripts that are chosen aren’t necessarily the scripts we would think would make the best movies. There are scripts that show the most promise of a writer who will have a career in Hollywood. Be able to structure a script and have an original voice.

Everybody says writers need to develop a unique voice. How would you recommend a writer do that?

Stephanie Allain: I would say do a lot of writing because excellence is a practice. The more you write and the more you free yourself from outside expectation and the more you freely express yourself, that’s how you’ll start to find your authentic voice.

Julia Chasman: The cliché is to write what you know. I would amend that to say write what you feel. Write with passion.

Another way to talk about “voice” is point of view. Who is telling this story? Whose boots are we in when we read this script?

I also think to win a Fellowship, discipline and hard work pay off. Often we have scripts with such a great idea, premise, and characters, but in the last third it just falls apart. Often it’s a deficiency that might have been caught and corrected if the writer had someone to go over their work.

As a producer who works with writers, I really encourage young writers to work with editors, but it doesn’t need to be a professional writer or producer. It could be a close friend or a teacher, anyone whose opinion you value who will be willing to be honest. Test your stuff out with a couple of people, not just ones who will tell you, “Oh, it’s great.” Get some feedback and use it.

Albert Berger: I think that you have to have a feel for what you’re writing about, and you have to care about it deeply, I think those are the most important elements. If you buy into your character and their predicament, I think the voice often organically comes from that.

Dana Stevens: It struck me that the writer of What They Had was writing about her life. It was the first time that she had really written exactly what was true from her own life. That is, to me, the way you find an original voice — when you write about something that is so unique to you.

In addition, I don’t want to discourage people from being imaginative because I think that is another way that we can be original — obviously with the attraction that we have for science fiction stories, we also love seeing an original voice that’s able to write about something that we’ve never heard of before. One of last year’s winners wrote a script that was a sci-fi script about a future world in which people didn’t die. It had a great original idea at the core of it.

I think it’s two things. It’s writing about something that you really know — characters that you really know that are, perhaps, different from you so that all your characters don’t sound the same. And then also letting your imagination really take hold and feel the largeness of writing a movie. Movies are larger than life. Go ahead and be as imaginative as you can be.

As a producer, how do you read a script differently than a screenwriter?

Albert Berger: I had been a screenwriter for ten years before I became a producer, so I think I read scripts through much the same lens. You know you’re always looking for a good story that you connect to and you’re interested in its cinematic potential and how you might cast it and how an audience will connect with it. All those things are factors when you read something.

Having been a writer, I know how difficult it is to tell a good story, particularly in a simple way, and that was another element of Addis Abeka that I really admired: its simplicity. It’s deceptive because it’s an unusual story in that there are time jumps and location jumps and you stay with the character over an eight-to-ten year period, but emotionally there’s such a strong through line that it really holds you.

Julia Chasman: I think I would have to admit that as a producer, I do read a little bit differently perhaps than the writers on the committee. In addition to many writers, we have a wide range of committee members including award-winning cinematographers, the head of all marketing for a major studio, etc., as you can read about online. There are several producers, which makes sense because reading scripts is one of our main jobs in life. I wish it weren’t true; I wish our main job were making movies, but to get to make them you have to read a lot of scripts. I try not to think with my commercial hat on as a producer, trying to cast something in my mind, but sometimes that just happens when you read a role and start to picture an actor or think about how it would be easy to shoot because it’s set in a rebate state that would help with the budget. But that’s not what we’re going for here.

Peter Samuelson: I think I read it differently as a producer than if I had another professional background. As a producer, I’m looking for stories that will actually work as a film. There’s no great merit in writing a script that never gets made, and therefore I’m looking for feasibility. I’m looking for finance-ability and I’m looking for commerciality, as well as just a cracking good story in any genre.

Which Nicholl scripts stood out to you this year?

Stephanie Allain: The most important thing that stood out for me in Free Agent by Sam Regnier is that it’s rare to read a script that features two female protagonists in a predominantly male world, and the fact that it was not predictable. This was messy and complex and very believable — so believable that I thought it was written by a woman, but it was actually written by a man who really loves women.

Julia Chasman: I think what stood out to us this year is that it was an incredibly strong year, which means we had twelve excellent finalists. It was difficult to winnow them down. That’s really the truth this year, but of course, some scripts did stand out and those are the five Fellowship winners.

One of my favorite scripts was Best Sellers by Anthony Grieco, and a lot of people agreed with me as it was voted a Fellowship. I was blown away by what a polished piece it was. This writer has really worked hard to get something very professional and high caliber on the page. I’m not sure how he classifies it, maybe a dramatic comedy, but to me it’s in the vein of old-fashioned romantic comedies from the 1940s set in the newspaper world but with some modern twists.

Best Sellers is about the publishing world, and what makes it fun is that the writer also incorporated newer elements like the Internet and social media, showing us the impact these have made on the release of actual, clothbound books.

I love that the main character is a strong woman seemingly unintimidated by the overbearing men in her world — but she is under a lot of pressure. She’s fighting for her job, and in this case her whole company, under a deadline.

There’s a writer in the story who had a great bestseller 20 years ago with nothing since and he’s been sitting, fuming, in an alcoholic rage somewhere upstate for a long, long time.

It’s the duty of our heroine to find him, drive up there, get him up on his feet again, and convince him to sit down and write the book he owes to her father’s publishing house or otherwise it goes out of business. It’s a real charmer.

The character of the author reminds me a little bit of Howard Beale in Network, one of my favorite characters from movies; and I also think it’s resonant with a film I just saw, The End of the Tour, which is about the book tour with David Foster Wallace and has a look at what writers are about and the people that admire them. It really is about the relationship of writer and editor, and how the public mythologize their literary heroes — deserving or not.

Dana Stevens: My favorite script is called What They Had. It’s a story about a family, and the title refers to an older couple in the midwest. The mother has Alzheimer’s; the father has devotedly cared for her and does not want her to be put into a home. The main character is the daughter, who lives in California and is coming back to her home trying to help her father figure out what to do with the mother. She is also going through a divorce.

This movie was so original. It is so celebratory of these people and their individuality. It’s a funny script. It’s very moving. The most important thing is how authentic it is. There isn’t a misstep in terms of these characters’ authenticity, so you just feel drawn into their world.

Albert Berger: While there were a number of Nicholl scripts I really, really liked a lot, Addis Abeka was one of my favorites, and What They Had, I felt was excellent. Free Agent, Great Falls and Best Sellers were really strong, well-crafted and entertaining scripts, so I felt very positively about all of them.

Addis Abeka was an incredible journey. At the center of it was a scrappy kid who finds his way from a small village to the big teeming city and ultimately into a home of an intellectual. It was very unpredictable. It was a moving relationship between him and his older brother who gets arrested and from whom he’s separated.

In the midst of all this was a whole thing about ping-pong — which was unexpected and entertaining and gave the script a sort of spine and an accessibility. Really at its heart it was, in the best sense, one of those coming-of-age stories in a foreign culture like The 400 Blows where you’re very much with the protagonist and deeply moved by his journey.

Peter Samuelson: This script called Great Falls is in a totally American genre: a frontier drama, but rural present day. This Americana approach is authentic, narrative, and has strong characters. When I read this, I felt that this was from a great American writer.

Then after we voted, we read the letters from the writers and Andrew Friedhof’s letter begins, “G’day,” because he’s not an American writer. It’s an even greater achievement.

By background, he’s an Australian railway engineer whose career has been building railway stations and the disabled accesses within them, but his passion has been film and writing and he’s traveled extensively through the American West. Here he’s written this amazing piece of such acutely observed Americana. My hat’s off to him. I can’t wait to meet him in November.

A lot of writers will enter next year’s competition. What advice would you give to someone who wants to be one of the names read during next year’s ceremony?

Albert Berger: I think write from your heart and work on your craft. If you follow those two things and it’s a story that’s important to you, that often comes across. That’s what people in this room respond to: things that feel authentic and heartfelt and well-crafted.

Julia Chasman: We’re always encouraging everyone to apply; we had over 7,000 applicants this year but we seek more and want more people from different kinds of groups to enter.

One thing we like to see is different kinds of backgrounds and ages and experiences on our stage, but as far as stories, it’s just so personal. Write the story that means something to you. It shouldn’t be a script that you think is a commercial idea and could be something to sell in Hollywood. That’s not something we look for at all. In fact, commercial considerations of a piece are hardly in our mind at all.

I think a story told from the heart is really what matters.

Dana Stevens: First of all, enter. We really want to encourage more people of all walks of life to enter this competition. Don’t think that you can’t win it. Send your scripts in and enter this competition. Second of all, really make sure that your characters are people that we want to know and take a journey with, perhaps adding some real emotions to your story. Even if it’s a big sci-fi story, add some real emotions into it.

Stephanie Allain: I would say, hone your script so you feel it is so good that there’s nothing else you can do. And pick a subject matter that you’re passionate about.

Peter Samuelson: I think it’s partly a war of attrition. Enter and then, the following year, enter again, and the following year, enter again.

We often have winners of Nicholl Fellowships who made it to the semi-finals the previous year or two years ago. Cream rises; there’s no better evidence or place for that as here, so I think it’s partly you just keep banging against the wall until it crumbles before your talent and also, the more you write, the better you get.

To some extent, it’s a game of numbers and you need to be working on your 25th script and not just on your 2nd. It’s the Nike thing. You just do it. You put one finger in front of another and you type and you keep at it.

Writing is a lonely art. You tend to sit on your own in a room without a whole lot of feedback, and frankly, your mother’s feedback, your dad’s feedback, and uncle Phil’s feedback is not really what you want because they love and adore you. You actually want to read the tough feedback from professional readers or from the agents or managers that you submit your material to in your great quest to get representation.

So the more you do that, the more you’re going to hear what the industry wants to make.

There’s no great victory in writing a script that isn’t produced unless it was a stepping stone while you were perfecting your craft in order to be able to write a script that did get made into a film. You just need to do it.

There is no greater thrill — I can tell you because I’ve done it 25 times — than standing at the back of a motion picture theater when an audience responds to your work. I hope that everybody who is reading this will make that happen for themselves. It’s one of the greatest thrills you can have in your lifetime.

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