|On Thursday night, November 8, 2018, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, CA, four scripts and five writers (one a husband-wife team) were awarded the 2018 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. The scripts were selected from 6,895 entries submitted for this year’s competition. The winners each receive a $35,000 fellowship prize, which allows them to complete at least one original feature film screenplay during the fellowship year.
This year's presentation opened with a moving video montage of winners' reactions upon learning they'd been selected as a 2018 fellow. Academy CEO Dawn Hudson then took the stage to kick off the evening. Underscoring the screenwriter's role in moviemaking, she recalled Alfred Hitchcock's three critical elements for a great film: "The script, the script and the script."
"Even if It Has Flaws"
So, then, what are the critical elements of a great script? Writer-producer and Nicholl Committee chair Robin Swicord took the stage next to share some of the criteria the Nicholl judges look for while they’re reading: Is the premise original? Does the writer take you on a journey? Does the story connect with you emotionally––whether it’s a drama, comedy or something else? When you finish reading the story, even if it has flaws, is there something special about it?
"Even if it has flaws" is the key phrase, Swicord emphasized, explaining that the Nicholl judges aren't seeking perfection. Instead, they're looking for talented writers "who may not yet have nailed every aspect of screenwriting but who have something they absolutely have to say," writers "who won’t settle comfortably into a commercial field of cookie-cutter entertainment but who will keep bringing up the important subjects."
It's About What You Do, Not Who You Know
In Hollywood, as the saying goes, it's all about connections. People say it's impossible to "make it" without them, whether it's a roommate from film school who owes you, or having a friend who knows a guy who knows an agent. But the Nicholl Fellowship “throws all this out the damn window," explained Jennifer Yuh Nelson, director-animator, who took the stage next. “It's not about who you know,” she noted, "it's about what you do." With the playing field leveled, Nicholl winners are often outsiders who may know no one. They are “therapists, stay-at-home moms, educators, children of immigrants, and Native American tribe members.” They're from all over the country. The one thing they have in common is a "fierce desire to write."
Nelson went on to introduce the live read (which she directed), featuring actors Jamie Chung, Lily Collins, Ken Jeong and Blair Underwood. Following each scene reading, Nelson invited presenters from the Nicholl Committee to introduce this year's fellows:
• Producer Stephen Ujlaki introduced Allison and Nicholas Buckmelter, who won for their script "American Refugee": With missiles raining down on American cities and the nation under martial law, a rural family has no choice but to seek shelter in a neighbor’s bomb shelter, where the danger inside is potentially greater than the danger outside.
• Producer Peter Samuelson introduced Grace Sherman, who won for her script "Numbers and Words": About a young, black mathematical genius with the potential to make one of the most important discoveries in the field, as he struggles to hold onto his gifts while spending decades of his life in prison.
• Writer Misan Sagay introduced Joey Clarke, Jr., who won for his script "Miles": After losing their parents to the opioid crisis, a 12-year-old girl and her little brother run away from their foster parents to get back to their dog, Miles.
• Robin Swicord introduced Wenonah Wilms, who won for her script "Horsehead Girls": A blackjack dealer living on a remote reservation recovers from a night of brutality trying to save a girl from a sex trafficking ring. When her teenage daughter is kidnapped by the same organization, she fights to not let her become part of a horrific fate she knows too well.
We here at Done Deal are particularly proud of Wenonah since she has been a long time member of our screenwriting forums.
Pictured (left to right): 2018 Academy Nicholl fellows: Grace Sherman, Allison Buckmelter, Nicolas Buckmelter, Joey Clarke, Jr. and Wenonah Wilms.
© Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S.