|On Thursday night, November 2, 2017, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, CA, five scripts and six writers (one a husband-wife team) were awarded the 2017 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. The scripts were selected from 7,102 entries submitted for this year's competition. Winners each receive a $35,000 fellowship prize, intended to allow them to complete at least one original feature film screenplay during the fellowship year.
This year’s presentation opened with a lively and touching video montage of winners reactions upon learning they’d been selected as a 2017 fellow. Academy CEO Dawn Hudson then took the stage to kick off the evening. In summarizing this year's crop of script submissions, she remarked that submissions truly came from all over the world, from the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria to "even New Jersey."
Hudson then introduced Nicholl Committee chair Robin Swicord, who shared insight on both the mechanics and the philosophy of the competition. With the "tsunami of scripts" submitted each year, the first order of business is always wrangling. Contest administrators Greg Beal and Joan Wai do the heavy lifting, shepherding scripts into the hands of professional readers for the initial judging and then winnowing the pool down, via a formal evaluation process, through later levels of judging. Throughout the process, readers are instructed to look first and foremost for "real storytellers" who use a "distinct voice" to make the reader connect with the story protagonists. In searching for winners, judges are instructed not to necessarily look for scripts likely to be "greenlit tomorrow" but instead to search for those with a compelling, universal theme -- "writers with a future." The Academy wants scripts which have an original premise, vivid characters, dialogue that flies off the page and for the script to be about something powerful.
Those parameters in mind, Swicord noted that this year's winning scripts, though diverse in subject matter and style, all "speak to the time we’re living in" and, she hoped, "will shape the future of movies we'll watch for years to come."
With that, the highlight of the evening began: the live read of scenes from winning scripts and introductions of the respective writers. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, son of acclaimed writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, directed the live read and introduced the four actors who participated: Zoey Deutch, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Rodrigo Santoro and Vince Vaughn.
Following each scene reading, a presenter from the Nicholl Committee took the stage to introduce the Fellows:
• Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski introduced Max Lance and Jen Bailey (Los Angeles, CA), who won for their script “The Queen of Sleaze”: When the most notorious woman in publishing history decides to legitimize her reputation, Judith Regan, aka the Queen of Sleaze, must get O.J. Simpson to confess to murdering his wife in a book deal and TV interview.
• Director and storyboard artist Jennifer Yuh Nelson introduced K.G. Rockmaker (Montclair, NJ), who won for her script “Last Days of Winter”: When a notorious hitwoman from Detroit’s gritty east side takes on one last job before having a baby, she becomes entangled with a crooked homicide detective who wants her to take out his wife.
• Producer Julia Chasman introduced S.J. Inwards (Marina del Rey, CA), who won for her script “Jellyfish Summer”: A young black girl's family in 1960s Mississippi decides to harbor two human-looking refugees who have mysteriously fallen from the sky.
• Screenwriter Misan Sagay introduced Vigil Chime (New York, NY), who won for her script “Bring Back Girl”: A 14-year old girl kidnapped by human traffickers and sold as a child bride plots her escape, even as her father, a hunter, lets nothing stand in his way in his pursuit to recover her.
• Producer Robert Shapiro introduced Cesar Vitale (Santos, São Paulo, Brazil), who won for his script “The Great Nothing”: In order to sustain his heroin addiction, a terminally ill professor of nihilism takes on the job of doing homework assignments for a colleague's daughter who's herself struggling with grief in the wake of her mother's sudden death.
The evening concluded on a bittersweet note, as it was announced that longtime fellowship administrator Greg Beal would be retiring after 28 years with the competition. Under his stewardship, the competition grew exponentially in both size and reputation, accumulating an impressive track record of produced films and other achievements by its fellows over the years. A sign that he’ll be sorely missed, Beal received a standing ovation from the audience and was surrounded by well-wishing colleagues, friends and others long after the event had concluded.
Pictured (left to right): 2017 Academy Nicholl fellows: Cesar Vitale, Max Lance, Jen Bailey, SJ Inwards, KG Rockmaker and Vigil Chime.
You can view more photos and videos of the evening’s presentation, including the live readings, here.