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The Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Greg Beal who is the director of the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. He read my post Entering screenplay competitions and was irked that I published such a negative post on his organization and their process. In addition, he found a few factual inaccuracies.

When I started this blog one thing I told myself was that I would never get involved in the sort of online mudslinging that often happens on blogs and forums. I promosised myself that I would always stay positive and simply ignore the negative stuff. I’ve tried to do that. I’ve seen comments around the web criticizing my blog (hard to believe, I know!) and I’ve purposely avoided getting involved in those discussions. They’re a waste of time and if someone wants to read what I have to say they can check out my blog, or not. Over the years I’ve received many emails from people wondering about such-and-such a company and if they’re a scam. These companies usually appear to be a scam, asking writers for upfront fees to represent or read their work. While I think these companies do present a huge problem in the industry, I’ve purposely not published the actual company names because I don’t want to get in the middle of more mudslinging. I want this blog to be positive and simply help screenwriters sell screenplays.

I’m not sure why I didn’t consider all of that when I published my Entering screenplay competitions post, as it was overly harsh towards the Nicholl Fellowships, which was not deserved. I can certainly see how people at the Nicholl Fellowships would have issues with my original post. So I apologize for that.

In any event, in my original post I made several statements that I now know were simply false. I wrote the post in 2009 and most of the actual events took place in 1995, so well over a decade earlier. For the most part there was no way for me to check the facts so I had to rely on my memory, which was clearly off. I don’t think the errors make a major different in my overall point, but I wanted to clear up the inaccuracies for the record.

In the original post I stated this: “The script I entered into the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting was a “quarterfinalist” which amounted to nothing more than a nice “thanks, but no thanks” letter.” Greg Beal was nice enough to go back and look at their records and found that in fact my script did not make it to the quarterfinals. The script I was referring to, according to Greg, was “the best scoring of your three entries, received two positive reads but was not among the top 15%.” I’m honestly not sure why my memory was off on this fact. Perhaps I was remembering a different competition.

In my orginal post I stated this: “It’s possible that all scripts are “quarterfinalists” but since I only entered once I don’t know.” Greg Beal looked through their records and found that in fact, I had submitted three scripts, one in 1994 and two in 1995. So again, my memory has apparently failed me. I must have blocked those rejection letters out. In addition, Greg Beal assured me that only about 5% of the entrants make it to the quarterfinal round. Greg Beal knows his organization, so I have no doubt that this is true.

In my orginal post I stated this: “I had a friend who was a member of the academy and an early round judge for the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. His professional background is in special effects so it seems to me that the academy will use any willing members as early round judges.” Greg Beal explained to me that they use academy members only for the later rounds, not the early rounds. I don’t think this was an issue of me not remembering correctly. I think I just assumed that he was judging the early rounds since he did such a half-assed job. I don’t think I ever actually knew for sure what round he was judging.

But the main issue that Greg Beal had with my post was that I recalled an incident which he considers to be an isolated one, where a judge did a slip-shod job reviewing the screenplays he was given.

The Nicholl Fellowships in screenwriting has a very transparent process so there is really no point in me repeating it here. They have an excellent FAQ page here: http://www.oscars.org/awards/nicholl/faqs.html. Especially important in the context of my original post is the section on judges which is here: http://www.oscars.org/awards/nicholl/faqs.html#judging.

The incident that I recalled is certainly not statistically significant but it is a real story. I never meant to infer that it is the norm at the Nicholl Fellowships. I’m quite sure that it’s not. But my point was simply that even the top contests can have problems with their processes.

I think when I wrote the original post I felt like screenplay competitions didn’t offer enough value to their entrants and I was simply trying to illustrate that with an example. In hindsight it probably was a tad over the top.

The main point that I was making in my original post, which I still think is valid is this: “If you have plenty of time and money you might as well enter any and all competitions you can. Who knows, you might get some awards and those awards can only help you when you’re marketing your scripts. Don’t expect any of the screenplay competitions to directly result in you selling your script because it won’t. What it will do, if you win or place highly, is give you additional fodder for your query letter and maybe lead to some industry contacts.”

I asked Greg Beal how he saw screenplay competitions fitting into the overall marketing plan of an aspiring screenwriter. I got this response from him: “Do I think writers should pursue other paths in addition to or instead of entering competitions? Absolutely. I have told writers exactly that repeatedly in person, in emails and online. I have often stated that contests are but one avenue among many that lead to a screenwriting career. Depending on their situations, I suggest to people that they might attend film school, try to work on locally produced films, join film societies, attend and volunteer at film festivals, attend screenwriting conferences, join a writers group, exchange notes with other writers, attend screenwriting seminars and workshops, write query letters and emails, make query phone calls, try to connect with college alumni who have made it into the film industry, write fan letters to admired screenwriters and filmmakers, etc.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself! That’s actually a great list that you should print out and refer to often as a go to list of ideas about how you can move your career forward. You should be doing all of those things. So that’s my current position, screenwriting competitions, especially established highly regarded ones like the Nicholl Fellowships, can be a integral part of your overall marketing plan.

One of the things I’ve noticed while working with many writers in my Screenwriting forum is that new screenwriters struggle to find real credentials to put in their query letters. Screenplay competitions, aside from the obvious awards, offer some good opportunities. Even placement in the most obscure competition can help.

The screenplay that didn’t make the quarterfinals is a screenplay that I eventually sold called Inheritance. I sold it by sending out a ton of query letters. So that’s the strategy that ended up working for me. But it also proves my main point: I wasn’t doing just one thing with the script. I was sending it to production companies AND I was entering it into competitions. I was also in film school at the time and doing many of the other things that Greg Beal listed. I think trying to work as many angles as possible with your material is the key to success.

I recently saw this article and thought it was worth passing on:
http://www.creativewritingandwriters.com/authorsinyourpocket/?p=1

It’s a good guide to the major screenwriting contests. If you’re thinking about entering a screenplay contest read it.