People often ask me, “Gabrielle, you’ve worked in the film industry. What do you think of screenwriting contests?”
This isn’t a question with an easy answer. Many screenwriting contests are run by dubious persons, with no connections to Hollywood and no benefits to the winners. However, there are several screenwriting contests that any aspiring writer really should consider entering.
I’m making the assumption that most aspiring screenwriters really want a career in the film industry, and that they want to spend their days (and sometimes their nights) working on scripts for movies. If you’re one of these writers and you choose the right contest to enter and enter a really stellar screenplay, one geared toward the kind of material the competition is look for, you just might be able to say, “Hey, guess what? I work in the movies!”
Of course most aspiring screenwriters know the premier screenwriting contest/fellowship is the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, which is run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This fellowship, which opens for entries in January and closes on May 1st, focuses on developing the winning writer’s talents and bringing his or her skill level up to professional level. It’s also the fellowship, contest, and competition that attracts the most attention of producers, agents, and studios.
The Nicholl Fellowship was founded by Don and Gee Nicholl. Don, remembering the struggles he had to endure before he “made it big” as co-creator of “The Jeffersons” and “Threes Company” wanted to do something to try to help good, deserving, aspiring writers and make their journey a little easier. To that end, the winner of the Nicholl Fellowship receives $30,000, with payments spread out over one year and given in increments of $6,000. The Nicholl Fellowship does not require its winner to live in California or even to relocate to California. Screenplays from all over the world, in any genre, are accepted, however they must be original work and be written in English. Working writers can enter, but they must not have been paid more than $5,000 previously for any screenplay work. The Nicholl Fellowship is about launching the careers of good writers, not for promoting the careers of those already working.
Thirty thousand dollars is going to sound pretty attractive to most of us, but the real value of being a Nicholl winner lies in the boost it gives the winner’s career. Some of the fellowship's more prominent winners include: Allison Anders, Jeffrey Eugenides (author of “The Virgin Suicides”), Susannah Grant (who went on to write “Erin Brokovich”), Andrew W. Marlowe (“Air Force One”), Ehren Kruger (“Scream 3,” “The Ring”), and many, many more.
As previously stated, the Nicholl Fellowship is open for entries between January 1st and May 1st of each year. Winners are usually announced in October or November. Entries must be made online and judging is “blind,” meaning that the readers will not know the name or location of the writer of the screenplays they are reading. The Nicholl Fellowship does ask its readers to state their genre preference and they make every effort to give readers screenplays in the genres they enjoy. For example, I greatly enjoy (and write) romantic comedies, dramas and period pieces. If I were a reader for the Nicholl Fellowship, they would try to give me only screenplays within those genres and avoid giving me horror, fantasy and science fiction, three genres I really don’t like very well.
The Nicholl Fellowship, besides it’s $30,000 in prize money, its great track record of opening doors (many winners, and even quarter- and semi-finalists, find their phones ringing off the hook with requests to read their screenplays), has the best record of winning screenplays actually being made into movies. At the end of 2006, thirteen of eighty-six fellowship scripts had been produced. (Just because a screenplay is purchased is no guarantee that it will ever be made into an actual movie, and beginning writers should be aware that spec scripts are almost never made into movies.)
Some people have unfairly accused the Nicholl of being slanted toward Californians. This isn’t true, though it is true that more people living in California have won than those living in other states. When the Nicholl was first launched, only California film students were eligible. Now, even though acceptance has broadened to include anyone writing original work in English, many Americans who want to work in the film industry have relocated to California in order to give their would be career its very best shot.
Don’t enter the Nicholl for the prize money alone. If you live in California or are thinking or relocating to California, you know $30,000 isn’t going to get you very far, and while the Nicholl does not prohibit it’s winners from seeking additional employment, it discourages it because the purpose of the prize money is to free writers from financial worries for one year so they can devote all their time to writing. And be warned: you will be required to produce a full length, polished screenplay during the year after your Nicholl win. They aren’t paying you $30,000 to sit around and look pretty.
If you’re a good writer and you want to enter a screenplay competition, and if you’re only going to pick one or two to enter, make sure one is the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.