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ScreenTalk is pleased to present an on-location exclusive

Nicholl Fellowship
Program Coordinator Greg Beal
in a conversation
with ScreenTalk Producer Robin Rea

Before co-creating such TV classics as THE JEFFERSONS AND THREEíS COMPANY, Don Nicholl and his wife, Gee, had some lean years. When he died in 1980, his widow established the Nicholl Fellowships in his memory, the impetus behind the competition being to sustain and inspire emerging, albeit struggling, screenwriters. Twenty-five thousand is given to five Fellowship recipients, conceivably allowing each to write and eat during the course of the Fellowship year. 
Since 1986, the initial year of the competition, the Nicholl Fellowships have nurtured some significant screenwriters, among them Allison Anders (GAS FOOD LODGING, GRACE OF MY HEART) and Andrew Marlowe (AIR FORCE ONE). 

In a burgeoning field of screenwriting competitions, there is a tacit agreement in the industry that the Nicholl is the one to win. Why? I recently spoke to Greg Beal, the Nicholl Program Coordinator, and he put it simply: ďWe look the for the best - the best writers, the best craft, the best stories.Ē 

REA: The first year of the Nicholl contest, 1986, was open to basically any kind of creative writing. Did that prove too overwhelming to judge?

BEAL: The Committee wasnít sure how they wanted to start. They limited the competition that first year to California college students, and in fact, limited it to graduating seniors and graduating graduate students. So, it was a very small pool of people - there were only 99 entries. But I think what they decided after the first year was that if it was going to be a screenwriting contest, it made more sense to look for screenwriters only. Interestingly, of the three people who won that year, the person who entered a stage play is working and teaching theater, the person who entered a short story has published short stories and novels, and the person who entered a screenplay is Allison Anders.

REA: With as many as 4000 scripts entered, I know you must see both the highs and lows of screenwriting. Anything you want to share?

BEAL: The first thing that one notices when looking at that many scripts are the ones where people had no clue whatsoever. I mean people who canít write, donít know proper grammar and havenít learned formatting.

REA: Formatting should be the easy part.

BEAL: It should be, yet you see the same little things over and over again. Typos on the cover page. Typos in the title. Iíve seen in the words, ďa screenplay byĒ, the misspelling of ďscreenplayĒ. Thatís the extreme - people who canít write, and havenít bothered to learn the craft.

REA: Surely not a lot of entries fall into this category?

BEAL:: Oh, yeah. Hundreds every year have major, major flaws.

REA: A word to the wise: donít piss off the reader.

BEAL: Those perhaps donít get read quite as thoroughly as some other scripts.

REA: What about the stories themselves? Is a derivative plot something that turns off a reader?

BEAL: We see a lot of variations on those movies that were popular last year or the year before. However, a writer can do a great job with a certain genre and its restrictions. AIR FORCE ONE is a movie that works very well and itís a variation on DIE HARD. But when youíre reading hundreds of scripts, and if you see the same themes and same kinds of stories over and over again, and your job out in the real world involves scripts too, it gets old really fast. So, lack of originality can be a problem.

REA: So a writer would be well-advised to add a fresh twist if writing in a popular genre.

BEAL:Yes, I would say so. For instance, we get a lot of ďroad moviesĒ, and two of the winners this year certainly fit somewhere in that genre. One is a script you could definitely compare to THELMA AND LOUISE. The other is a road movie as well, INTERSTATE, but it involves a guy encountering a vampire, so it also belongs in the horror genre. In both cases, the stories were executed with a lot of ingenuity and surprise.

REA: How many of the winning scripts have been produced?

BEAL: Out of fifty-one scripts, three have been released or screened on television, TRAVELLER and CLOSET LAND among them. Mark Lowenthal  is seeking distribution for WHERE THE ELEPHANT SITS. DOWN IN THE DELTA is finished, and the last time I spoke to the writer, Myron Goble, he told me they were looking for a theatrical release window before it goes to Showtime. Those, along with ARLINGTON ROAD, a winning script from 1996 that goes into production this month, would make the total six.

REA: Production not being the point of the contest, but rather to keep the writer writing.

BEAL: One of the things I have discovered after doing this for 8 years is that itís very seldom that someone sells an early script. They get some sort of breakthrough, and the script becomes a writing sample which gets them an assignment or into a pitch meeting , but something else becomes their first produced film. Randy McCormick, who won in 1987, had a number of jobs over the years and made a lot of money writing screenplays, but his first film, SPEED 2, came out this past year. Andrew Marlowe had number of sales since he won in 1992, but his first produced film was AIR FORCE ONE. I think itís fairly unusual for early scripts, whether theyíre first or tenth scripts, but written before the writer has been discovered, to get produced.

REA: Iím glad you made that distinction about ďearlyĒ scripts. I think one of the things that defeats screenwriters is impatience over the process. They think their big break is taking too long and give up.

BEAL: Tony Jaswinski, one of the winners this year, has written 23 feature screenplays. Eight different titles have reached the Nicholl quarterfinals or semifinals over the years. Obviously, over that time, he didnít make $1000, because he stayed eligible for the contest. After winning, he came out here from New York, and one of the first things he did was go around and take various meetings, pitching other ideas. He went into The Forge, Renny Harlinís company on a Monday and pitched a story idea, and one of the executives loved it and asked him to come back and pitch it to Renny. Renny loved it, and they took it to a studio and sold it.

REA: He's going to be the writer on it?

BEAL: He is.

REA: What do you think about pitch sales?

BEAL: I think itís great anytime a writer sells something and gets a lot of money for it. If I were on the other side of things, if I were a development executive, would I be all that excited about buying pitches? Iím not sure that I would be. I think I would prefer to buy finished scripts. Obviously, it depends on your relationship with the writer. Andrew Marlowe sold AIR FORCE ONE on a pitch. They were confident he could execute the script, and he did.

REA: With the average age of the Nicholl winner calculated at 37, it would appear that maturity enriches a writerís talent. I wonder if you had any observations on whether age factors at all in a writerís success in the industry?

BEAL: Certainly as you grow older, youíre going to have more experience and more stories to tell. Thatís a good thing. On the other hand, regarding age, I have noticed with Nicholl winners, that itís easier for younger writers to break in than it has been for older writers.

REA: Is this because of ageism?

BEAL: I donít know what goes on in offices and meetings. I donít know if people say, oh, heís fifty, we canít possibly hire him. The Writers Guild, I think, has put out statements that makes it appear as if they think it happens, but I certainly donít know that for a fact, and I happen to know of older writers who have been hired for first jobs. No, my observation is that younger writers have less life baggage - theyíre not as often married with a family or in a good job paying a good salary. If you are a person who is fifty years old and has a career and a beautiful home in Illinois, with children in school and a wife with a job in the community, are you as likely as somebody who is twenty-five and living in Illinois to move to California and make it as a screenwriter? The answer is probably not. If youíre in a good job with a good salary, are you likely to settle for a lesser amount of money and a working relationship with people who donít take you as seriously as an established writer. I know of one past winner who just wouldnít take stuff from other people, and so didnít sell a script because of that. I suspect that had he not been as well off as he was, he might have been more willing to compromise.

REA: So youíre established in Illinois and donít want to give it up. You can sell specs from anywhere, canít you?

BEAL: Yeah, of course. I hear that on-line all the time.

REA: Letís clear that up right now.

BEAL: Relatively few specs are sold, and the people who sell most of them are established writers who have credits and have sold specs before. Most people break in on small assignments: a rewrite job, a television episode, an adaptation for a lower-level producer. You get little jobs, and by building up the little jobs, you establish yourself and get known by the development community. Your agent keeps sending you out, until your scripts get better and better, and then suddenly you have a career. It doesnít happen overnight, and if youíre older and canít give up the lifestyle that you have, I think itís going to be more difficult for you to break in. On the other hand, if youíre older and you give it up and move to California, I think your chances are closer to being equal. Carlton Proctor, a winner in 1996, had a family and a career in Florida. He took a leave of absence from his job, and established an apartment here, and he went back and forth, though primarily living here. During that year he optioned his Nicholl winning script and got an assignment to adapt a novel. I donít know for a fact that it wouldnít have happened if he had remained in Pensacola, but looking at lots of people who have stayed in their hometown and had absolutely nothing happen to them after their win, I can pretty much bet he wouldnít have gotten the adaptation assignment if he hadnít been out here and taking meetings.

REA: Thereís been talk about the Nicholl invariably going to the less commercial, more character-driven script. Is the outcome always that predictable?

BEAL: No, there is no predicting. The Nicholl Committee is wonderfully smart and eclectic and passionate about what theyíre doing. When we finally send them ten scripts out of 4000, they pick, given their own taste and background, the scripts they like best.

REA: If you were a writer about to start a new script that you wanted to enter in the Nicholl competition, what stories would you consider?

BEAL: In a way, story is everything and yet the choosing of a particular story doesnít really make a difference. Thereís a Graham Parker song title that I think applies -- ďPassion Is No Ordinary Word.Ē Every beginning writer has to be passionate about their stories and their characters. If you really care about the tale youíre telling and really care about these people youíre creating, then thereís a possibility that that passion will shine through to the readers. And it doesnít matter whether youíre writing a full-blown genre picture about a disaster at sea or alien hunters or cops investigating a murder in 1950ís L.A. or a uniquely personal tale drawn from your own experience, your passion can make the reader care. I think the writer, especially the beginner, needs to love her story, to know it inside and out, and to be passionate about her characters and their problems. When the writer is connected to material in this way, the energy and emotion will more often come through to the reader. And thatís the person you have to grab -- whether at a contest or in a producerís or agentís office. If you really care about your story, maybe a reader will too.

REA: The Nicholl became international in 1991. Given that the scripts have to be written in English and cannot be a translation, how many entries do you usually get each year?

BEAL: There have been around 150 international entries each year since we started accepting them, more from Canada than from anywhere else. Around half a dozen make the quarterfinals and semifinals each year. One of the things I think is true, especially in English speaking countries like Australia and New Zealand, is that there isnít a cottage industry for beginning screenwriters like there is in the United States. In addition, there are a lot of grants for beginning filmmakers and screenwriters. So, I suspect that the very good writers in those countries become involved in the business fairly quickly. I think there are far more writers trying to break in here, and for that reason, itís much easier for people to be overlooked.

REA: Do you think good writers are overlooked?

BEAL: Do I think Tony Jaswinski, who wrote INTERSTATE, one of the winning scripts this year, was less talented last year when he had only written twenty-one scripts? Well, no, I think he was just as talented a writer. For some reason, it was this script that broke through for him and got him to Renny Harlin. You can be extremely talented, but if your script, or your play, or your novel, doesnít get in the right hands at the right time, nothingís going to happen with it. How many good writers have given up at some point? I donít know, but I think itís extremely difficult to break into this industry, and luck and timing have a large part to do with it.

REA: All the more reason to credit the Nicholl Fellowships for keeping good writers inspired and in the game.

To find out more about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciencesí annual Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, including information on how to apply, visit their website: www.oscars.org/nicholl/nichollfaqs.html