I started writing a screenplay last October, which, in terms of time commitment, sanity lost, and showers skipped, is sort of the nonathletic homebody's answer to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I also had a job at the time, and just motivating myself to do something constructive after a day at the office was an ordeal in and of itself. It’s like if in Wild Reese Witherspoon was still working 40 or 50 hours a week and just trying to hike the entirety of the West Coast between 6:30 and 11:30 every night. How far do you think she’d get at that rate? “I know I have to ford that river and climb that mountain tonight, but after that accounts meeting all I want to do is crack a beer in my sweatpants and watch Top Chef.”
By late January I hadn’t made much progress, but then I was lucky enough to get laid off from my job at the end of the month. Freed from time consuming obligations like leaving my apartment and supported by a series of generous grants from California’s unemployment insurance program, I started working 60-70 hour weeks on my script, completed three drafts over the next three months, and entered it into the Nicholl Fellowship about ten hours ahead of the deadline on May 1st.
In terms of prestige, competitiveness, and number of dreams shattered annually, the Nicholl Fellowship is sort of the amateur screenwriter’s answer to The X Factor. During its open entry period the Fellowship, run by the Academy of Motion Picture etc, receives thousands of screenplays from all over the world – over 7500 of them last year. The Fellowship committee then musters an army of readers large enough so that every script can be read and rated on a scale of 1 to 100 by two different people. Out of this ocean of submitted screenplays, the scripts with the highest scores (usually about 10% of the whole) are selected to be read by a third person. Then, the scripts with the highest two cumulative scores are chosen to advance to the quarterfinal round.
Last year, out of 7500 scripts submitted, 900 got a third read, and 377 advanced to quarterfinals. Quarterfinal scripts get read by two more readers, and those with the highest average scores move on to the semifinal round, where they’re read by members of the Academy – some of whom are Academy Award nominees or recipients. Last year 148 scripts made it to semifinals. The ten highest scoring scripts are selected for the final round. Then, five writers are chosen as Nicholl Fellows, given $35,000 apiece, and showered with praise, glory, and phone calls from studio executives.
You know, actually, forget the X Factor part – it’s more like The Hunger Games of creativity.
For a script to make it to the final round, at least eight different people have to read it and really enjoy it. When was the last time you talked to eight people who all agreed that a particular movie had been amazing? (People who just walked out of the Entourage movie don’t count.)
And at least the Hunger Games were a purely objective competition: It’s easy to identify the last two non-dead kids in a given area. Expressing your opinion of something as large and complex as a screenplay with a single number is a lot more subjective, especially in a competition where a single point can determine whether a script progresses to the next round. The screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, didn’t even break to the quarterfinals of the Nicholl.
My screenplay is the best thing I’ve ever written, the foremost representation of my abilities as a writer up until this point, and I would bet $1000 that I won’t make it to the final round. Not only am I competing against great writers from all over the (English speaking) world, I’m doing so in a competition where a single grumpy judge rating my script 81 instead of 82 can mean the end of everything. It’s equal parts skill, blind luck, and divine intervention.
Actually, forget the Hunger Games analogy. You know the first scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the soldiers are landing on the beach and the Nazis are just mowing them down with machine guns and mortars? That’s the Nicholl Fellowship.
The upshot to this competition being such a meat grinder is that making even one of the cuts can still be a boon to your writing career. After the Fellows have been named in November, the competition circulates lists of the quarter, semi, and finalists to studios and industry professionals. Word is that a lot of quarterfinalists and all semifinalists wind up getting phone calls from agents, meetings at production companies, and other interest from people whose attention I’ve been trying to get for years.
I’ve decided I want to be a semifinalist, a goal that still feels overly optimistic, given everything I’m up against. On August 1st I’ll find out whether my script has made it far enough up the beach to be a quarterfinalist. And even if that’s as far as it goes, I’ll still be pleased. I mean, my script doesn’t have to be Tom Hanks. I just don’t want it to be the guy who gets shot in the face before he even gets off the boat.