Nicholl Contest Notes

Some of you might be wondering why I’ve posted so much on screenwriting contests. The simple answer: my blog stats show more hits when I write about that topic. I’m guessing there are a lot of newer writers who are looking for validation from the various script competitions, or seeking solace when their works of art don’t make the cut.

Believe me, I’ve been there and done some stupid things in response to contest results… which I’ll get to in a bit. I also admit that I cried the first time I got my notification from the Nicholl Fellowships Academy Foundation with the gold Oscar emblem on the envelope, which said I was one of the quarterfinalists a few years ago. To make the grade, my script had to score well with three different readers, putting it in the top 5 percent of over 5,ooo scripts.

I thought that this was going to be my big break, and it would not be long before I signed with one of the top agencies or at least a well-known manager. But my script didn’t make the semifinals, and I didn’t get as many script requests as I expected. About a dozen people contacted me. Mostly small production companies and fledgling managers. It did help me get more reads though when I added that accolade to my queries.

The second time I made the Nicholl quarterfinals (different script), I was happy but under no illusions. During the years between placing, I had seen other writers sell scripts that would NOT have done well in any contest, and I knew of Nicholl Fellowship winners who got agents and meetings — but no sales or assignments. (I think writers that were also directing their own small indie projects probably fared better, since they had actual film to show people when the contest opened doors for them. Scripts don’t have the same impact.)

I’ve also had two other scripts get the “P.S.” note from Nicholl contest director Greg Beal, which is something of a mixed blessing. Twice, I was told my scripts were in the “next hundred” that just missed the QF cut. Sigh. This year, my New Improved drafts of those two screenplays got downgraded to a “top 20 percent” note. And my last quarterfinal script? Didn’t even get a P.S. this time around.

I’m sharing this because it just goes to show how subjective these contests can be. I don’t think my scripts got worse, and yet the judges scored them lower this year. Two of the three scripts that were “dinked” from the Nicholls are presently still in contention in other comps that drew thousands of entries.

Naturally, I was disappointed with the Nicholl news that my stuff was out of the running. But I got over it pretty quickly. That wasn’t always the case. In fact, I put too much stock in the Nicholls early in my screenwriting career. When I made the QFs the first time, I took it to mean that it was proof positive I had written a professional level script. Of course, it means nothing of the sort. But when that same script didn’t advance in a smaller contest a month later, I used the Nicholl results as an excuse to question the legitimacy of that contest…

I sent the contest coordinator an email, mentioning my script had just beaten out thousands of other entries in the mother of all screenwriting comps (and was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival contest too!). So I was “wondering” how many readers this little contest used in their first round judging. Although the tone of my email wasn’t nasty, it did imply something wasn’t quite right since my script didn’t advance. In hindsight, it was pretty arrogant of me to do that (but a valid question since the judging procedures weren’t spelled out anywhere by the contest organizers).

Anyhow, I got a sarcastic reply that said, “Congratulations on your masterpiece! We’re so honored you chose to enter our little contest, and apologize that we didn’t recognize your greatness as a writer!” And so on. I suspect she was drunk when she wrote it, and had probably gotten similar emails from other disgruntled writers.

Although I realized my email sounded like a bad case of sour grapes, I didn’t feel I deserved that kind of response. So I forwarded her email to the person who ran the contest, and that coordinator was let go. Looking back, I feel like an asshole for doing that. But I imagine there are a few writers who are smiling at the prospect of seeing a contest judge get the ax.

It’s a cold-hearted business. Either develop a tougher skin, or screw the contests and find a way to make your own film. That’s what I’m going to do.

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2 Comments on “Nicholl Contest Notes”

  1. Lauren Says:

    What a thoughtful and honest commentary! I was doing a search for screenwriting competition results, which led me to your blog. Even the most highly regarded screenwriting competitions aren’t very successful at launching careers. But it takes some time to get to that perspective!

    • richfigel Says:

      Hi, Lauren –
      Contests don’t actually launch careers — they help get your scripts read by people who can launch careers. Bigger contests attract attention from bigger agencies… but the big agencies also are looking for different material than small indie producers or managers, who are supposed to take more of an active role in nurturing new writers’ careers.

      Which contests did you enter, and how long have you been writing?

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