Academy Announces Winners Of 2011 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships

Although they are certainly best known for those other awards they hand out in February, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences do a lot more throughout the year. One of its prized events happened Thursday evening at a dinner at the Beverly Wilshire, where the 26th annual Don and Gee Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships were awarded to what Academy president Tom Sherak described as the “Academy’s Magnificent 7.”

The Nicholl Fellowships were established in 1985 and are now chaired (and hosted) by new Academy governor Gale Anne Hurd, who told me she’s been on the Nicholl committee since 1989. Each of the writing fellows (or teams) will receive a $35,000 prize in order to continue developing their scripts (checks are handed out in installments with the understanding that the recipients will  complete a feature-length screenplay during their fellowship year), and the Academy is not involved otherwise commercially with the scripts in any way and holds no rights to them. Even with the Oscars in the mix, Sherak opened the program by saying: “This is my favorite event. It’s nights like this that I wish I were an agent. You want to sign every one of them.” He added these few winners were chosen from among a record 6,730 entries by the 24 judges and committee members who read everything.

It was quite a night that also included a rousing keynote address from David Seidler, this year’s reigning Best Original Screenplay winner for The King’s Speech and “new Academy member” at age 74. At the reception before the dinner, I asked Seidler how the Oscar has changed his life at this age. He joked, “Producers now owe me more, but it takes them longer.” Seidler is red-hot, though, having completed two new scripts over the summer and now embarking on two rewrites. He asked me who I thought was the front-runner to win Original Screenplay this year and I suggested probably Woody Allen for Midnight In Paris. “Well, he has me beat then,”  Seidler said.  Allen at 76 would usurp Seidler as the oldest winner ever in that category, meaning that Seidler’s record could be short-lived. His speech, which he said was working on right to the last minute, won over the crowd and certainly provided inspiration for the writers in attendance.

“I just only want to talk to the writers here. Usually, you want to talk to aspiring writers and you wind up talking to perspiring writers, but look, you beat the odds, you persevered and you won,” he told the enthusiastic crowd. “After I met with Francis Coppola (about writing Tucker), he said, ‘Have your people call my people.’ I didn’t have any people. I had a friend who had an agent. I came to this town at age 40. It’s nice to come at an age when most people are leaving. … Don’t write for Mercedes or mortgages. Write what is in your hearts and souls and it should have honesty and morality. We are the only entity who can move souls. We should Occupy a Studio,” he said to rousing applause.

I sat next to two of the chosen fellows, Chris Bessounian and Tianna Langham, the latter telling me she was so nervous she had completely lost her appetite. They had been entering their script, Guns And Saris, for the past four years but only managed to get to the semifinals before this year so they also hedged their bets and enterted a second script. When they got the congratulatory call from the Academy, Bessounian had to ask , “Uh, which script?” He added that when the winners’ names appeared on this website last month, it was a big deal. “The most exciting thing was seeing our name on Deadline. It’s our home page,” he told me.

The other fellows chosen were Dion Cook for Cutter, John MacInnes for Outside The Wire, Matthew Murphy for Unicorn and Abel Vang & Burlee Vang for The Tiger’s Child. With the exception of Cook (from Altus, Okla.), all are from Southern California even though entries were received from all 50 states and around the world. In addition to Hurd,  the committee includes such notables as Eva Marie Saint, Bill Mechanic and Naomi Foner.

Previous winners have included Jason Micallef, whose new film Butter premiered at Toronto; Ehren Kruger, who wrote Transformers: Dark Of The Moon; Mike Rich, who wrote Secretariat; Susannah Grant, who went on to win an Oscar nod for Erin Brockovich; and Andrew Marlowe and Terri Miller, who met as fellows, married and now produce the ABC series, Castle.