Thursday night one of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ most important events, the 27th Annual Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting named five 2012 fellows to an impressive honor roll that has included writers who eventually penned such films as Little Miss Sunshine, Children Of Men, Twilight, The Bourne Identity, Butter and many television shows including this year’s Emmy winner Homeland. The ceremony at the Regent Beverly Wilshire was opened by Academy CEO Dawn Hudson who announced that these finalists came from a massive 7,197 submissions. “I hope this is the last time you go up against that many people in your career”, she said before introducing producer Gale Anne Hurd, an Academy Governor who heads the Nicholl selection committee.

When the Nicholl fellowships started in 1986 there were only 99 entries but obviously word has gotten out that it’s a good place to be seen if you want a screenwriting career. Hurd pointed out that some 80 feature films written by these writers the Academy program has discovered over the past 27 years have earned $5.37 billion theatrically. She thanked the 173 volunteers from the Academy membership who judged the scripts.

Director/Writer Billy Ray was keynoter. He talked about the many movies of the 70’s that inspired his career ambition, his early days breaking into the business, and the wildly changing landscape writers must face today. “Now before a studio can greenlight a movie it must be blessed by the head of marketing, head of foreign sales, head of home video. It must be subjected to a process called ‘running the numbers’. Of course this process takes into account every variable except the variable which actually matters, the one that can’t be gauged by any calculus, whether the movie is any good,”  he said. He urged the new writers in the room to protect their ideas. “Your charge is greatness and you have to pursue it in everything you do everyday… And as you surge forward don’t forget to look back,” and he urged the writers to check out the library at WGA headquarters that is full of every classic script ever written .

Among those committee members on hand was Robert Shapiro, former Warner Bros Head of Theatrical Production  and producer of films like Empire Of The Sun and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. He’s been serving on the small committee that selects the final winners for 5 years and says the arguments can be contentious with some loving a script and some hating it. He told me they always manage somehow to come to a consensus. In introducing Nicholl Fellow Allan Durand who won for his script Willie Francis Must Die Again, Shapiro said “he is definitely, as Deadline Hollywood might someday write, ‘someone to watch'”.

Louisiana native Durand who is an attorney producer and documentary filmmaker admitted to me only that he is over 55 years old and just getting rolling in the screenplay business, definitely going against the common wisdom that it is a game only for young people. In his speech he took note of that. “My all time Academy Award favorite moment before tonight was when (73 year old) David Seidler won the Oscar for The King’s Speech and he went up on that stage and had this head full of grey hair and I thought that was so great,”  he told the crowd noting that the WGA had once put out a study saying the most discriminated-against writers were either women, African Americans, people with disabilities or anyone over 50. “My question was when did age and experience become a negative for screenwriters? On behalf of us grey haired screenwriters thank you very much.”

Well, at least the Academy Nicholl Fellowships don’t discriminate. The other Fellows for 2012 are James DiLapo for Devils At Play, Sean Robert Daniels for Killers, Nikole Beckwith for Stockholm, Pennsylvania, and Michael Werwie for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, And Vile.