Interview with Greg Beal: An Inside Look at the Nicholl Fellowships
by Barri Evins
Greg Beal has been the director of the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting since 1989. Those of us privileged to know Greg are well aware of the enormous integrity he brings to every aspect of the contest, from application to awards ceremony, his ceaseless striving to improve the competition experience and the extra effort he puts into personally encouraging writers. I’ve heard from many writers how much it meant to them to receive Greg’s handwritten postscript to their official semi or quarterfinalist letter letting them know how close they came to the next level and encouraging them to keep at it. Greg’s empathy is no accident; he understands what it means to be in your shoes. Once a screenwriter himself, Greg won a WGA East fellowship and went on to write several scripts on assignment.
Barri Evins: The Nicholl Fellowships is widely considered to be the most prestigious contest out there. Now that it’s celebrating a 25th Anniversary, there’s no doubt it’s the Granddaddy of all contests. What are some of the qualities that make the Nicholl unique?
Greg Beal: Being a program of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is at the heart of things. The filmmaking achievements of the Nicholl Committee members who judge the finalist scripts are extraordinary. So are the achievements of the Academy members who judge in the semifinal round. Hearing Academy Award winner Michael Arndt describe at last year’s Nicholl Awards Dinner how being a Nicholl semifinalist kept him writing for years leading up to his creation of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE reminded us that the program’s reach extends far beyond the group of 126 fellows.
BE: I know some of the extraordinary steps you go to give each and every script submitted the very best shot possible. Can you share some of them with our readers?
GB: While it may seem hard to believe, especially in this era of PDF entries, Nicholl program manager Joan Wai or I “handle” every script in distributing them to readers. As we assemble a small group of scripts for a reader, we’re aware of that reader’s likes and dislikes, especially in terms of genre, and try only to assign scripts that fit their preferences. At the least we’re glancing at every log line, which is why entrants should try to write clear, concise and accurate log lines, and using those and the genre to assign scripts. We also try to make sure that a previously entered script is not judged by any reader who has read the script in another year. We even try not to assign scripts to any reader who has read any script by the writer in a previous year. Over the course of the first round of a competition, every script is read once, just under half of the scripts are read a second time, and about 800 scripts are read a third time.
BE: How do you find your first round judges/readers? What are their backgrounds?
GB: These days, new readers often are recommended by a current reader. Occasionally, a potential reader will cold contact us. Year to year, the turnover is fairly slight, as are the new hires. In fact, in some years we do not add any new readers. More often, we add about a half-dozen new readers in a given year.
Nicholl readers’ backgrounds vary. Many are writers; many are or have been script readers. All of them have worked in some capacity within the industry, and all of them have resided in Southern California. Over the years, the Nicholl reading staff has included writers, directors, producers, agents, executives, actors and development assistants. Several Nicholl fellows have read after winning; one fellow was a reader prior to winning. We even have a former production company president reading for the competition.
BE: What are three strengths that winning scripts share?
GB: Originality; strong, intriguing characters; and a compelling story. If I added a fourth and a fifth, they would be exceptional storytelling and exemplary writing and craft skills —
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