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So You Want to Be a Screenwriter?

We’ve got answers; Hollywood’s hottest scribes recount their stories of how they broke into the business, and how the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship for new writers helped pave their way

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Ask successful screenwriters how they got their start, and you’ll probably hear something like this: “That first nod of approval came at a time when I was personally rejected from so many other things. I had heard no so many times, I was ready to give up and move on to something else.” This particular memory comes from Destin Cretton, who last year released his acclaimed troubled-youth film, Short Term 12. But Cretton shares more than hard times with his fellow scribes. He and some of Hollywood’s top writers all got their first nod of approval from the Oscar folks, as winners, finalists, or semifinalists for the Nicholl Fellowship, an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences program. EW talked with a few of them about their early struggles, and how they broke through.

Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3
The script Arndt submitted to the Nicholl Fellowship was an edgy action comedy called Suicide Delux. “Frankly, it was terrible,” he says. But it made the Nicholl semifinals, and the form letter came with a handwritten note of encouragement. “That was enough to keep me going for the next 10 years,” says Arndt. “I sent scripts in to the Nicholl, and some were quarterfinalists, some were semifinalists, and some never made it that far. I wrote 10 scripts before I finally sold my first screenplay. That was Little Miss Sunshine. I sent it off to Nicholl, and it didn’t even make the first cut.” Instead, the Academy gave him an Oscar for it.

Ava DuVernay, Middle of Nowhere
“I had my day job as a publicist and my night job as a covert writer,” says DuVernay. “I was writing by a small lamp at my desk. The [Nicholl] letters made me start thinking, ‘Okay, maybe these words that are coming out of my head could eventually become something.’ It was a big deal at the time, considering I had no attachment to the movie business as a creator.” DuVernay’s script for Middle of Nowhere made the semifinals, and seven years later the feature film earned her the 2012 Sundance Film Festival prize for best director.

Melissa Rosenberg, Twilight series
In 1991 Rosenberg was a graduate of USC’s producing program but working as a legal assistant. Then she submitted her romantic dance comedy A Mambo Man to the Nicholl contest: “It’s what all we young writers wanted.” Her script only made the semifinals, but “it gave me a little more confidence about what I was doing and a minor bragging right,” she says. Paramount Pictures later offered her a job writing a different dance movie. “When I got that job,” she says, “I quit the law firm, turned around, and hired the lawyer I had worked for to negotiate my deal.”

Damon Lindelof, Star Trek Into Darkness
“I wrote a script called The Perfectionists, a Western comedy,” says Lindelof. “I got a letter saying I was a [Nicholl] quarterfinalist, and I felt an incredible desire to really win.” Lindelof wanted to win so badly, in fact, that he knew if he ended up losing it’d come as a blow. So he got proactive: “I wrote an email to everybody I knew in the TV business, saying, ‘I want to be a professional television writer.'” When he learned that he hadn’t won the Nicholl Fellowship, it didn’t sting as much as it might have: His email had already landed him a job on ABC’s Wasteland.

Ehren Kruger, Arlington Road
“I saw an ad for the Nicholl Fellowship in a movie magazine, and entered a script when I was a senior in high school,” says Kruger. “It was the first thing I ever wrote, and I was just happy to have gotten to the end. [The script] was a very, very subpar homage to Network, about a TV anchorman trying to influence an election. It was a political thriller written by a 17-year-old who didn’t know much. It went nowhere. I decided I would study what screenplays are all about and if I ever felt like I’d written a good one, I’d submit again. Six years later, I entered again, and I won for Arlington Road.”

Susannah Grant, Erin Brockovich
“I was in film school. My script that won [the Nicholl] was called Island Girl. The fact that I had an agent shouldn’t give you the impression I had confidence. The Nicholl definitely helped with that. The person who presented me the award, who usually has been the biggest champion of your script, was Jack Lemmon.”

What Is The Nicholl Fellowship?
Don Nicholl built a great career writing and producing for sitcoms including The Jeffersons and Three’s Company, but he never forgot his initial struggle. After his death, Nicholl’s widow, Gee, established the Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting as a tribute to him. Now in its 28th year, the Fellowship gives aspiring writers their first big break. Between January and May, the Academy accepts original scripts from writers who’ve never earned more than $25,000 writing fiction for film or television. By October, up to five finalists are selected to receive $35,000 each to write an original feature in the next year. “There’s no such thing in the industry as a sure bet,” says Fellowship committee chair Gale Anne Hurd. “But this is a pretty good one.” Apply at oscars.org/awards/nicholl. —Lindsey Bahr