Academy Nicholl Fellowship 01
Credit: Jordan Murph/A.M.P.A.S.

There’s no such thing as a sure path to success in Hollywood, but the Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting is as close as you’re going to get. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the five 2013 finalists just over two weeks ago, and already the honorees are fielding calls from agents, managers and studios eager to work with them. At least one has already signed with an agent and a manager.

The program, now in its 28th year, allows aspiring screenwriters who have never earned more than $25,000 writing fiction for film or television to submit an original script for the chance to win one of five $35,000 fellowships, intended to allow the recipients the time and money to produce another original script in the next calendar year.

In years past, the Nicholl Fellowships Committee, chaired by Walking Dead executive producer Gale Anne Hurd, held a dinner for the finalists before sending them off to craft their next scripts, but this year the Committee wanted to do something a little more special. So Thursday night, the Academy hosted an event at their headquarters in Beverly Hills for both Academy members and the public, and invited notable actors to read scenes from each of the finalists’ scripts. “This is something we’ve wanted to do for years,” said Hurd. Rodrigo Garcia (Albert Nobbs), directed the live reading, Julie Lynn produced, and actors Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter), Elle Fanning (Somewhere), Anthon Yelchin (Star Trek Into Darkness), and Taraji P.Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) perform for an audience of 1,500.

“These are new screenwriters, all of whom are so fantastic and imaginative and haven’t yet had their creative edges knocked off of them by the torturous development process,” Isaacs told EW at a reception before the reading. “All the scripts are original and interesting and have an optimism and a zing that you rarely find with someone who’s been here for too long. We need new blood and new stories and new imaginations to prop up this town. Things, and people, get stale here very quickly. We need a constant injection of fresh approaches, and every single one of these scripts has it.”

For the five finalists, it’s a pretty significant jolt from anonymity into a promising new career path, made possible partly by the pedigree and promise of previous fellows. Alums include Jeffrey Eugenides, a 1986 Fellow who won the Pulitzer for his novel Middlesex, Susannah Grant, a 1992 Fellow who picked up an Academy Award nomination for Erin Brockovich, Destin Daniel Cretton, a 2012 Fellow whose Short Term 12 wowed critics and festival audiences this year, Mike Rich, whose Nicholl script was made into Finding Forrester, Andrew Marlowe, a 1992 Fellow who created the series Castle, and many others. “One of last year’s winners, James DiLapo, said in his speech last year that he would sell his kidney to write Star Wars VII,” said Academy Nicholl Fellowship director Greg Beal. “That didn’t come about but earlier this year he signed a two picture deal with Warner Bros. The first picture was to adapt The Odyssey…in space.”

The five winnings scripts, written by four individuals and one writing team, were selected out of a record 7,251 entries. The Committee reads the scripts in a near vacuum, unaware of the name, gender, or age of the author, which often leads to comical assumptions. Peter Samuelson was convinced that the author of Queen of Hearts, a story about the origins of Lewis Carroll’s Alice series, was written by a U.K. native entrenched in the history of 19th century England and the subtleties of period-specific social interactions. He was surprised to learn that it was actually penned by Stephanie Shannon, a 29-year-old Dallas, Texas native who had been toiling away as a manager’s assistant in Los Angeles. The Committee was also certain that a man must have penned the profanity-laced tale of a young man searching for his father, who turns out to be a hard-drinking, airport-best-seller-writing scoundrel. In fact, Patty Jones, a female Canadian journalist with a Woody Allen obsession, wrote the script for Joe Banks. Alan Roth, who wrote the crime tale Jersey City Story, is sending his twin daughters off to college this year. Screenwriting is a second career for him, but it’s his first and longtime passion. Now he finally gets the chance to pursue it.

THE 2013 FELLOWS: Frank DeJohn (Legion), Barbara Stepansky (Sugar In My Veins), Alan Roth (Jersey City), Stephanie Shannon (Queen of Hearts), David Alton Hedges (Legion), Patty Jones (Joe Banks)

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC