Credit: Aaron Poole / A.M.P.A.S.

One person hasn’t heard of Jimmy Fallon: Harris Shaw, the acclaimed, drunk, vulgar author in Best Sellers, an award-winning script by Anthony Grieco. But upon hearing the former Saturday Night Live comic is the new Tonight Show host, Jimmy Smits invigorated him as a vibrant scribe who has one deadpanned reaction to the new blood: “Can’t be worse than [Jay] Leno.”

Freida Pinto played the frustrated yet bemused editor preparing him for his guest appearance on The Tonight Show. The scene’s narrator, O’Shea Jackson Jr., stifled laughs after a much more profane Fallon jab. For this particular scene, Kathy Baker beamed.

It could only have be seen at the 30th Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting awards presentation. Wednesday night’s live-read transpired at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. It’s the third time actors and actresses have been tapped to realize scenes from the fellowship’s winning scripts. Ansel Elgort and Jack O’Connell appeared last year, and Taraji P. Henson and Jason Issacs did for the inaugural night. Director Rodrigo Garcia and producer Julie Lynn have helmed the proceedings each year.

Robin Swicord, chair of the Nicholl Fellowship and writer of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, believes it was the strongest field she’s ever seen. A small sampling of the scripts showed complex characterization and deft wordplay, something the actors were delighted by. “Very moved about the ears they had in terms of dialogue,” Smits said. “You’re always looking to hear new voices.”

Pinto, who’s currently producing a prior fellow’s script, commended the hard work spent in crafting the scripts. “You can tell that they’ve poured every bit of inspiration into it,” she said.

A recent trend has emerged in the selected fellows: There are more women. Two were selected this year, and three were picked last year, all in an anonymous process. But the history of the award, like much of Hollywood, skews heavily male. “The women coming out of film schools are more determined than ever to not be left behind. They’re putting themselves forward, they’re writing original work, they know what’s stacked against them, and they know that they have to write their way forward out of that problem,” Swicord said. “We have been seeing an extraordinary number of women submitting to the Nicholl that I don’t think was true maybe five or 10 years ago.”

“I think the great thing right now is that there are stories we haven’t seen yet, heard yet,” Nicholl Fellow Elizabeth Chomko said. “There are fascinating things, worlds to be part of, where women are being women.”

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This year’s group of fellows was five strong: Chomko’s What They Had follows a recently separated woman who goes home to tend to her Alzheimer’s-riddled mother accident. Best Sellers tracks an editor joining a veteran, drunkard author on his book tour in an effort to save the publishing house bequeathed by their father. Great Falls by Andrew Friedhof presents a dilemma to a sheriff’s deputy after accidentally killing a hunter with his car, a nearly terminal death row inmate in his backseat the only witness. Sam Regnier’s Free Agent centers on a powerful basketball executive going for her biggest client while navigating a relationship with her employee and a budding friendship with his sister. Addis Abeka by Amy Tofte is about an Ethiopian boy enduring the world solo for a decade until he is reunited with his brother.

2015 Nicholl Fellows (L to R): Sam Regnier, Amy Tofte, Elizabeth Chomko, Anthony Grieco and Andrew Friedhof.
Credit: Aaron Poole / A.M.P.A.S.

The amount of submitted screenplays slightly dipped from 2014’s record-breaking year. A sum of 7,442 submissions were received for 2015, compared to 7,511 last year. Swicord said the committee rewrote the guidelines and criteria to make it clearer to applicants on what they believed good writing was, focusing on voice, originality, and confidence as a writer. Those applicants who strived to hit those marks must not have earned $25,000 from screenplays in film or television. The winners were given $35,000 to allow them to pen a full-length feature script over the next year.

The program has existed since 1986 to honor producer Don Nicholl, and 142 fellowships have been given in its history. The fellowship has spawned myriad successes. For example, ABC procedural Castle was created by former recipient Andrew Marlowe (1993). More recently, 2010 fellow Destin Daniel Cretton made and directed his screenplay Short Term 12 (2013), which starred Brie Larson and garnered critical acclaim.

The fresh talent is not only welcome, but it’s needed by all parts of the industry to excite and incite art. “In this business, you’re never too old to learn something,” Smits said.

“It’s so important for the industry,” Pinto added. ““This is very encouraging of just creativity, irrespective of how famous you are or not.”