Insight From A Nicholl Screenwriting Competition Judge

By Corey Mandell | Published: May.20, 2011

Interviews, Screenwriting Advice

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s Nicholl Screenwriting Competition awards $30,000 fellowships to screenwriters and is thus a highly competitive affair.

I spoke with Ron Birnbach, one of the contest judges, about what advice he would offer to those planning on entering the competiton. I believe what he said isn’t just applicable to contest aspirants but to all screenwriters, especially his last paragraph which for my money is worth its weight in gold.

“As a judge of the prestigious Nicholl Screenwriting Competition for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for over 15 years, I have often had to revise my notions about what makes a great script.  We are told in the competition to look for only one thing – great writing.  Whatever that means.  And it means different things for different judges, as it does for different writers.

I generally read about 300 scripts per year for the Nicholl, and I find that perhaps 10 of them can be considered truly excellent scripts.  What do these ten scripts have in common?  Sometimes not much.  But one thing they all have is a compelling story with at least one compelling character that I care very much about.  They have a good underlying foundation to their structure and the story seems to organically flow out of the structure.  Sometimes the stories are very familiar and sometimes they are so creative it’s astounding, but they all seem to be exactly the right story told in exactly the same way for that particular script.  I find that every one of these 10 scripts forces me to sit there and turn every page to find out what happens next.

And as for the other 290 scripts, what do they have in common?  Well, they’re all flawed, certainly.  Some a lot, some only a little.  Mostly there are underlying structural problems or characters that we just don’t give a damn about.  Very often, there are unnecessary scenes or tangents which are gone off on for no reason.  A lot of them have some very strong scenes, especially in act one, but then fall apart.  Many of them are well-meant and told from the writer’s heart, but that’s not always enough.  If a writer is not a good storyteller, it will always show through in his scripts, no matter how compelling the material.

Other flaws:  Seems like any script written to capitalize on a current craze or trend is usually bad.  Ditto any script that strives to rip off another similar idea or story, although every once in a while you get a gem like “Clueless”.  Still originality seems to be the best way to go.  There are so few screenwriters who have original voices, whenever one comes along it seems like a breath of fresh air, even if they turn out to be Shane Black or Joe Eszterhas.

The one constant truth seems to be this:  The writer simply must find what it is about this script that compels him to write it.  I can usually tell when a writer is not that interested in his story, and oddly enough, I’m usually not very interested in it either.  The great scripts all seem to have been written because they had to be written, and I can tell when that’s the case, too”.

Posted in Corey’s Blog | April 29, 2010