Your Burning Academy Nicholl Fellowship Questions Answered with Joan Wai

By Rebecca Norris · October 25, 2019

Ask anyone in the industry what the most prestigious screenwriting fellowships are in Hollywood, and the Academy Nicholl Fellowships will undoubtedly be right at the top of the list. Since 1985, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Oscars, has been identifying and encouraging new and emerging screenwriting talent through their annual Nicholl Fellowships. Each year, up to five $35,000 fellowships are awarded to promising writers who have previously not earned more than $25,000 writing for film or television. 

We’re excited here at The Script Lab to have had the opportunity to interview Joan Wai, Senior Manager of the Nicholl Fellowships. Joan graduated from USC Film School with a degree in Screenwriting, and soon after started her career as a reader for the Nicholl, among other competitions. When an opportunity came up at the Nicholl for an office position, Wai jumped on board and has now been working with the Academy for 13 years. In addition to the Nicholl Fellowships, Joan has also been a judge for Sundance Workshops and Writer’s Digest contests. 

In her TSL 360 video, Joan gave a comprehensive overview of how the Nicholl Fellowship competition is structured, how screenplays are evaluated, and also gave advice on which scripts writers should read to help them in their journeys.

On the structure of the Nicholl Fellowship competition:

 “I oversee the Nicholl Fellowships and Screenwriting Competition. That includes moving over 7,000 scripts a year through the courses of the competition. We typically have over 80 freelance readers who are reading in the first and quarter-final rounds. Then we have about 200 members of the Academy who volunteer from different branches of the Academy, reading in the semi-final round. From there we have 10 finalists who go to our committee, and then they select the winners, ultimately.”

On what writers should be looking to get out of the fellowship:

“With any competition, it brings a spotlight from the industry. With our competition, we have many people in the industry asking for our contact list. If you don’t win necessarily, if you place quarterfinalist, semifinalist, or even finalist, that goes on our contact list that we send out to industry people who request it… it’s also a good calling card if you don’t place in the quarterfinal round, we also notify you if you get in the top 10%, the top 20%. Then hopefully emerging writers can use that as a way to open a door in the industry.”

On what the Academy looks for in screenplays:

“We have a scoring rubric that we give to our readers and judges; we also release that onto our Facebook page. We’re looking at… the basic things that anyone would look at when evaluating a screenplay. How is the story? How is the characterization? How is the craft on the page? These are really typical elements that we’re looking for in terms of identifying a great script, a great writer.”

For more insight into the Nicholl Fellowships and the Academy’s judging process, watch Joan Wai’s full interview on TSL 360!  

If you don’t already have a TSL 360 membership, be sure to join TSL 360 for a FREE 3-day trial membership! TSL 360 is the LARGEST screenwriting education content library where you can learn from the best in the biz, featuring dozens of masterclasses, deep-dive interviews and lectures from Academy Award-winning screenwriters, Emmy-winning TV writers, producers, agents, major studio executives – all in one place.

Here are more TSL 360 related posts you might like:

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The Number One Question Screenwriters Ask with Robert McKee

Essence of Storytelling: The Hero’s Journey with Chris Vogler

8 Tips for Great Pitches for Film & TV with Monique Sorgen

Sign up for TSL 360 to watch this full video, plus more from our collection of 100+ industry pros.Try for FREE for 3 days!

Rebecca Norris is a producer, writer, and filmmaker with her production company, Freebird Entertainment. Her recent award-winning feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, has been distributed on Amazon Streaming and DVD. Rebecca is also a script analyst and consultant who has read for many companies, including Sundance, ScreenCraft, Bluecat, and the International Emmys, as well as her own script consultancy, Script Authority. Rebecca blogs for Screencraft, The Script Lab, WeScreenplay and Script Magazine, exploring the film writing and production process and encouraging writers to produce their own work. Follow Rebecca’s posts on Twitter at @beckaroohoo!

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