Greg Beal / Nicholl: Comedies?



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  • Greg Beal / Nicholl: Comedies?

    I'm keeping this off the other thread since it's a more general question, and that thread's getting pretty long.

    I read a post about comedies in contests at another website, and you posted there that fewer than 1/3 of this year's Nicholl entries were comedies. You also seemed to imply that within that 1/3, a much smaller percentage were straight comedies (as opposed to comedy-drama, rom-com, etc.). To a writer of straight comedies, like me, my odds for the Nicholl seem pretty good just in terms of numbers. But-

    Conventional wisdom has it that comedies don't do well in competitions. I even read an intereview with a former AFF final-round judge in which he said that in the first couple years of that competition, comedies definitely got the short end of the stick. He recalls a meeting among judges to select a winner from the finalist scripts, and that no one could agree on a winner...until they introduced a new criteria, of how "meaningful" the script was. And at that moment, the comedy finalist went right to the bottom of the pile. It's ironic; among writers, consensus is that comedy is very hard yet among Academy members and contest judges it seems to be consensus that comedy's nothing special.

    Looking at past results, comedies have not fared well with either the Nicholl or the Academy. So my questions to you are:

    1. Are the small numbers of straight comedy winners due to a small number of straight comedy entries, or some other reason?

    2. Why doesn't the Nicholl have separate categories? I've read many interviews with contest judges who speak to the difficulty in comparing Action to Drama, Drama to Comedy, etc.

    3. Does a straight, commercial comedy have a snowball's chance in the Nicholl? I know 4 have won in the past, but that's only 4 out of a total 73!

    Thanks in advance for any response.

    Edited to make corrections - the AFF judge cited was a man, and the criterion cited was "meaningful", not "affecting".

  • #2
    I'm not Greg but...

    My hunch is that it's not so much comedies that don't advance, as strictly commercial projects. Is it right that the prestige events like the Nicholl are just less impressed by immediately exploitatable concept than by style and execution?

    (Well, I'm hoping so, 'cause I entered a comedy, but it's beautiful and poignant so maybe...)


    • #3

      Check out the thread called "Nicholl News" on page 9 in this forum. There was a big debate about this topic, where Greg gave his opinion. I express your concerns about 5 pages in.


      • #4
        Re: re

        Thanks, Joe. After reading through all the posts, I think I'm with you. And I see why Mr. Beal didn't respond; the subject's been worked over pretty thoroughly in that other thread.


        • #5
          I didn't look at the earlier posts, but I thought I could add a few additional notes.

          1. Are the small numbers of straight comedy winners due to a small number of straight comedy entries, or some other reason?
          This year, there are 665 entries in which the genre entry is exactly "comedy." Just under 11%.

          2. Why doesn't the Nicholl have separate categories? I've read many interviews with contest judges who speak to the difficulty in comparing Action to Drama, Drama to Comedy, etc.
          While we only look at scripts to uncover talented writers, the competition's goal is to identify and encourage screenwriters as opposed to finding scripts for production. The fellowship award is to the writer; it's not a prize for the script.

          We hope the writer's talent shines through whatever the genre, whatever the subject matter, et cetera.

          [Breaking the competition into categories would create other problems: how to distribute the up to five fellowships over the categories? Would comedy only receive one-half a fellowship or would romantic comedies, comedy dramas and comedies be lumped together? How many would horror, science fiction, animation, fantasy and westerns receive when they each comprise such a small percentage of the overall total? Et cetera.]

          3. Does a straight, commercial comedy have a snowball's chance in the Nicholl? I know 4 have won in the past, but that's only 4 out of a total 73!
          That seems considerably better than a snowball's chance. At least fourteen of the winning scripts have been comedies of one sort or another, so that doesn't seem to be an impossible situation. Greg Dawless' 2001 script ONE HOUR DEVELOPMENT is about as raunchy a comedy as one can imagine, and it earned Greg a fellowship.

          Sorry to have missed answering yesterday but things were a tad busy.


          • #6
            We understand Greg --

            You have a lot of envelopes to put stamps on.


            • #7

              I even read an intereview with a former AFF final-round judge in which she said that in the first couple years of that competition, comedies definitely got the short end of the stick.

              If AFF stands for Austin Film Festival, the former judge must not mean LITERALLY the first couple years, because a comedy won the very first year. EXCESS BAGGAGE by Max Adams.


              • #8
                Re: AFF

                Pooks - the person quoted mentioned that this was in the days before they had a separate Comedy category.

                And wasn't Excess Baggage a rom-com?


                • #9

                  I don't remember whether Max considered it a rom-com or not. I do recall as the script was first written it had a darker edge in the third act, which left rom-com territory pretty firmly behind.

                  And I'm talking about the very first year, before there was a separate category. Max won the first year. Kitty McKoon-Hennick won the first year for Family. Those were the categories that year.


                  • #10
                    Re: rom-com?

                    Excess Baggage was a dark romantic comedy. There was no comedy division in Austin the year that script won. You either won, or you did not win, regardless of genre. EB won.

                    My Back Yard was a romantic comedy. It won a Nicholl.

                    There is no such thing as "rom com." No one uses that term. There are romantic comedies. That means "comedy" with a love story in it. The key word being "comedy."

                    You have a snowball's chance in hell of winning any competition. Competition is fierce and it is hard to win. Once you cross that threshhold into you-could-win territory, that will show whatever genre you write in. So. I would stop worrying about genre. Genre is not what counts.

                    Good luck.


                    • #11
                      and more comedies

                      I've made it to the Semifinals in the Nicholl several times with comedies, and one comedy was a Finalist.

                      The only time I ever advanced at Austin was with an comedy.

                      But I won the Nicholl with a drama, and that's the script that has come closest to getting produced (several times).

                      What does all this mean? I think Max is right. It's about the writing, not the genre. I've read many Nicholl Fellowship-winning scripts, and they came in all flavors, all genres.

                      I hate to say it, because it will probably piss people off, but honestly? "I never win these things because I write (fill in the blank) and (fill in the blank) never wins," is just a lame excuse.

                      Stop worrying about the genre and worry about the writing and the passion. It's all about the writing, the vision, the voice of the writer, the world they show the judges, a world the judges haven't seen before.

                      I could be wrong.


                      • #12
                        Re: and more comedies

                        Thanks Pooks and Max, but I think you misunderstand me. I'm not making excuses for why a given spec of mine hasn't advanced in a contest, because I've never entered a contest before---though obviously, I'm considering it. Given all the contests out there and all the entry fees, I'm just trying to make an informed decision as to whether or not contests would be a good career investment for someone like me, a writer of high concept---okay, let's be brutally frank: shallow---comedies. In other words, are these works of mine, which have been "good" enough to get me optioned and get me pitch meetings, "good" enough in the eyes of contest judges?

                        My original question was based on having looked at the statistics on contest winners and having read something from a past contest judge that seemed to indicate mainstream, commercial comedies don't generally do well in contests. Regarding those you cite that DID win, I haven't seen that second one you mention, but you've indicated that Excess Baggage was a dark comedy. I've written one black comedy, but all my other comedies are very commercial.

                        Even now, I'm still getting the impression that, were I to enter a contest, my non-commercial black comedy would have a better shot than any of my other comedies. Which is ironic, because while that black comedy has opened many a door for me, the next thing everyone says is, "Have you got anything more commercial?"


                        • #13
                          Okay, I tracked down that source's from Screentalk. Here's the part that gave me pause:
                          PEER: I went into the judges' meeting thinking it wouldn't take long to arrive at a decision. After all, I had my little score sheet in hand, with all the points properly tallied. Everybody in the room was a writer. Obviously we all knew good storytelling when we ran across it, right?

                          Wrong. Our preferences were all over the place. And initially, most of us were quite adamant about sticking to those preferences. So how did we whittle down the winner?

                          First of all, we eliminated scripts we CLEARLY agreed were inferior. We discussed and argued about the remaining ones, passions rising and tempers flaring upon occasion. For two and a half hours! (Quite exciting, actually. Like being at a WGA meeting!) Eventually we reached the brick wall of compromise -- the committee inevitability.

                          We settled on a script which we could all live with. It didn't really thrill me, but we could all acknowledge it was "good" and was trying to aspire to something "meaningful." So we voted it the winner.

                          The "aspiration" factor was brought up as criteria by the Judging Moderator after the group reached a stalemate. And it did get the ball rolling again.

                          EASLEY: Given the bias toward important themes in contests, is it practical for someone who writes entertainment-oriented comedy or other mass-appeal genre fare (horror, for example) to compete against those small, meaningful personal stories that are bound to win?

                          DIMESIO: Interesting that you bring that up. I think that's an unstated bias in most contests. I even find myself doing it as reader -- and I write comedy.

                          PEER: When we {the Austin finalist judges} started using "reaching for something" as a criteria, the commercial script drifted to the bottom of the pack. And I felt badly about that, because it was a comedy, and when you start playing the "importance" game, comedies get slighted. It pretty much killed the chance of the commercial script winning (and in my opinion, there was only ONE commercial screenplay in the Adult group.)

                          MOON: I've given high scores to comedies (though not many) with a feeling of resignation -- knowing that they won't get that far let alone be a winner. Just like the Academy Awards -- comedies lose out in the end.

                          PARIS: The best scripts I read were not what I'd call "meaningful" or attempting to "reach for something" if that means some sort of mainstream affirmation.

                          DIMESIO: I think maybe we're operating from two different notions of "meaningful" here. A script which challenges some of our long-held beliefs would be meaningful. Almost all the comedy scripts I read were pure entertainment. That's where the bias really is, not against comedy per se, but against pure entertainment -- action adventures face the same problem.

                          This bias is not unique to screenwriting contests; it's deeply ingrained in our society. Like Wendy said, how many comedies have won OscarsĀ©? I'm not saying that having a serious theme makes a script better written. What I am saying is that if the quality of writing is equal, the "meaningful" script will always have an edge over the "fluff."

                          EASLEY: At least TV comedy writers only compete against other comedy writers in the Warner Workshop and the sitcom division of the Sautter.

                          PEER: The genre issue {in the Austin judging session} also prompted the AFF to create a separate comedy category. It's really difficult to compare a drama with a comedy. It just seems inherently unfair.

                          These contest judges all seem to be saying, very directly, that comedies (and other mainstream genre fare, i.e., horror) are at a disadvantage in contests.


                          • #14
                            But comedies can also have serious themes. There's no reason comedy must equal fluff. So go ahead and enter your comedies.

                            And having read "One Hour Development" I'll tell you - that script is WAY out there and not commercial. Funny as heck, too.


                            • #15
                              Okey - That one black comedy I wrote deals with serious themes. The rest, I'll admit, are quite fluffy. Entertainment for entertainment's sake.

                              But I suppose you could say the same about "Animal House", "Ghostbusters", and a lot of other great, memorable comedies. Not that I'm saying my stuff is on par with those, but it's not a bad league to aspire to.