South African filmmaker and lecturer Sean Robert Daniels is in Hollywood to officially receive his Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, and he hopes his achievement will inspire his students to work hard at their dreams.

dinnerstatue-GFCThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood will honour the latest recipients of the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting at a gala dinner in Beverly Hills on Thursday 8 November.

Among the five is South African filmmaker Sean Robert Daniels, from Pretoria in Gauteng. He wrote Killers, the story of a female contract killer whose dying mother asks her to come back to her hometown to end her life.

As the story unfolds, it explores the relationship between the two women and the mother’s doctor.

The 2012 edition of the competition had attracted over 7 000 entries from around the world, and since May the judges have been narrowing the entries down to the best five.

“When I first discovered that I had been awarded the fellowship I felt stunned,” Roberts shared in an interview with Media Update in October. “It was a surreal experience.”

For the past 26 years, Ampas – the body behind the Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars – has awarded these fellowships for the scripts that they consider most deserving.

Exciting honour

An additional honour for Daniels is that he is the only non-American in the group, and the first South African to become a Nicholls fellow. The fellowships are each valued at US$35 000 (R301 969), with the money disbursed over the year of the fellowship, US$7 000 (R60 393) every quarter.

To mark the beginning of their fellowship year, the group spends seven days in Los Angeles during the Nicholls awards week, where they are encouraged to network with industry experts during, and take part in, seminars. The week culminates in the awards dinner. Previous fellows also attend, along with the judging committee.

The goal for the year ahead, according to the committee, is to have each of the fellows write a feature-length screenplay, the deadline of which is the end of the fellowship year.

Finalists’ profiles are also distributed to producers, agents and executives in the field of talent development in LA to help encourage their entry into the world of film.

Daniels studied film and television in Australia, completing an honours degree in screen arts. He currently lectures at the Open Window School of Visual Communication in Centurion, Pretoria. The school’s website recognises Daniels’s accomplishment as one of the notable achievements of 2012.

Speaking about his excitement at the prospects of the year ahead, Daniels told Media Update that since the announcement of the winners, he had been approached by several producers from Hollywood. His students, he said, are the most excited, and he hoped that they can learn from his achievement that their own dreams of making films can happen.

The competition

The first Nicholls fellowship script to be made into a feature film, Closet Land, was written by Radha Bharadwaj, who had won a place in the programme in 1989, three years into its existence.

Other notable scripts linked to the fellowship include Doug Atchison’s Akeelah and the Bee, a film that was released in 2000, starring Laurence Fishburne and Angela Basset. Atchison won a National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People Image Award for best screenplay.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, was co-written by 1996 fellow Ehren Kruger, who also wrote Arlington Road, The Ring and the forthcoming Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

The screenplay for the Julia Roberts film Erin Brockovich, which was nominated in the 2000 Oscars, was written by a previous fellow, Susannah Grant.

The fellowship was named – by his wife, actress and fellow writer Gee Nicholl – after producer and writer Don Nicholl, who died in 1980, five years before the programme was initiated.

Having started as a competition only for aspiring writers in the US, it was broadened to accommodate writers from other countries whose scripts are written in English. One of the strict rules of the competition is that work translated from other languages does not qualify.