A trip to the Academy for a fellowship-winning screenwriter

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented its 2013 Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting on November 7 in Beverly Hills, Calif. to: (from L to R) Alan Roth, Stephanie Shannon, Patty Jones, Barbara Stepansky, David Alton Hedges and Frank DeJohn. (Photo by Matt Petit/©A.M.P.A.S.)

By Kenna Caprio

“Take a walk outside of the Academy,” read the email.

On the November day Alan Roth (BA’80) accepted his Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for his script “Jersey City Story,” members of his college biology society showed up at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif. as a surprise.

“When someone wins the Nicholl Fellowship, they’re validated by the Academy (of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences), and the whole Hollywood community accepts that validation,” says Roth. Lucky for Roth, years of friendship and love readied him for his big moment.

“The richest, most valuable thing that Fairleigh Dickinson University gave me is lifetime friends,” says Roth, who studied English literature and history, not biology, at the Rutherford campus.

Roth joined the biology society at the urge of friends trying to grow it, in support of their passion. They returned the favor tenfold — “my biggest fans,” Roth calls them. Over the years, enthusiasm from college friends, coupled with love and encouragement from his parents, wife and twin daughters, and his own persistent inner voice, pushed Roth to keep his writing dreams alive.

“I look at a blank page and just get so excited about the possibilities,” says Roth.

After putting his writing aside for years to build a successful business career and happy home life, Roth returned to his writing these past few years.

“I wanted to go back to my roots and see if I might start to focus a little more on my writing, send it out a little more,” says Roth. “I decided to treat myself again to writing.”

A deeply personal moment, involving his godson and a professional basketball player, eventually brought screenwriting to the fore for Roth. “In the days afterward, the scene kept playing in my mind. It came to me as a movie, I don’t know why, but it did,” says Roth, who has a background in comedy writing from his FDU days and a master’s in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston, Mass.

The resulting script, “Jersey City Story,” won Roth his fellowship from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the body best known for bestowing Oscars upon film industry professionals.

Established in 1986 by Gee Nicholl, the widow of television writer and producer Don Nicholl, the fellowships seek to “identify and encourage talented new screenwriters,” says Greg Beal, director of the Nicholl Fellowships program.

“Among screenwriters, who have either not had their work produced or who’ve not earned a certain threshold of income from screenwriting, this competition is known as the most important and recognizable in the world because it has the cachet of coming from the Academy,” says Roth.

Right, Nicholl fellow and FDU alum Alan Roth, writer of "Jersey City Story," poses with a life-size Oscar statuette prior to the presentation of the 2013 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. (Photo by Matt Petit/©A.M.P.A.S.)

A record 7,251 feature-length film scripts were submitted to the fellowship competition in 2013. Fellows receive $35,000 and must complete a new script during their fellowship year.

Scripts can go through up to four rounds of judging: the initial round, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. Academy Nicholl Committee members judge the final round.

Finalists, typically 10 people, fly to Los Angeles for a week of seminars with agents, managers, producers and past Nicholl fellows; a celebratory luncheon with Academy Nicholl Committee members; an awards ceremony and, new this year, a Live Read, with actors performing excerpts from the five wining scripts.

“More than anything else, I think the emotional core and truth of ‘Jersey City Story’ was what brought the script to the top. The intense relationships that develop between characters riveted readers, especially that of an angry NBA star and a young boy who now lives in the room in the projects in which the basketball player once lived,” says Beal.

Following the early death of a close friend, Roth took his friend’s son to see a New Jersey Nets (now the Brooklyn Nets) game. His godson’s hero just happened to be a player on the team, who would be signing T-shirts after the game. The two waited in line patiently for an hour, Roth anticipating that his godson might even get to talk to his sports hero. At the front of the line, though, the public relations staff handed Roth the signed T-shirt and informed him that the player wouldn’t be able to speak to his godson, citing protocol. Roth explained the situation to no avail.

“We started to walk away, and suddenly heard this booming voice behind us. The 6’10 basketball player heard what I’d asked the PR folks, looked at my godson, walked over, bent down and spoke to him for about a minute,” recalls Roth. “My godson walked away, eyes beaming. That conversation totally sustained my godson over the next few months of grieving for his father.

“The great blessing,” says Roth, “was to write about something that really came from my heart. I talk about it and I feel like I’m boasting. I’m very humble and feel so fortunate and lucky that I was chosen. Nearly 7,300 other writers, how could there not be other worthy ones?” he wonders.

Fittingly, Roth was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike when Beal called with the news that he was a finalist. “I had to pull over on the side of the Turnpike to digest it. Now I knew there was a strong possibility of winning and that as a finalist, I could get a lot of attention,” he says. “I must’ve received 40 calls during the week out in L.A., with people requesting meetings and asking to read the script.”

Since winning the fellowship, Roth has flown out to Los Angeles twice for meetings and will continue to do so as time allows. “I have a really great manager right now, and a number of agents interested in representing me. There’s some studio interest in my Academy script,” he says, remaining appropriately tight-lipped about the details. In total, he’s written five scripts and now is in the middle of a couple of new screenplay projects.

“Becoming an Academy Nicholl fellow opens doors throughout the Hollywood film industry, allowing the writers to get their scripts read almost anywhere,” adds Beal.

Some successful past winners include: Destin Cretton, writer and director of “Short Term 12”; Andrew Marlowe, creator and executive producer of television’s “Castle”; Susannah Grant, writer of and Academy Award nominee for “Erin Brockovich”; and Jeffrey Eugenides, Pulitzer Prize winner for “Middlesex.”

At the awards ceremony, Roth honored his friend and godson by sharing snippets of the basketball story that inspired “Jersey City Story.” He also acknowledged his family, especially his parents, wife and daughters who provided him with the time to write. “One of the nicest things is being able to share this with your loved ones. I really do feel that it’s a family endeavor and success,” he says.

For now, Roth strives to balance his new screenwriting career path with his established one — working at a production company that creates videos and content for advertising agencies — while still living in Suffern, New York and spending time with his wife and daughters.

“The Academy is so incredibly supportive of their writers. They do everything they can to promote us. Greg Beal is like everybody’s fairy godfather, answering questions and paving the way. I’m just so grateful for that,” says Roth.

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

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