A CAN’T-MISS EVENT
EASTERSEALS DISABILITY FILM CHALLENGE BECOMES A LAUNCHING PAD FOR MAINSTREAM CAREERS AND A FORCE FOR CHANGE
By Melissa Blake
With diversity, everybody wins. Just ask actor-comedian Nic Novicki.
Novicki founded the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge to showcase its many forms, and to motivate people to take their careers in their own hands and increase their own visibility. Since then, it’s become an essential event for both filmmakers with disabilities and talent scouts.
During the weekend-long event, participants write, shoot and edit three- to five-minute short films based an assigned genre. The filmmakers are not required to include disability in the story, but each team must include at least one person with a disability.
“The films are starting to reach the desks of casting directors, writers and producers,” says Novicki, “which has led to jobs for our participants, including one actress earning a recurring role on the upcoming season of ‘Loudermilk.’ ”
That actress was Sofiya Cheyenne, a little person from New York. “I have participated in the Challenge in multiple years, but 2018 was the first year I created my own team,” says Cheyenne. “I was going to join another team, like I always do, but my husband encouraged me to create my own film. I am so happy he did.”
She wrote, produced, directed and acted in the film “You’re Up,”a buddy comedy about two rival actresses who join forces against a new competitor.
“You’re Up” proved a breakthrough for Cheyenne’s career. Writer-director Peter Farrelly viewed the 2018 Film Challenge shorts to find the right actress for an upcoming role. After auditioning multiple actresses, Peter and his brother Bobby — who directed the series — decided Cheyenne was the right fit for the role. The “Loudermilk” part is the first recurring role of her career.
“It would not have happened if it weren’t for the connections the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge provided,” she says. “And even though I didn’t actually win the competition this year, it has brought me more opportunity and exposure than I could have ever asked for. I am so grateful!”
The entertainment industry, including networks, studios and guilds, is getting behind the Film Challenge. Long-time supporters SAG-AFTRA, Dell and CBS Entertainment Diversity & Inclusion have been joined by Adobe, Deadline, NBCUniversal, Nike, UTA and Variety this past year, along with leading film festivals. CBS Entertainment Diversity & Communications’ Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, UTA agent Bec Smith, casting director Pam Dixon and NBCUniversal each offered mentorships to winning filmmakers. UTA also hosted this year’s red carpet event at its L.A. office.
“We have always admired the great work Easterseals has done and we were honored to play a role in helping amplify their message to the larger entertainment community,” says Rene Jones, partner and global head of philanthropy at UTA.
Novicki sees power in the future too — for both the disability community and the industry as a whole.
“Through it all, we’re building lasting, working relationships across the entertainment industry and advancing greater disability inclusion on and off the screen,” he says.
Deborah Calla, Allen Rucker and Nic Novicki present the Best Film Award to creator Carl Hansen, Danny Gomez and Andrew Horng at the 2018 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge at UTA.
Winners of the 2018 Best Awareness Campaign award thanking the audience, From left to right, ASL interpreter Jo-Ann Dean; director David Tenenbaum, actors Katherine Crawford and Tatiana Lee.
Actor Kurt Yeager and CBS diversity executive Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i presenting at 2018 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge.
2018 Best Film winners Danny Gomez, Michael Vaccaro, Carl Hanson and Shannon Dieriex at Universal Studios as part of their prize package.
Past Best Actor Winner Diana Elizabeth Jordan
Past Best Film Winner John Lawson