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Other winners were Carl Hansen, director for “I/O”; Nicole Evans, best actor for “Human Helper”; and “The Vanished,” which took home the awareness award, accepted by Melanie Waldman.
The program was hosted by Nic Novicki, who founded the Film Challenge to empower filmmakers (with or without disabilities) to tell unique stories while providing opportunities for inclusion and representation for people with disabilities (or PWD). Novicki reminded the enthusiastic audience that PWD represent about 20% of the population, but only account for 3% of onscreen depictions.
Participating teams had 55 hours to write, shoot and edit a three-to-five-minute short based on an assigned genre. This year, the genre was sci-fi. Their productions were created on the weekend of April 5-7, with more than 200 people with disabilities participated in front of and/or behind the camera. This year saw 71 entries from three countries (U.S., U.K. and Canada), a 22% increase in submissions from the prior year.
Winners will receive a mentorship opportunity with producer and president of SK Global John Penotti (“Crazy Rich Asians”), CBS Entertainment’s Tiffany Smith Anoa’i , writer-director-producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Oscar winners this year for“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”), or Pam Dixon, casting director (“Angels in the Outfield,” “City Slickers”). Other prizes include the latest in computer technology from Dell, the opportunity to screen their film at the HollyShorts Film Festival, a $2,000 production grant provided by Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, and a Sony a6400L camera kit.
Among the presenters were Lord and Miller; writer-producer Ryan O’Connell; CBS’s Smith Anoa’i; NBCUniversal’s Jeff Cafuir; and actors Micah Fowler, Geri Jewel, and CJ Jones.
Easterseals Southern California president-CEO Mark Whitley pointed out to the audience of 200-plus that this event was part of the organization’s year-long celebration of its 100th birthday. He also said that there are a growing number of depictions of people with disabilities on screen — “and increasingly they’re being played by people with disabilities,” which drew hefty applause.
Whitley added that the evening’s talent were making a statement: “We now have a seat at the table.”
After the ceremonies, Whitley told Variety that he was impressed by the great fun of the evening “and the sense of community, both from people with and without disabilities.”
Novicki told Variety he was surprisingly moved by the event and how much it’s grown in only six years. “It’s about people with disabilities saying ‘Now is my time, I’m going to take my career in my own hands.’ And holy smoke, the quality of the films is just amazing!”
In 2017, Novicki joined forces with Easterseals Southern California — the nation’s leading nonprofit supporting people and families with disabilities — to expand the event, now known as the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge.
This was the first such ceremony for O’Connell, who created the series “Special” on Netflix. He told Variety that “I’m obsessed with this event. Look at how capable and talented people with disabilities are. And it’s a reminder that we are criminally under-represented in Hollywood. This evening is incredibly empowering.”
The evening began shortly after the conclusion of Variety‘s day-long Inclusion Summit, which included a segment on “The Missing Part in Entertainment’s Inclusion: Disabilities,” featuring a conversation with Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation and Oscar-winning actress-activist Marlee Matlin.
Sponsors and partners for the 2019 Challenge include Variety, Adobe, CBS Entertainment Diversity & Inclusion, Deadline Hollywood, Dell, Film Independent, Heartland Film Festival, HollyShorts Film Festival, Molly & David Pyott Foundation, the Newport Beach Film Festival, SAG-AFTRA, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Universal Pictures.
There were plenty of Sony executives on hand, and the studio’s water-tower had a special orange light in honor of Easterseals’ color.
Judges for the Film Challenge included actor RJ Mitte, writer-director Kat Coiro, writer-director Kevin Jordan; and actor Danny Woodburn.
For 100 years, Easterseals has been a resource for individuals with developmental disabilities or other special needs and their families. Nancy Weintraub is chief development officer for Easterseals Southern California.
The finalists were announced April 27 at the Newport Beach Film Festival, followed by a screening of the films and a Q&A with some of the finalists.