40th College Television Awards: A Virtual Victory
A new format adds to the excitement of the College Television Awards.
It was a given that this year's College Television Awards program would be special.
After all, 2020 marks the 40th year of the awards, presented by the Television Academy Foundation to recognize the nation's best student filmmakers.
But no one could have foreseen just how distinctive this year's awards would be. With California shut down because of COVID-19, both the ceremony and the preceding two-day Nominee Summit – originally planned for March – were reimagined as virtual events.
The College Television Awards was livestreamed on TelevisionAcademy.com on May 30, with celebrities presenting and winners accepting from their homes before a global audience.
At the virtual summit, students visited with industry pros, observed panels, and joined Foundation board members and Academy peer group governors to watch their nominated works.
Highlights from the summit included a "Script to Screen" conversation with Vida creator Tanya Saracho about the Starz series, its finale and the battle for authentic Latinx representation on screen; "The Making of HBO's Insecure," with HBO's production vice president Natasha Foster-Owens and executive producers Amy Aniobi and Jim Kleverweis on the crafting of the show's distinctive voice; a panel led by Creative Artists Agency (CAA) executive Ruben Garcia on navigating a career in television in uncertain times; and a session with FilmLA president Paul Audley on the future of production in Los Angeles.
"Everyone – from the students to the audience to our internal teams – was so flexible as we pulled everything together," Foundation executive director Jodi Delaney said.
"It was a bit of a daunting task, but our commitment to these young people is unstoppable. And so are they! These talented students really are the future of television, and we exist to support their voices and careers."
This year, the Foundation received 374 submissions from 112 colleges and universities nationwide, which were judged by more than 300 Academy members. Students competed in eight programming categories, each carrying a $3,000 prize provided by KIA Motors America, the official automotive partner of the College Television Awards.
The Seymour Bricker Humanitarian Award provided an additional $4,000 to the category-winning project that most exemplifies a humanitarian concern. And for the 10th year, the Loreen Arbus Focus on Disability Scholarship awarded $10,000 to a project that best portrays disability issues or helps emerging artists with disabilities to gain recognition.
Drama series winner Balloon, the story of a bullied junior high school student who discovers he has superpowers, received the Bricker Award, while Fort Irwin, about an amputee veteran confronting his PTSD, received the Arbus Scholarship.
For Balloon director-writer Jeremy Merrifield, a graduate of the American Film Institute who shared the double victory with producer Christina Cha and writer Dave Testa, winning the Drama Series was "overwhelming," he said.
But the Bricker Award was particularly meaningful, he added, "because of what it stands for. As a person who always felt a sense of 'otherness' and 'outside of' [Merrifield is gay], I've always wanted to tell stories of unity, that bring people together and open their consciousness a little bit."
Award presenters included Tichina Arnold, Melissa Barrera, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Gabi Butler, Jimmy Fallon, Grant Gustin, Kelly McCreary, Mishel Prada, Drew and Jonathan Scott, Yeardley Smith and Shoshannah Stern.
A congratulatory video featured André Holland, Amy Poehler, Amandla Stenberg, Tracey Ullman, Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. The program was hosted by Foundation alumnus Albert Lawrence, a correspondent for CBS's The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation and IMDb's On the Scene – Interviews.
Ahead of the livestream, Ben Carter, the Academy's senior director of event production, worked with presenters on the technical aspects of their pre-recorded segments.
Fun touches included cheerleader Gabi Butler of the Netflix docuseries Cheer performing a tumbling run and Smith, of The Simpsons, trying in vain to keep her cat from interrupting her recording.
The Nominee Summit offerings included some cheerleading of their own from CAA executive Ruben Garcia, who provided encouragement and sage advice during a conversation with Lawrence, followed by a panel he moderated, "Navigating an Uncertain Job Market and Building Your Network."
Garcia, who oversees CAA's diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, had participated in last year's summit as well.
The most important ingredient in building a career, Garcia told the nominees, is authenticity. "Being true to who you are is the biggest asset you bring to the table. If you try to pretend to be someone you're not, I promise you, you're going to trip on your shoelaces."
He constantly hears from aspirants, for instance, that they've wanted to be an agent since they were five, a claim he dismisses.
"Don't tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me what you want me to know about you: what inspires you, what fuels your professional metabolism, what excites you about the way you work," he said.
"I respect people who come to me and say, 'These are the stories I want to tell; these are some of my favorite shows – the storytelling, the characters resonate with me.' That is very powerful stuff for us."
As a storyteller, he added, it's crucial to know your own voice, but also how to deliver on someone else's creative vision as you move up the career ladder.
It's less important to find representation immediately, rather than to network constantly, learn who responds to you as a creator – representation is very personal, with agents and managers having individual interests and niches – and "find that person who's going to invest in you."
Don't assume it's necessary to be in Los Angeles to start or advance your career: The Covid-19 pandemic has created a level playing field for everyone.
"Pitching, general meetings, department meetings, they're all happening on Zoom," Garcia noted. "Take advantage of that – reach out, ask for 15 or 30 minutes of someone's time. It's a very different climate now; there's an openness to that."
And wherever you are, "Be incredibly flexible and open to the opportunities that come your way. Explore the ones that make the most sense to you. Manage your expectations, be realistic about what you're looking for and be dedicated. It's a process. There's no overnight success."
For the Navigating/Network Building panel, Garcia welcomed two of his colleagues: Jairo Alvarado, a literary manager at Circle of Confusion management and production company, and Jacquie Katz, a television agent at CAA.
These are difficult, even scary times for the entertainment industry, with many careers and production itself having been halted temporarily by the pandemic. But challenges can afford some silver linings.
"I think this is an opportunity for creative people to play a little bit with their medium right now," Katz noted. "There are lots of networks that are asking us for shows that can be shot in that sort of state, such as a comedian doing a one-person sketch show from their living room. It's an opportunity to take liberties."
The industry's newfound familiarity with Zoom can be a boon for pitches, Alvarado observed. "Traditionally, you'd sit for 30 minutes with an executive and find out later if they liked it," he said.
"With Zoom, you can get creative. Some people pre-record their pitch – they're well-rehearsed, and know how to time it." In one case, clients happened to live near where they wanted to film their project, so they shot a 20-minute pitch on location. Others have added the type of music they wanted in their pitch.
Animation is in demand now, both panelists said; even those who have never worked in the medium are interested in giving it a try.
With managers more involved with a client's day-to-day career and agents overseeing the bigger arc, what does each look for in a client?
A script has to come from a person or program she trusts, Katz said. As for the writer, "The point of view is really important, finding someone with a distinctive thought pattern, and who has that drive to work.
"Also, what is it that we're getting from you? Is it someone who can dig into their own life and experience, and turn that into art? Because that's where some of the best art comes from," she said. "Or if not that, are they able to produce something that feels unique and elevated to me?"
A creator's point of view is also the number-one factor for Alvarado. "It's the difference between a writer and an auteur," he said.
"A writer just writes stuff on a page. Our industry is tied to culture, which is always evolving. If I can find the people who are at the precipice of culture and cultural change, who have a distinctive point of view of how culture is changing, you will always be in the game."
Indeed, Alvarado believes the changes occurring now make this an ideal time to launch an entertainment career. "Rules are being thrown out the window," he said. "You have the opportunity to re-write them. This is the Wild West, and that's the perfect time to enter the industry, when it's the Wild West."
One woman tapped for television because of her distinctive point of view is Tanya Saracho, who was a Latinx Chicago-based playwright when she was recruited to television by a New York agent after he saw her play about her father's mistress.
She eventually created and executive-produced the Starz series Vida, about two Mexican-American sisters who return to their East Los Angeles home after their mother's death, which concluded its three-season run in May.
Saracho spoke with Karla Pita Loor, the Foundation's chief development officer, about her career trajectory and her experience as one of the few female showrunners of color in television.
On her first show as a writer, Saracho was left to learn the industry ropes on her own, reminded by one colleague that she was the diversity hire, and ostracized. "The biggest thing I did then," she said, "was not quit. I'm glad I stuck it out."
Things took a turn for the better when she met and was mentored by Gloria Calderón Kellett, now co-creator-executive producer of Pop TV's One Day at a Time. She was also championed by Starz programming executive Marta Fernandez, who took a chance on her as Vida showrunner.
Saracho was determined to have an all-Latinx writers' room, fueled in part by her former show's contentious colleague's deriding that idea when she had brought it up then.
"He said, 'Why would you do that to yourself? Why would you limit yourself?'" she recalled. "And I was like, 'Why is that limiting?' The thing being built should be built by the people with the most skin in the game."
When Vida was in development, someone at the WGA stoked her further when he said, "Why not get the best people for the position?" "And I thought, 'What's to say Latinx writers aren't the best people for the position?'"
In hiring those writers, Saracho looked for people "whose voice was undeniable" and who were good storytellers. Throughout Vida's three seasons, when depicting Latinx culture, "the room is not going to let you write a false note," she said.
Having mentors to turn to for practical advice and support is crucial, Saracho believes. And when it comes to finding representation, hold out till you find someone who hears you and agrees with you and your mission. "If they're not seeing you, they're not going to serve you. Don't settle for the first person."
And even before you start creating, quash the voices of negativity and doubt – which could come from your parents or from within you. "That's when you can make mistakes and take risks," she said.
Hearing these participants and the other industry professionals was inspiring to the nominees – and perhaps, even life-changing.
"I had really wanted to be a director for documentaries," said Kendall Westfield, a 2019 graduate of Michigan State University nominated for Nonfiction or Reality Series as director of Bags to Butterflies, about women released from prison.
"But after [virtually] meeting story developers, I want to get into that. It's something that's a little more fun, not as serious."
Victoria Williams, who just graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design and was nominated as a writer-producer of No Shame, an ad about condoms in the Commercial, PSA or Promo category, had worked on shows filming in the area that hired students.
Hearing speakers' messages about throwing out the rulebook, she said, "I'm looking at productions in a new way. Now, I'm going to go looking for work, rather than waiting for the shows to come to me. I'm going to be more ambitious about that."
Variety nominee Sam Yates, who just graduated from Emerson College, had attended the College Television Awards last year; she was nominated both times as a writer for the school's annual EVVY Awards.
While she did miss the in-person aspect "a little bit," she says, "I'm grateful they were able to transfer this online. All the webinars were so insightful. And it was great to be able to network with other students and see what people my age have been doing. It makes me more confident about the industry I'm going into."
Winners, too, experienced some aha moments. Said Animation Series producer-director-writer Daun Kim, whose short film Don't Croak comedically depicts a lab frog's attempts to avoid dissection, "Winning gives me confidence as an artist. I wasn't sure people enjoyed what I create.
"Now, I won't be afraid to create whatever I want." Having graduated last year from the Ringling College of Art + Design, the South Korean native is hoping her triumph will bring her a job in the U.S., as her student visa is expiring.
For Foundation board chair Madeline Di Nonno, helping students enter the business remains paramount. "The College Television Awards will distinguish the students from their peers," she said, "and, hopefully, be a gateway into the industry. Our mission doesn't change."
And, said Delaney, "I'm so grateful to everyone for coming together to celebrate these students and their phenomenal work. I was continuously impressed by the nominees' intelligence, kindness and resilience. The future feels a little brighter knowing that the next generation is so talented and strong."
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