Universal Filmed Entertainment Group’s Global Talent Development & Inclusion (GTDI) is looking to change the filmmaking game with this year’s Universal Writers Program. From more than 1,000 applications submitted from all around the world, Universal picked six writers for the program: Derek Asaff, Sarah Cho, Nicolas Delgado De La Camara, Nandita Seshadri, Andrew Ruiz and Harsha Rao.
Now in its fifth cycle, the one-year program gives writers the opportunity to develop two feature scripts under the guidance of Universal Pictures and Focus Features production executives and term deal producers. The feature film program is the only one of its kind sanctioned by the Writers Guild of America West. The program provides professional development as well as an overview of the studio’s production process through workshops, seminars and executive roundtable discussions. In addition, it was announced that 2018 alum Omid Ghaffarian will become the first person ever in the history of the program to get an extension to continue to develop his script with our studio.
Janine Jones-Clark, Senior Vice President of Global Talent Development & Inclusion, said that this year, her highest priority for the program was to readjust the structure of who was eligible to apply. Previously if you had a produced credit, you could not apply to the program. She decided to change that. “I just felt like that creates a void for some great talent that have had success maybe in other media, but want to make the transition to features,” she told Deadline. “It really broadened the pool of talent that we could consider for the program.”
In addition to giving an opportunity for writers to hone their craft, Jones-Clark hopes that this program creates access and new relationships in the industry for people who would be far from getting that opporunity. “This whole town’s built on who you know and a lot of the times the people from underrepresented groups are not in the circles to be among the ones to know,” she said. “We’ve had that feedback from our execs who felt like they were looking all in one area for their talent, and I’m just saying whatever the traditional methods were, we just opened their eyes to giving them a new pool of talent to consider.”
The program encourages members of underrepresented communities to apply, but Jones-Clark said that it is open to everyone and it’s not necessarily a “diversity program. “It’s looking for people who have that unique and diverse — or if you want to say — multi-cultural perspective that they can bring into the storytelling,” she said. “So that can come from so many different sources. It doesn’t necessarily mean it comes from someone who fits in a box. It’s just looking for the best storytelling with a multi-cultural perspective.”
For Sarah Cho, one of the six writers, she feels programs like this gives underrepresented voices a chance to tell their stories and narratives themselves. “This industry is hard for anyone, but for marginalized communities, it’s near impossible,” she said. “We don’t have the traditional networks that are so important in a relationship-based field like entertainment. And we don’t have the financial tools to battle the economic hardships this industry also inherently carries. Programs like this allow for individuals who have neither of those advantages to thrive and become leaders in the industry – enabling them to lift up their communities with them.”
“Every organization offers soaring rhetoric on diversity and unique viewpoints,” said Harsha Rao. “It’s much rarer to see a company move beyond words to actually making a significant financial investment to broaden the talent pool.”
“One’s early years as a writer are spent putting together an arsenal of tools to go out there and start doing this work professionally,” adds Nandita Seshadri. “It can take a long time to get those tools together, and I think the Universal Writers Program will help speed along that process by providing training and access.”
Read the bios of the six writers below.
DEREK ASAFF: With a degree in Creative Writing & Literature from Harvard University and a Masters Degree in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory, Asaff found success at AFI’s Screenwriter’s Showcase optioning his award-winning action/comedy scriptThe Wheelman to Original Film and Sony. Asaff was named in Tracking Board’s Young and Hungry List 2015 shortly after his one-hour dramaAfter The Merge won Final Draft Big Break’s Drama Pilot Category and was optioned by Dark Horse Entertainment. His pilot The End placed in the Top 10 of Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Pilot Competition in 2017 and led to representation with Lee Stobby Entertainment.
SARAH CHO: After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English Literature and Asian-American Studies, Sarah Cho got her start producing, shooting, and editing interviews and music videos with Hip-Hop and electronic artists including Omarion and Jhené Aiko. Other projects she produced include PowerForward, a series of masterclass-like classes taught by industry leaders such as talent manager Scooter Braun (Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande), and the docu-series Control Freak with former Loveline co-host and radio personality Mike Catherwood. She also served as an Associate Producer for Lebron James’ media company Uninterrupted and as a Segment Producer-Writer for Showtime’s Below the Belt. Most recently, Cho’s short Color-Blind, which she wrote and directed will premiere at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. She also won a directing fellowship through Visual Communications, one of the oldest Asian-interest media groups in Los Angeles and works closely with Kollaboration and Identity LA.
NICOLAS DELGADO DE LA CAMARA: Nicolas “Nick” Delgado De La Camara is an award-winning filmmaker born and raised in Spain. During his time at the University of Madrid, Nick studied English Literature with the goal of making him a better writer. After graduating he attended USC where he met and was mentored by one of his heroes, director Robert Zemeckis. At USC, his thesis film, The Macabre World of Lavender Williams, a fantasy short starring Christopher Lloyd and John Lithgow, was screened in over forty film festivals worldwide. Prior to his selection to the Program, Nick split his time directing branded content and being a storyboard artist while also developing various screenplays.
HARSHA RAO: Harsha Rao’s career began in the US Army, enlisting as a Private shortly after the 9/11 attacks and quickly rose to the rank of Captain. Outside of the military, Rao built a multifaceted career, advising clients as a corporate lawyer in a global law firm, conducting strategic analyses at McKinsey, owning consumer-facing products for YouTube and the Amazon Kindle team, and developing content strategy models for Turner Broadcasting. He has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois, a JD from Georgetown University, and an MBA from Wharton. His writing work has earned a fellowship in the Writers Guild Foundation’s Veterans Writing Project, placed in the Austin Film Festival and the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.
ANDREW RUIZ: After attending Montclair State University with a BA in English, Andrew Ruiz spent several years in the theater, working as a designer, director, and playwright, alternating summers in NYC and winters touring the country. After years on the road, he earned a spot in Columbia University’s School of the Arts Film program, graduating with an MFA in screenwriting. With a passion for storytelling and service, Ruiz co-created Project FOCUS, a six-week film “boot camp” for inner-city high school students, giving them access to advanced instruction as well as university equipment. He’s also taught at Ghetto Film School, The Cinema School of the Bronx, and at renown author/educator Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Ruiz’s short films have screened at festivals, including TIFF Kids, the Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Ajyal Youth Film Festival in Doha, Qatar. His adaptation of journalist turned radio pirate Sue Carpenter’s 40 Watts From Nowhere was optioned by TrustFall Films, alongside his adaptation of Kristen Hubbard’s Wanderlove, currently in development.
NANDITA SESHADRI: Nandita Seshadri started writing because she felt her most natural self with a pen in her hand, scribbling stories of fantasy and horror. In her own stories, she could craft characters in her own image instead of wondering why there weren’t any heroes or villains who looked like her. Seshadri’s obsession with genre–where anyone can be anything–led her to a deep love of movies and television. She pursued that love in film school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Since graduating, she has worked at CAA and Lionsgate in feature film development/production, animated television, and mobile games. Seshadri continues to write stories about robots, werewolves, undead beings and lizard-creatures.