EXCLUSIVE: Sundance Institute has announced the 21 fellows and 18 projects they have selected for their first-ever, multi-track Episodic Lab, which is being held virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fellows chosen include Justin Calen-Chenn (The Cavi), Lauren Glover (A Dignified Death), Andrew Lopez (Emotional), Jessie Barr and Lena Hudson (Fantasia for You), Elissa Blount Moorhead and Ericka Blount Danois (fiftyTWO), Stacy F. McDonald (Gone But Not Forgotten), Zach Gonzalez-Landis (The Great Impasta), Mansoor Adayfi and Antonio Aiello (From Guantánamo, with Love), Yvonne Hana Yi (Hannah with the Dogs), Carly Woodworth (Lasting), Jackie Katzman (Loons), Terrance Daye (Mandingo), Jess dela Merced (On Soul), Shirin Najafi (Regulars), Johnny Alvarez (Somewhere Else), Rom Lotan (Tehran Disco), Melody Cooper (Those Who Kill) and Nicole Saad (Tinderbox).
The 2021 Lab, hosted on Sundance Collab, has been designed as an immersive two-part experience. Fellows were divided into either the “Idea to Pilot Track,” in which they developed an original pilot from an early idea through to a completed draft, or the “Series Track,” in which they workshopped an existing original pilot and develop a professional series pitch to sell. The structural evolution reflected in this year’s Lab emerged in response to a rapidly shifting industry, and its demand for original content across networks, streamers and other platforms.
Throughout the Lab, fellows were guided by Sundance Institute Feature Film Program staff, including Founding Director Michelle Satter, outgoing Episodic Program Director Jennifer Goyne-Blake, and the new Director of Episodic, Jandiz Estrada Cardoso.
Creative advisors who participated in the Lab included Jenny Bicks, Jacob Chase, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, Danny Chun, Cheo Hodari Coker, Charles Eglee, Lee Eisenberg, Kevin Etten, Shalisha Francis, Katori Hall, Teresa Hsiao, Rochée Jeffrey, Kristi Korzec, LaToya Morgan, Erica Rivinoja, Peter Saji, Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, Vera Santamaria, Sanjay Shah, Malcolm Spellman, Tatiana Suarez-Pico, Halsted Sullivan, and Graham Yost.
Industry mentors participating included Kesila Childers, Deniese Davis, Dante di Loreto, Marta Fernandez, Carrie Gillogly, Tiffany Hawthorne, Quan Phung, Candace Rodney, Justin Rosenblatt, Jeff Stern, Sarah Timberman, Kathryn Tyus-Adair and Yvette Urbina.
“Sundance Institute champions independent creators,” Sundance Instiute’s Michelle Satter said in a statement, “and we need to stay nimble and responsive across formats, media and narrative structures. By convening emerging talent together with established advisors, we aim to create sustainable careers in an ever-evolving industry. With the ongoing generosity and support of our Episodic team and Advisors, many of our writers have been staffed on shows, and a growing number are now developing their pilots at a variety of networks.”
“This Lab is a destination for bold writers hungry to bring their independent perspectives and their rigor to develop stories for audiences who crave independent voices,” added incoming Episodic Program Director Jandiz Estrada Cardoso. “I’m thrilled to lead the next evolution of Sundance’s mission to embrace these integral creators and support them in navigating the industry landscape of multi-episode storytelling.”
Writing participating in the Episodic Lab in years past include Katori Hall, Barry Jenkins, Desiree Akhavan, and Heather Rae. Past Fellows have gone on to earn writing positions on shows including This is Us, Little America, Dave, Snowpiercer, You’re the Worst, Better Call Saul, Silicon Valley, Fresh off the Boat, American Gods, The Baby-Sitters Club, and The Americans. Alumni have also sold Lab projects to networks including HBO, Amazon, Hulu, FX, ABC, CW, and AMC. 64% of Fellows from the 2018 and 2019 Episodic Labs were staffed, with close to 75% of the selected projects selling or getting set up with producers.
More information on the projects and writers chosen for the 2021 Episodic Lab can be found below.
Desperate to leave their previous lives behind, a trio of street hustlers look to solve the clues behind an underworld myth called The Cavi, a West Coast tall tale that is said to lead to a hidden treasure for the ages.
Justin Calen-Chenn was a homeless teenager when a fly-ass Black man took him under his wing. Growing up in a motel, he got involved in a life of street hustle and organized crime, but left that world behind many years later after witnessing a horrific incident in 2016. Justin is writing and/or producing projects with notables such as eOne, Miramax, Netflix, and more. He is recently teaming with Netflix on a spec feature and also staffing on a crime series, both which he must keep on the sly for now. Justin is repped by Grandview/CAA and is about his paper.
A Dignified Death
A by-the-book former ICU nurse starts working at a hospice agency where she clashes with her rule-bending veteran supervisor, and learns what it really means to provide patients with a dignified death.
Lauren Glover is a drama writer born and raised in Columbia, Maryland. She’s a registered nurse and worked for several years in the psychiatric, intensive care, and hospice fields. Lauren was a 2017 and 2018 Sundance Lab Finalist, spots she earned by submitting her historical drama pilot Kingdom and southern gothic pilot The Dirty Spoon. Lauren was chosen as fellow in the 2020 Sundance Episodic Lab with the submission of her half hour dramedy pilot A Dignified Death, which is based on her experiences working with hospice patients. Lauren is currently a writer on the upcoming HBO Max series Duster.
In 2003, a 14 year old Asian American freshman living in suburban midwest, discovers emo music and social media and begins a path of self discovery that blurs the lines between the cliques of his high school.
Andrew Lopez is a Filipino & Korean writer, director, actor, and stand-up comedian from small town Iowa. As a writer, he is developing a tv show at FX with Hiro Murai, Nate Matteson and Christopher Storer producing. Andrew will also star. He developed a live-action feature based on an anime with Chernin Entertainment and Masi Oka producing. As an actor, Andrew acted in Blockers. As a stand-up, he appears on Netflix’s Jo Koy: In His Elements. Andrew has directed for Comedy Central and is in post on a thriller short film he wrote and directed starring Sarah Yarkin, Jefferson White, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr.
Fantasia for You
A failing writer and struggling choreographer hatch a plan to find financial security by fulfilling the role-playing fantasies of the Los Angeles ultrarich.
Jessie Barr is an L.A.-based writer, director, actor, and producer. Her critically acclaimed debut feature, Sophie Jones, World Premiered in competition at Deauville 2020 and was acquired and released by Oscilloscope in 2021. Jessie’s award-winning short, Too Long at the Fair, which she wrote/directed and stars in with Lena Hudson, and her award-winning series, OM City, which she wrote/stars in with Tom O’Brien have been lauded at festivals around the world including the Tribeca Film Festival. Next up, Jessie co-stars in The Beta Test, recently acquired by IFC. Jessie was previously supported by the Episodic Program as a Fellow in the 2020 Sundance Institute Episodic Makers Lab. She is repped by Management 360.
Lena Hudson is a Brooklyn-based actor, writer, and director. Her work includes the solo clown-cabaret, Showwomanship, a musical odyssey about the greatest showbiz diva you’ve never heard of. Her short film Too Long at the Fair, which she co-wrote and directed with Jessie Barr, premiered at the LAShorts International Film Festival and can be seen online via Short of the Week and NoBudge. Lena also worked as a producer on the feature film Ghostwritten, starring Jay Duplass and directed by Thomas Matthews. Lena was previously supported by the Episodic Program as a Fellow in the 2020 Sundance Institute Episodic Makers Lab.
When a die-hard New York Baby Boomer and his Gen Z granddaughter move to Baltimore and become unlikely roommates, they must navigate their new city and deal with their own questionable life choices.
Elissa Blount Moorhead is an artist exploring the poetics of quotidian Black life. She was awarded the USA Artist and Saul Zaentz Fellowships, Ford Foundation/Just Films/Fellowship, The Baker Award, and the Creative Capital Award. She is the creator of fiftyTWO, an episodic dramedy developed at the 2020-21 Sundance Episodic Labs. She is the director of As of A Now, PBS’ Apologue for the Darkest Gods, MTV’s 9 Things, and co-director of Jay Z’s 4:44, and Back And Song with co-director Bradford Young. She has been recognized with the Sundance Institute | Comedy Central Comedy Fellowship.
Ericka Blount Danois has worked as a music and culture writer, screenwriter, author, researcher, and producer. Her award-winning works include Love, Peace and Soul: The History of the Show Soul Train and the documentaries Time is 11/matic, Tupac (Untitled), and PBS’s Finding Your Roots. Ericka’s interview portfolio includes conversations with Fidel Castro, Earth Wind & Fire, Lenny Kravitz, and Andy Rooney. She is the recipient of a Ruby Award, Deadline Club Journalism Award for Columbia University, and an award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Ericka was previously supported by the Episodic Program as a Fellow in the 2020 Sundance Institute Episodic Makers Lab. She has been recognized with the Sundance Institute | Comedy Central Comedy Fellowship.
Gone But Not Forgotten
When an anguished mother uncovers a new lead that could solve the mystery of her missing son, she may end up crossing her wealthy Texas family when she turns to an investigative reporter to help solve the case.
A native Texan, Stacy F. McDonald earned a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and then moved to Los Angeles where she worked as an assistant to a VP of production, a story analyst, and a director’s assistant. She later earned her JD from Howard University School of Law and practiced transactional law in New York. Living in Los Angeles once again, Stacy recently served as the writers assistant on Season 4 of HBO’s In Treatment and previously was the writers’ production assistant on the Netflix limited series From Scratch.
The Great Impasta
In the world’s first noodle noir, a hard-boiled rigatoni detective in the corrupt city of Los Angel Hairs struggles to sort fact from fiction as he unravels a dangerous case that could land him in hot water. Literally. Adult Animated Half-hour.
Zach Gonzalez-Landis grew up on a dirt road in a one-stoplight town in Michigan until his family moved to Tucson. He pursued comedy in college and Chicago, where he performed improv, sketch comedy, theater, and stand-up as a zombie. He holds an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, participated in the NHMC Television Writers Program, was a comedy finalist in the Disney/ABC Writers Program, and co-created the unscripted digital series Getting Bombed. As writers’ assistant on Mr. Iglesias (Netflix), Zach co-wrote the Part Three finale and is currently the writers’ assistant on The Big Leap (Fox).
From Guantánamo, with Love
When an 18-year-old Yemeni is mistaken for a battle-hardened al Qaeda general, he’s sent to the world’s most notorious military prison, where he fights to survive, regain his humanity, and win back his freedom. Based on true stories.
Mansoor Adayfi is a writer, artist, and former Guantánamo detainee held for 14 years without charges. Among Adayfi’s work are the New York Times Modern Love column “Taking Marriage Classes at Guantánamo”; the introduction for the exhibit John Jay College Art from Guantánamo exhibit; the award-winning radio documentary The Art of Now for BBC radio about art from Guantánamo; and the CBC podcast Love Me, which aired on NPR’s Snap Judgment. From Guantánamo, with Love is inspired by Adayfi’s forthcoming memoir Don’t Forget Us Here, written in collaboration with Antonio Aiello, and published by Hachette August 17, 2021.
Antonio Aiello is a writer, editor, and storyteller. As content director for PEN America, he developed written and multimedia content at the intersection of free expression advocacy and the literary arts to give voice to issues of social justice and writers in peril around the world. This included producing mini-documentaries, founding and editing a magazine of international literary translations, developing graphic narratives, and directing the PEN America multimedia archive in collaboration with Princeton University. He’s partnered with Mansoor Adayfi on Adayfi’s memoir, Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost And Found At Guantánamo published by Hachette August 17, 2021.
Hannah with the Dogs
After leaving her relationship, quitting her job, and cutting ties with her religion, Hannah copes the only way she knows how: by talking to lots of dogs—who also talk back to her.
Yvonne Hana Yi is a screenwriter from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently staffed on HBO’s series adaptation of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, helmed by Adam McKay and showrun by Enzo Mileti and Scott Wilson. She has previously worked on Raising Dion (Netflix/MACRO) and Amazon’s upcoming reboot of Mr. and Mrs. Smith by creators Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Francesca Sloane. Her original pilot Rose is being produced by The Black List and Gemma Chan’s IG Productions. She is also an alum of The Black List/Women in Film Episodic Lab. Yvonne is a graduate of NYU where she studied Art History and Media Studies, and the UCLA MFA Screenwriting Program.
Ronnie and Theo are engaged…and scared sh*tless. As they cope with generations of emotional baggage and toxic parents with screwed-up relationships, Ronnie and Theo are determined to end up happily married — despite the odds.
Carly Woodworth is an LA-based TV writer, originally from San Diego, CA. She got her start as an assistant in writers’ rooms, including The Blacklist, before getting staffed on the Netflix shows Daybreak and most recently, Lucifer. Carly is a grad of USC’s Writing for Screen and Television program, was one of four writers selected for Shonda Rhimes’ MasterClass, and co-wrote Netflix’s first fictional podcast, which was nominated for a 2020 Webby Award for Best Writing. She writes one hour and half hour left-of-center dark comedies about highly-functioning dysfunctional women. Carly is currently an Executive Story Editor on Netflix’s upcoming Sweet Tooth.
After a freak accident reawakens her ability to heal with her hands, a middle-aged Minnesotan is drawn back into her eccentric family of misfit mystics. A half-hour comedy.
Jackie Katzman was on the festival circuit in 2019 with her multi-award-winning short, The Strangeness You Feel. Her TV dramedy, Stone, is set up at Depth Of Field and Paramount with Chris Weitz (About A Boy) directing the pilot. Her TV dramedy, Sylvia, is being produced by Peter Dinklage’s Estuary Films, with Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor) directing. Jackie will be co-showrunning with Evan Dunsky (co-creator of Nurse Jackie). Upcoming, she’s directing her semi-autobiographical feature comedy, Hummingbird, produced by Bert Hamelinck and his company Caviar (Diary Of A Teenage Girl, Sound Of Metal).
Mandingo is the portrait of a Black male athlete’s search for purpose and meaning in his life after he is released early from prison.
Terrance Daye is an award winning poet and filmmaker from Long Island, New York. His creative work reimagines traditional representations of Black masculinity and male identity and invests strongly in destigmatizing mental illness within the Black community. Terrance is a two-time Spike Lee Production Fund recipient, a 2020 NewFest Emerging Black LGBTQ+ Filmmaker Award recipient and a 2020 Outfest Programming Award recipient. His recent film project -Ship: A Visual Poem won a Short Film Jury Award at 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Terrance’s original TV drama, Mandingo, participated in last year’s Sundance Episodic Labs. His animated short film project, Pritty, is currently in development.
A habitual quitter drops out of film school and impulsively buys a rundown Detroit roller rink to prove to her father (and to herself) she can turn it into a successful hotspot.
Jess dela Merced is a Filipina American writer/director from San Francisco. Jess graduated from NYU’s Graduate Film program, where she received the Spike Lee Fellowship. Her thesis film, Hypebeasts, written under Lee’s mentorship, aired on PBS and her following short film, Wait ‘Til The Wolves Make Nice, premiered at SXSW. Jess’ feature script Chickenshit is a San Francisco Film grant recipient, a Hamptons Screenwriters Lab participant, and was also selected for the Breaking Through the Lens initiative at Cannes. She was a director in the Disney ABC directing program and one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. Her latest short Phony, executive produced by Paul Feig, is being developed into a half hour comedy series with Powderkeg.
Set in the early 2000s, two best friends at Columbia seek to resolve their internal sense of unworthiness in the only way they know how: by becoming regulars at NYC’s most exclusive nightclub.
Shirin Najafi grew up in Northern California and graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in Economics. She worked in investment banking for two years before disappointing her Iranian immigrant parents and pursuing a career in entertainment. Most recently, she was a staff writer for the NBC comedy Connecting and now for American Auto (Justin Spitzer). Prior to that, she was a fellow of NBC’s Writers on the Verge 2019-2020 and part of the 2019 CBS Diversity Showcase where she was hired as one of 11 writers in the showcase’s inaugural writers’ room. She is fascinated by satirizing wealth and status. This may or may not be because her own family went bankrupt — an event that could best be described as “Persian Arrested Development.”
In this surreal comedy, eight sixty-somethings living out their golden years in an otherworldly suburb find their way of life threatened by the arrival of a mysterious newcomer with no memories of her past.
Originally from North County St. Louis, Johnny Alvarez is a queer Cuban American writer/filmmaker. In 2020, Johnny’s pilot script Somewhere Else was selected for the Sundance Episodic Lab, the Outfest Screenwriting Lab, and received a Comedy Central Grant. His film Victory Boulevard premiered at the 2018 Outfest Film Festival and screened at festivals in Chicago, Seattle, North Carolina, and elsewhere. He is an alumnus of OutSet: The Young Filmmakers Project and Actuality Media’s Documentary Outreach Program. Johnny’s writing has been featured in LEVEL, Plenitude Magazine, The Hunger Journal, and others. He is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago and is currently based in LA. He is repped by Valor Entertainment.
During the 1979 Iranian Revolution, a nightclub owner caught between the CIA and the Iranians must navigate a perilous world of smoke and mirrors in this disco-fueled espionage musical.
Rom Lotan is a screenwriter-producer from Tel-Aviv, Israel, where he served for over a decade in the Israeli Defense Forces and ultimately achieved the rank of Major. He specialized in military intelligence and diplomacy, and worked with Israel’s ally nations on intricate operations. He is an alum of “Our Generation Speaks,” an accelerator that brings Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs to create a better Middle East through business. Rom currently has two TV dramas set up at Touchstone Television and Anonymous Content Studios. He was recently announced as a BAFTA Newcomer for his work in screenwriting. Rom earned an MFA from USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program. He holds an MA in Government for Israel’s IDC and a BSC in Middle Eastern Studies and Computer Science from Haifa University.
Those Who Kill
A Black scientist working in Yosemite must go to extremes to survive with her teenage kids when they shelter in the park and face dangers both wild and human as a mysterious disaster devastates the country.
Currently story editor on NBCUniversal’s Law & Order: SVU, Melody Cooper was previously staff writer on Stage 13’s Two Sentence Horror Stories, now on Netflix. A 2019 HBO Access Writing Fellow and winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Screenplay at Urbanworld Film Festival, Melody has been named one of the Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2021 by ISA. An award-winning playwright, Melody received a Ford Foundation grant to develop her Rwanda play Sweet Mercy. Melody writes the comic book OMNI (Vol. 2: Issues #5 – 10), and her next project is writing a feature for a major streamer, soon to be announced.
Iran’s most revered assassin is living an idyllic family life in the U.S. after she betrayed her terrorist father and delivered him to the CIA. But she’s forced back in the field when he escapes, kidnaps her son, and launches a global war.
Born and raised in war-torn Beirut, Nicole Saad lived out her political thrillers from a young age. In a land conditioned by calamity, her world was run by fierce and passionate women who created a sense of normalcy, and Nicole took diligent notes that would later influence her writing. Armed with a BA in English Literature & Creative writing from FIU, Nicole set out to create fascinating characters in spellbinding global settings, interweaving volatile, historical and political events into nimble storytelling. She was most recently staffed on Taylor Sheridan’s Lioness for Paramount/Viacom.
The Sundance Institute Episodic Program is made possible by Founding Supporters Lyn and Norman Lear, and Cindy Harrell Horn and Alan Horn. Leadership Supporters include AMC and SundanceTV, Comedy Central, Netflix, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, STARZ, and WarnerMedia.