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Easterseals’ Disability Film Challenge Aims to Help an Overlooked Industry Group

Variety logo Variety 4/21/2017 Emily Mae Czachor
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More than 56 million people in the U.S. live with some sort of disability. And while this demographic amounts to nearly 20% of the country’s population, individuals with disabilities are seldom spotlighted in mainstream media — and, when they are, the roles often consist of stereotyped, stock characters who tend to be either defined by their disabilities, or otherwise relegated to the sidelines of the story.

In fact, of the 100 top-grossing films in 2015, only 2.4% of all speaking characters were depicted with a disability. And, more often than not, characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors.

The Disability Film Challenge seeks to alter those statistics. In an effort to illuminate the oft-overlooked trove of artistic talent within his own community, actor-comedian-producer Nic Novicki has teamed up with Easterseals — the largest disability services organization in the nation — to launch the fourth annual challenge, a weekend-long film-making competition that asks aspiring storytellers to write, produce and complete a short film (prompted by an undisclosed theme and a set of logistical parameters) over the course of 55 hours.

This year’s challenge commences April 21 and runs through April 23. Contestants may register in teams, with the only caveat being the inclusion of at least one artist with a disability.

As someone with a disability himself, Novicki created the Disability Film Challenge in 2013 in response to the grave and sweeping lack of representation both onscreen and behind the camera. The key to heightened visibility onscreen, he says, is heightened visibility behind the scenes — in writers’ rooms, in directorial chairs, in executive positions. And the first step toward that kind of progress, as Novicki has learned, begins when an artist takes their career into their own hands.

“The roles that I wanted to play weren’t out there,” Novicki says. “So, rather than waiting around for auditions, I started writing and producing my own content. It’s such an empowering feeling to be able to be in charge of your own career.”

The challenge aims to provide its contestants with this sense of artistic agency. It seeks to empower filmmakers, actors, and other creatively inclined individuals — with and without disabilities — to use storytelling as a platform, not only to showcase their talents as artists, but also to share their diverse, multi-dimensional perspectives, and hopefully begin to carve out a space for this community within Hollywood’s persistently evolving diversity conversation.

David Harrell, a New York-based writer and actor who received last year’s coveted Best Film Award for his quippy, noir-mystery short, “Lefty & Loosey” (for which, Harrell went on to win the actor prize at Australia’s annual Focus on Ability Short Film Festival), praises Novicki and the Disability Film Challenge for its strides in crafting more authentic stories about disabilities: stories that incorporate disabled characters in an organic way, and succeed in humanizing those characters as three-dimensional beings while still acknowledging the disability element.

“I think it’s important for artists to create their own opportunity. This challenge is really great for that,” Harrell says. “But also, within a broader social context, it helps to reshape the narrative of disability by allowing individuals with disabilities to be involved in [the film-making process].”

Harrell plans to participate in this year’s challenge once again.

In order to guide the contestants through this process and offer them the opportunity to connect with and learn from active Hollywood professionals, each year’s challenge assembles a panel of mentors, who consult with and provide feedback to the winners after the competition has ended.

This year, Novicki’s robust industry Rolodex turned out a string of entertainment experts — including veteran writer-producer Scott Silveri (“Speechless,” “Friends”), Randall Park (of “Fresh Off the Boat”), and acclaimed casting director Pam Dixon (“City Slickers,” “The Green Lantern”) — who are as knowledgeable as they are committed to breaking down Hollywood’s relentlessly high barriers to entry with regard to individuals with disabilities, whether that be onscreen or behind the scenes.

Since the challenge’s inception, aspiring filmmakers from around the world have created more than 150 films, which have been viewed online, as well as screened at a variety of independent film festivals. In addition to Harrell, winners have included: Dickie Hearts, who received the challenge’s coveted Filmmaker Award in 2015, and who went on to win an HBO Project Greenlight digital series competition; and Jenna Kanell, winner of the Best Film Award in 2015, who went on to host a TED talk about her experience competing in the Challenge.

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