In 2013, Marisa Torelli-Pedevska began working at a residential summer camp for adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities in Rhinebeck, New York, called Camp Ramapo. It was an eye-opening experience for Torelli-Pedevska, who had suffered from a chronic illness since high school but had never interacted with a predominantly disabled community before her time at the camp.
A few years later, Torelli-Pedevska met Richie Siegel, whose sister was attending camp, and the couple quickly discovered that they both had experience in the entertainment business. Torelli-Pedevska had wanted to become a production assistant, but her condition eventually forced her to turn to the less physically demanding field of screenwriting. Siegel, meanwhile, had studied film and rarely seen programs or movies that captured his unique experience growing up with a brother with an intellectual disability.
He was not alone. According to recent studies, while 20% of the American population has a disability, less than 2% of screen characters and 0.7% of writers have disabilities.
Seeking to make an impact, the duo founded the Inevitable Foundation to respond barriers to entry faced by mid-level screenwriters with disabilities in industry. The foundation’s offerings include a talent search service, scholarship program, mentorship and advocacy opportunities. “We bring resources to the table that minimize or eliminate the ability for the industry to come up with excuses,” Siegel told me.
The foundation was launched on January 1, 2021 and has received support from the Ford Foundation, AT&T Foundation, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Disability Inclusion Fund, Netflix, Amazon, and AMC Warner Media. Torelli-Pedevska attributes her success to her very focused mission. “It’s not just disability, it’s not just disability in Hollywood, it’s not just disabled writers – it’s mid-level disabled writers, which is so specific that funders see exactly how we create change.”
A focus on mid-level disabled writers
As leaders of a new organization with limited resources, Torelli-Pedevska and Siegel’s first task was to identify ways to generate maximum impact in a landscape where other funders were already working to meet the challenges. disability representation gap in the field of entertainment.
They conducted a landscape analysis and found that existing actors were primarily focused on casting actors with disabilities and on advocacy. Siegel viewed representational efforts in casting as “an incredibly important pursuit, but a relatively latecomer when you actually look at how movies and programs are made.” Driven by the belief that they needed to come in much earlier in the development pipeline, Siegel and Torelli-Pedevska turned to writers with disabilities.
The couple were delighted to discover organizations supporting ‘baby’ or ’emerging’ writers who were just starting to break into the industry. Again, Siegel and Torelli-Pedevska viewed this support as a laudable undertaking, but also acknowledged that it can take a long time for these writers to rise to positions of power, given the intense level of competition and turnover. in industry.
Rather than targeting the large number of first-time writers who were already receiving support from other organizations, they focused on writers in the middle of the development pipeline, where there is relatively less competition. The goal? Take these writers to the next level.
The screenwriting scholarship
So how does the Inevitable Foundation help give these writers an extra boost? Siegel and Torelli-Pedevska’s landscape analysis found that the 0.7% of writers with disabilities working today typically meet two of three criteria: they have worked on a show or movie before, they have a agent or a manager, or they are in the writers. Guild of America (WGA).
Mid-career disabled writers can get an agent or join the WGA without help from the foundation. The organization’s real value comes from its ability to give mid-career screenwriters the opportunity to find their voice, match them with work opportunities, and help them assume positions of power within the industry. .
The flagship offer of the Inevitable Foundation is its Screenwriting Scholarship, which offers mid-career writers a scholarship and mentoring workshops with successful writers with disabilities. The foundation launched a call for applications last April and received more than 500 applications. Fifty-seven percent of applicants identified as female or non-binary, half as people of color, and 45% as LGBTQIA.
These statistics underline the commitment of the foundation intersectionality approach. “It’s so important to us because disability is often left out of the diversity conversation, both in entertainment and historically in philanthropy,” Siegel said, noting his team is making a concerted effort to remind producers that “disability is not an exclusive identity; it impacts all other forms of identity in various ways.
The foundation formed committees of storytellers with disabilities to review applications. “We wanted to make sure there was a series of checkpoints throughout the process so it’s not just about ‘submit a script and then we’ll tell you if you’ve won,'” said Torelli-Pedevska. If, for example, a contestant introduced a character with a disability into the script, committee members would ask questions such as, “‘Is this a story that needs to be told now?’ “”
Last November, the foundation announced its Fall 2021 Screenwriting Fellows—Shaina Ghuraya and her writing partners Greg Machlin and Aoife Baker. Ghuraya and the Machlin and Baker team received a $40,000 grant and had access to six months of tailored mentorship, workshops and networking opportunities. They joined Shani Am. Moore and Kalen Feeney, the program’s Spring 2021 Fellows. The foundation is currently accepting applications for its Spring 2022 Fellowship. Click here for more information.
Siegel and Torelli-Pedevska also found that producers want to hire experienced writers with disabilities, but often say they don’t know where to find them. The more they delved into the matter, the more they realized that producers’ frustration was not due to a lack of information: there was no shortage of databases full of highly qualified candidates.
On the contrary, the problem was that there were too many many such databases and that the information was not organized in an efficient or intuitive way. “Sorting 300 names in a database is really difficult,” Siegel said. “It forces the person trying to make the rental to find the needle in the haystack.”
In response, the foundation created the Content Development Concierge, which provides Hollywood makers with a list of 20-30 mid-level writers, along with their writing examples and personal story. “It’s a really curated list and there’s no way to apply,” Siegel said. This targeted approach allows producers looking for, say, a comedy writer, to identify a highly qualified candidate without having to sift through hundreds of candidates across multiple spreadsheets. “It’s a low-impact, high-impact way to solve this problem of recruiting underrepresented talent,” Siegel said.
The service also builds networks between writers, showrunners and executives. “You have to be good at what you do, but you also have to know people,” Torelli-Pedevska told me. “So that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do — connect the dots so that writers with disabilities can have these important networking opportunities.”
Another finding from Siegel and Torelli-Pedevska’s landscape analysis was the extent to which physical barriers to access impeded the development of writers with disabilities. “If you’re in a wheelchair, that means being able to get into the buildings you work in,” Siegel said. “If you are deaf or hard of hearing, it means having access to transcriptions from an interpreter. You are simply looking for the opportunity to have the opportunity to get the job.
The pair found that these obstacles remain in place due to the predictable perception that it would be too costly to tackle them. Four months ago, the foundation set out to test this thesis and better understand how these barriers affect talent with disabilities. The result, a study titled “The Cost of Hosting,” found that these cost issues are grossly overstated. It encourages the industry to make the necessary investments to create a fairer playing field. The foundation will publish the report in the coming weeks.
Building on this research and the experiences of the past year, the folks at the Inevitable Foundation want to continually educate funders, especially those in the corporate world, about the importance of supporting this work. “We’re at this matrix of the disability space, the entertainment space and the philanthropy space,” Siegel said. “It all blends together, and I think that’s what resonates in many circles.”
Of course, funders have limited resources and have to compromise. For Siegel and Torelli-Pedevska, this means reminding funders that support for writers with disabilities does not exist in a vacuum, but rather complements broader efforts to build equity and support diverse constituencies.
For the future, the team is developing a Emerging Screenwriting Fellowship to bridge the gap between beginning writers and mid-career writers. The foundation is also developing its internal infrastructure to support projected growth throughout 2022 and beyond. “It’s cool to be a year old,” Siegel said. “There has been a lot of momentum, and we are excited to see where we will be at the end of this year, given the ambitious level of impact we want to have.”
In a related analysis, check out my conversation with Esther Grimm, the executive director of 3Arts Chicago, who deployed her 3Arts residency fellowship to build an audience for disability art and strengthen the professional pipeline.