Monday, March 22, 2021

SXSW Review: "Best Summer Ever," the first film with a fully integrated cast and crew of people with and without disabilities

From Flixist

Part Grease, part High School Musical, Best Summer Ever is a musical taking on the high school genre with a fully-integrated cast of people with and without disabilities. The conversation around inclusion, disability, and representation in Hollywood needs to be changed — starting with creating inclusive films. From that standpoint, it’s a pioneering production and a really wild ride.

Best Summer Ever
Director: Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli
Release date: March 18, 2021 (SXSW)
Rating: Not yet rated

Best Summer Ever is a lot of fun, full of actors and young people who are all so talented. I’m glad that the storyline hasn’t been specifically diluted for people with disabilities: the writers’ goal is to treat the film like a traditional high school story where everyone is equal and the storyline isn’t contrived specifically around disabilities. It’s presented with closed captions for accessibility and the film is wholly inclusive in its cast and crew.

The plot’s driven by the usual hallmarks of the genre: Anthony (Ricky Wilson Jr.) is a popular quarterback hiding the fact that he spent the summer at dance camp, and he meets Sage (Shannon DeVido), a girl who is always on the move with her family. The highest-stakes part of the film is that Tony might get exposed as a dancer to his high school, when the entire school seems to count on him to win this year’s football season, breaking a 25-year losing streak for the team.

There’s a really bizarre storyline in which Sage’s two mothers grow cannabis for medicinal use, so they’re always on the move, traveling around the country seeking out the next growing season. It has a lot to do with their very anti-establishment philosophy and it seems to ring true throughout the entire film, affecting each of the characters. 

True to the genre, it can feel a bit cliched at times, but it’s all part of the fun. The rival cheerleader Beth (Madeline Rhodes) is brilliantly over-zealous, stringing along with a group of followers who do her bidding. A plot unfolds beneath the subplot of the teen romance, as Beth sets out to sabotage Sage’s new life. She’s no match, though, for the pair of savvy teens and their plan to confound everyone’s expectations of them.

If the plot felt contrived at times, I couldn’t have predicted the madness of the ending. It took a turn I didn’t expect and gave villains their comeuppance, meting out justice with plenty of slapstick comedy. A special mention has to go to Emily Kranking who plays Nancy, Sage’s first friend in her new town, and the actor responsible for some of the best comedic delivery of the film.

In the end, Tony reconciles two of his passions – football and dance – with a little help from Sage. And the finale is an explosive, show-stopping number that rounds everything up just as you’d hope. There’s a bonus end-credit sequence showing the cast and crew in rehearsals, and not only is it representative, it’s clear they’re having a blast. Best Summer Ever is a fun, heartwarming, and inclusive film for this year’s festival, the likes of which we need to see more of in Hollywood. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

The New York Times, National Center on Disability and Journalism partner to enhance coverage of disability issues

 NCDJ logo and New York Times logo together on black and grey grid.

By Kasey Brammell, NCDJ

The National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University is partnering with The New York Times to create a new fellowship program to enhance coverage of disability issues and people with disabilities.

The program, to launch later this year, will place an early-career journalist in The Times newsroom each year for the next two years to develop expertise and report on a range of disability issues. It is set to be funded by philanthropy.

The fellow will be part of a larger fellowship cohort at The Times and will receive mentoring from both a Times’ staff member with expertise in covering disabilities and the NCDJ, which provides support and advice to journalists around the world who cover such issues. The NCDJ also will provide training to the Times’ newsroom.

Nearly one in five people in the United States lives with a disability, but these issues are undercovered, said Ted Kim, director of Early Career Journalism Strategy and Recruiting for The New York Times. “Few avenues exist to develop journalistic expertise on disability issues because such beats do not exist at most news outlets,” he said. “The lack of coverage, in turn, results in a lack of awareness about issues that affect a large portion of the country.”

Kristin Gilger, interim dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU and director of the NCDJ, echoed the need for more and better coverage of disability issues and people with disabilities. “This fellowship program is an important step in the right direction at one of the nation’s top media institutions,” she said.

The application is now open for the first fellow, who will join The Times in June. Preference will be given to promising early-career journalists who also have experience living with a disability or who have developed a deep understanding of disability through the experiences of a family member or loved one. The deadline to submit an application is 5 p.m., New York Time, on March 31, 2021. Applicants are advised to submit well before the deadline.

The fellows will be part of The New York Times Fellowship program , a talent pipeline initiative started in 2019 to seed and diversify the next generation of journalists in local newsrooms across America. It trains journalists in reporting, audio, visual and other disciplines.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism is a service of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU. For the past 12 years at Cronkite, the center has provided support and training for journalists and other communications professionals with the goal of improving media coverage of disability issues and people with disabilities.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Slamdance Film Festival's new 2021 Unstoppable program of films features 22 films with disabled actors, filmmakers, disability themes

 From the Slamdance Film Festival:

The Slamdance Film Festival's new 2021 program, Unstoppable, features 22 short films from up and coming disabled filmmakers, feature actors with disabilities, or highlight the conversation of disabilities in today’s world. 

The online Festival runs Feb. 12-25.

Unstoppable is entirely programmed by disabled artists and the program’s mission is to amplify the contributions of the disabled community and advocate for their rightful inclusion in our industry. 

As an organization known for giving voice to talented creators whose stories otherwise might not be discovered, it’s in Slamdance’s DNA to undertake this new purpose.

“I’m honored to be part of the wonderful Unstoppable team and embrace the idea of creating a safe space for filmmakers with disabilities and take our creativity as seriously as everyone else in this industry. I feel like we are building a bridge for others to cross and I am so proud to be a part of it,“ said Unstoppable programmer Juliet Romeo.

Presented by Hulu, the Unstoppable online short film showcase of creators with disabilities is available on the Slamdance YouTube channel.


A$$ Level (USA)
Director: Alison Becker / Screenwriter: Santina Muha
A$$ Level is a comedic music video that celebrates life with a disability while paying homage to 90s dance videos.
Cast: Santina Muha, Lydia Hearst, Travis Coles, Amy Hessler

Best Friend (United States)
Director / Screenwriter: Cory Reeder
After moving cross-country, a young girl with Down syndrome struggles to fit into her new surroundings.
Cast: Gitane Neil, Kim Kendall, Robert Buscemi, Diana Elizabeth Jordan

Committed (United States)
Directors: Rachel Handler and Crystal Arnette – Screenwriters: Kara Moulter, Rachel Handler, Melanie Waldman
When Calvin announces that he’s proposing to Leesa…and then they’re moving to the suburbs, Rebecca enlists Dennis’s help to sabotage the proposal and keep their friends around for good.
Cast: Rachel Handler, Jaleesa Graham, Colin Buckingham, Damond McFarland

ENDOMIC (Canada, US) World Premiere
Directors / Screenwriters / Producers: Camille Hollett-French, Ipek Ensari
An exhaustive meta-analytic review documenting a mysterious “women’s” issue, otherwise known as endometriosis1 (1term used to describe a clinical etiology that thus far has only been identified in primates with a female reproductive system, an anatomical structure of decidedly lower importance in comparison to those of the male primate.)
Cast: AJ Simmons, Ipek Ensari, Rhiannon Collett, Natasha Richards

Feeling Through (USA)
Director / Screenwriter: Doug Roland
A teen-in-need’s reluctant act of kindness toward a DeafBlind man becomes a night-long journey, creating a bond between them that gives the teen hope for the future.
Cast: Steven Prescod, Robert Tarango

Flying Eggs (United States)
Director: Sheldon Chau – Screenwriter: Antonio Garcia Jr.
A teenage boy in a Brooklyn apartment interrupts a man on his morning run by throwing eggs out the window.
Cast: Antonio Garcia Jr., Christopher M. Lopes

Full Picture (USA) World Premiere
Director: Jacob Reed – Screenwriters: Santina Muha, Jacob Reed, Elizabeth Reichelt, Stephen Sanow
Santina has been in a wheelchair since she was six years old. With meetings, hangouts, and classes happening virtually due to the Coronavirus quarantine, she’s experiencing something new: Choosing when (or if) to disclose her disability.
Cast: Santina Muha

Human Helper (United States)
Director / Screenwriter: Shaina Ghuraya
Human Helper is a sci-fi comedy short about a doctor’s mission to make artificially intelligent human-like helpers not ableist.
Cast: Nicole Evans, Alora Kinley, Anthony Golden Jr., Shauna Turnmire

How Much Am I Worth? (United States)
Directors: Rachel Handler and Catriona Rubenis-Stevens
This stirring documentary explores the failures of the U.S. health system through the lens of four disabled women.
Cast: Rachel Handler, Andrea Dalzell, Jaleesa Graham, Denise Castelli

I Wish I Never (USA)
Director / Screenwriter: Shaina Ghuraya
This music video tackles the reality of women with disabilities in abusive relationships.
Cast: Angela Rockwood, Lucas Maschi

My Layers (Canada) World Premiere
Director / Screenwriter / Producer: Susanne Serres
A dance & art short film about psychosis – from mental illness to full recovery.
Cast: Kym Dominique-Ferguson 

On The Outs (USA)
Director: Jordan Melograna – Producers: Mark Stroh, David Carlson, Anna Guy, Jordan Melograna, Tina Pinedo
On The Outs follows three people with various disabilities, including vision impairment, brain injury, and mental illness, as they reenter the community from Washington State prisons.
Cast: Eldorado Fleetwood Cadillac Brown, Tyrone Gatherings, Kara Moser

Road to Zion (USA)
Director: Andrew Reid – Screenwriters: Andrew Reid, Jeremy Palmer
A Jamaican immigrant finds his life in LA shaken by forces outside his control as he struggles to understand how far he is willing to go to protect his family.

Safety Net (Australia) North American Premiere
Director: Anthea Williams / Screenwriter: Julian Larnach
Thirteen-year-old Terry is in emergency care with guardians after his mother’s arrest. Cheeky and living with a disability, he outwits one guardian while finding exactly the connection he needs from the other.
Cast: William Best, Nikki Shiels, Steve Rodgers

Single (USA)
Director / Screenwriter: Ashley Eakin
A girl born with one arm gets set-up on a blind date with a guy who has one hand, and she is pissed!
Cast: Jordan Wiseley, Delaney Feener

Stilts (United Kingdom) North American Premiere

Director / Screenwriter: Dylan Holmes Williams

A young man tries to escape a surreal dystopia where everyone wears ginormous metal stilts.

Cast: Tom Glynn-Carney, Con O’Neill, Hebe Beardsall, Amanda Hale

The Bin (Philippines) US Premiere

Director / Screenwriter: Jocelyn Tamayao

A father struggles to connect with his son, who grows to love a language not native to his tongue.

Cast: Patrick Silver Padao, Brian Arda, Zernice Mae Cruz, and Juner N. Quiambao

The Butterfly Circus (USA)
Director: Joshua Weigel – Screenwriters: Joshua Weigel, Rebekah Weigel
The story of a renowned circus troupe traveling through the devastated American landscape at the height of the Great Depression, lifting the spirits of audiences along the way. During their travels they discover a man without limbs in a carnival sideshow, but after an intriguing encounter with the showman, he becomes driven to hope against everything he has ever believed.
Cast: Nick Vujicic, Eduardo Verastegui, Dou Jones

The Co-Op (USA) World Premiere
Director / Screenwriter: Cameron S. Mitchell
A robber’s plan goes horribly awry when he realizes the store he has targeted is full of disabled people.
Cast: Josh Matthews, Emilie Krause, Emma Mitchell, David Mitchell

Union (USA)
Director / Screenwriter: Julia Neill
A young Civil War surgeon in the Union army visits home with an unexpected companion: a soldier whose arm she amputated.
Cast: Scott Barton, Amanda Forstrom, Zack Rukavina, Evan Casey, Barbara Zablocky

Unspoken (USA)
Directors / Screenwriters: Emma Zurcher-Long, Julia Ngeow & Geneva Peschka
A groundbreaking point-of-view documentary exploring a non-fluent speaker’s world. 14-year-old Emma challenges societal judgment surrounding autism…one keystroke at a time.
Cast: Emma Zurcher-Long

Verisimilitude (United Kingdom)
Director: David Proud / Screenwriter: Justin Edgar
A struggling disabled actress gets a job advising a film star how to be disabled for his latest role.
Cast: Ruth Madeley, Esther Smith, Laurie Davidson, Alice Lowe

Sunday, January 31, 2021

NBCUniversal pledges to include actors with disabilities in auditions for all film, TV projects

From The Associated Press:

In the picture, actress Eileen Grubba appears in a scene from "New Amsterdam." NBCUniversal said Jan. 29 that actors with disabilities will be included in auditions for all new productions, an agreement sought by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a disability rights advocate. Grubba, an actor and disability activist, said NBCUniversal's action, coupled with that of CBS Entertainment, could lead to wider change. (NBCUniversal via AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Actors with disabilities will be included in auditions for each new film and television production at NBCUniversal, which becomes the second major media company to make such a commitment.

NBCUniversal said Friday that the pledge covers projects by the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, Universal Studio Group, NBC network and Peacock streaming service.

The pledge was made in response to calls for change by the Ruderman Family Foundation, following a similar commitment the disability rights advocate received from CBS Entertainment in 2019.

“My hope is that other major studios in the industry will now see NBCUniversal and say, ‘This is something that makes sense and we’re also going to commit to this,’” said Jay Ruderman, head of the Boston-based foundation. Disney, Sony and major streaming services including Netflix and Amazon are among others the foundation would like to enlist, he said.

As more people with disabilities are seen in roles, “it will have ramifications throughout society,” Ruderman told The Associated Press. Comcast-owned NBCUniversal signed on after a series of conversations with the foundation, he said.

The company is committed “to creating content that authentically reflects the world we live in, and increasing opportunities for those with disabilities is an integral part of that,” said NBCUniversal executive vice president Janine Jones-Clark, whose portfolio includes film, TV and streaming inclusion.

Outside calls for action are important and “hold the industry accountable of the work we still need to do in order to see systemic change,” Jones-Clark said in a statement.

According to the most recent foundation report, only about 22% of characters with disabilities on network and streaming shows in 2018 were “authentically portrayed by actors with disabilities.” That’s an improvement over 2016′s finding that 5% of such TV roles went to actors with disabilities.

Actor Kurt Yaeger a member of the SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disability Committee, lauded the new agreement. “It’s what I’ve been pushing for 10 years,” he said, given how infrequently studios and producers open the door to people with disabilities.

Yaeger, who uses a prosthetic leg because of a motorcycle accident, has appeared as a guest actor in more than 50 TV episodes, including ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and Netflix’s upcoming “Another Life.” That’s more than most people who are auditioning regularly for continuing series roles, he said, adding, “I’d like more of those opportunities for me and my fellow performers with disabilities.”

While NBCUniversal’s commitment is a “great start,” Yaeger said he wants to see every other network and studio do the same thing and allow their progress to be monitored.

Eileen Grubba, an actor and disability activist, said NBCUniversal’s action, coupled with that of CBS Entertainment, could lead to wider change. Grubba, whose credits include HBO’s “Watchmen” and NBC’s “New Amsterdam,” already considered both companies to be leaders in disability diversity.

“The two of them together, standing up and saying, ‘This will happen, this will be done,’ puts pressure on the rest of the industry,” said Grubba, who uses a leg brace because of childhood spinal cord damage. “This is a massive win for this community and for inclusion, and hopefully for all the people who have been in this industry many, many years without ever getting opportunities.”

The growing pressure on movie and TV makers to give women, people of color and the LGBTQ community greater representation may have increased awareness of one of the country’s largest and overlooked minority groups, Ruderman said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 26% of the U.S. population has some form of disability. Their near-invisibility on screen, both as characters and actors, influences how the community is perceived, Ruderman said.

“Not seeing people who have disabilities in film and on TV does impact society, it does shape attitudes,” he said. Three decades since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, unemployment remains high among people with disabilities and ”a lot of that has to do with stigma.”

”I don’t think you can mandate through legislation how people feel. But I think that entertainment can change the way people feel,” Ruderman said.

Although the agreement with NBCUniversal doesn’t establish hiring goals, Grubba said the value of getting a chance to audition shouldn’t be undersold.

“It requires repeated attempts to get good at it,” she said. “And when you’re competing against people who audition 10 times a week and you’re only getting in one to three times a year, if you’re lucky, you don’t have the same skills in dealing with the pressures and the best way to get through them.”

Saturday, January 30, 2021

"CODA," Sundance film about sole hearing member of Deaf New England family who discovers she has a talent for singing, purchased by Apple for record-breaking $25 million

From The Hollywood Reporter:

Apple has nabbed the rights to Sundance drama CODA from writer-director Sian Heder in a deal worth $25 million according to sources.

Heading into the fest, it was anticipated that the movie would be one of Sundance's hottest titles. A bidding war began after the movie's day one premiere, which saw Netflix and Amazon put in bids for the movie.

The final $25 million price tag makes the film the biggest sale in the festival's history, beating out last year's record-breaker Palm Springs, which sold to Neon and Hulu in a deal that was worth $22 million.  (Prior to Palm Springs, 2016's Birth of a Nation held the record with a $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight.)

The title, which premiered in the U.S. dramatic competition, follows Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her deaf family. When the family’s fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and abandoning her family.

Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant and Marlee Matlin also star in the film.

Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi, and Patrick Wachsberger produced the movie, with Ardavan Safaee and Sarah Borch-Jacobsen executive producing.

"I hope that this film and Apple’s powerful support will help kick down some doors standing in the way of inclusion and representation and pave a path for more stories that center characters from the Deaf and Disabled community," said Heder. "The world has waited too long for these stories to be told. Now is the time. No more excuses.”

CAA Media Finance and ICM Partners negotiated the deal on behalf of the filmmakers.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Oscar-worthy ‘Sound of Metal’ a ‘wake-up’ to Deaf culture


From Variety:

Amazon’s “Sound of Metal” is a piece of terrific filmmaking — and its achievements are even more impressive considering Hollywood’s depictions of deafness in the past.

“Sound of Metal,” directed by Darius Marder, stars Riz Ahmed (pictured) as a heavy-metal drummer who begins to lose his hearing. The film has a three-act structure: Attempts by drummer Ruben to cope; his time spent in a deaf community; and his attempts to re-create his life as it was before the hearing loss.

The heart of the film is the middle segment, when community leader Joe (the excellent Paul Raci) tells Ruben that deafness “is not something to fix” and his assignment is simple: “Learn how to be deaf.”

Director Marder tells Variety, “This film is a wake-up. Most people think of deafness as a physical disability. We don’t understand that it is in fact a culture.”

In the past, most onscreen characters with any disability have been played by able-bodied actors. “I made it very clear that I wasn’t going to represent deaf people unless the actors were deaf or from a deaf culture,” Marder says. By way of example, he adds, “Joe is such a demanding role and some money people saw that as a role for a name actor. It was difficult to tell financiers, ‘We’re not gonna do that.’ ”

This respect of deaf culture makes the film an exception to Hollywood history. Oscar winners include Jane Wyman (“Johnny Belinda”) and Patty Duke (“The Miracle Worker”), and nominees include Alan Arkin (“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”) and Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”). All four played deaf characters, and all four are hearing actors.

Sometimes movies introduce deaf characters for laughs (the Neil Simon “Murder by Death”), or as a plot device in thrillers (the 1987 “Suspect,” “The River Wild,” “Hush,” et al.)

Frequently a film tries to make a supporting character unusual by making them deaf or hard of hearing, including “Creed,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “In the Company of Men,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Nashville.” In the vast majority of these films, the deaf character is alone in a hearing world, with no sense of community.

There are notable exceptions, such as “Children of a Lesser God,” starring Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, and characters played by CJ Jones in “Baby Driver”; Russell Harvard in “There Will Be Blood” and the biopic “The Hammer”; and Millicent Simmonds in “Wonderstruck” and “A Quiet Place.”

Did Marder consider casting a deaf actor to play drummer Ruben?

“I didn’t, because there’s a process that Ruben goes through as a character, and that the actor and the audience will go through. It’s a process of being thrust into a world that’s unfamiliar. Hearing people become the minority. You would lose that element if the actor was deaf, because they would come from a place of comfort.” The audience learns “how to be deaf” at the same time Ruben does and part of the dramatic tension in the film — scripted by Marder, Derek Cianfrance and Abraham Marder — is wondering if Ruben will ever adjust.

After Hollywood’s sad history of deaf depictions, Marder says, “Movies that try to appropriate deaf culture and represent it without proper connections are pretty offensive. Deaf people always remember when someone pretends to be deaf. But I have noticed a generous spirit in the deaf culture. They’re not looking to tear things down.

“The deaf community unfortunately has gotten used to being ignored and dismissed. They are moving from feeling grateful that people even notice that they exist, to realizing that they should be noticed.

“As Paul always says, ‘Nothing about us without us.’ ”

Sunday, November 15, 2020

"Run" on Hulu, an excellent thriller starring wheelchair user Kiera Allen, moves disability representation in positive direction

 Review by Beth A. Haller, Media dis&dat

Note: “Run” was originally slated for theatrical release in May, but when the Covid-19 pandemic shut theaters, Hulu bought distribution rights in August. “Run” will premiere on Hulu November 20, 2020.

“Run” is a bold thriller with “American Horror Story” staple and Emmy winner Sarah Paulson and newcomer Kiera Allen, who is a wheelchair user. The Lionsgate film, directed by Aneesh Chaganty, is the first Hollywood studio film to star a wheelchair user since 1948, when Susan Peters starred in “Sign of the Ram” for MGM. (Peters, already an Academy Award-nominated actor, became disabled in a gun accident in 1945.)

Allen is the true star of the film and has the most screen time as the home-schooled teen, Chloe, who begins to suspect all is not right in her isolated, rural home that she shares with her mother Diane (Paulson). Chloe is ready to break free and go to college and that sets off the terror. 

Unlike other films that disable characters to make them vulnerable, the Chloe character's disability in “Run” is just another character trait - one that aids her resourcefulness, as her home schooling does. Several scenes feature Allen's character MacGyvering her way around obstacles. It is thrilling to watch, and the audience becomes invested in Chloe figuring out the secrets and out-maneuvering Diane’s control. It also confirms that Hollywood studios should be casting many more disabled actors for all kinds of roles: Allen gives a brilliant physical performance because she has a number of scenes with no dialogue. Chloe ingeniously figures out workarounds when presented with any difficulty.

Paulson’s Diane shows her finesse with the thriller genre as her character subtly shifts from motherly to menacing. Chloe and Diane’s relationship arc takes the audience on a psychological ride through the awakening to the secrets around Chloe. Diane believes she can control Chloe because of her disability, not realizing she has raised a resilient young woman who is every bit her match. 

The film also uses CGI in one scene in a way I have long advocated - to show a wheelchair-using character walking in the past or in the future, but through CGI, a disabled actor is used in the scene with CGI’d walking.

“Run” illustrates how the representation of a disabled character can have depth and nuance, but having a disability is not the only memorable thing about the character. Director Chaganty took a collaborative approach in working with Allen to make sure she, as a disabled person, help craft an authentic character. Read about their work together here.  

“Run” feels like the beginning of a new positive trajectory for disabled characters in film. I hope that all Hollywood studios continue on this path of authentic representation.


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Entertainers discuss disability representation in Hollywood

From The Associated PressIn this combination photo, Marlee Matlin, from left, arrives at the 38th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards on June 19th, 2011 in Las Vegas, Millicent Simmonds arrives at the 24th annual Critics' Choice Awards on Jan. 13, 2019, in Santa Monica, Calif., Danny Woodburn attends the premiere of "Dead Ant" on Oct. 10, 2017, in Los Angeles and Maysoon Zayid attends the Women's Media Awards on Oct. 22, 2019, in New York. Matlin, Simmonds, Woodburn and Zayid are just a few of the Hollywood insiders who participated in a series of virtual panels Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, examining the state of disability representation in Hollywood. The series is hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in celebration of the 30th anniversary year of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It’s an old cliche that if an actor wants to win an Oscar, he or she should consider playing a character with a disability. And it’s not entirely unfounded advice: 61 actors have been nominated for playing a character with a disability and 27 have walked away winners. But only two of those actors actually had a disability — Marlee Matlin in “Children of a Lesser God” and Harold Russell in “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

That’s just one of the things that needs to change, according to a group of entertainment industry professionals with disabilities including actors Danny Woodburn, “A Quiet Place’s” Millicent Simmonds and “Peanut Butter Falcon’s” Zack Gottsagen. They and other creatives with disabilities, from directors to VFX artists, spoke about the state of representation in front of and behind the camera in series of virtual panels organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that debuted Monday night. The panels, funded in part by a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation, coincides with the 30th anniversary year of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It would be really helpful to have a disabled (Disney) princess,” said actor and comedian Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy.

Zayid noted that people with visible and invisible disabilities make up about 20% of the American population but a miniscule number of characters on television and in film.

“The message being sent out to disabled kids is you do not belong in this world,” Zayid said. “People with disabilities face enormous amounts of bullying, violence and discrimination. Positive images of disability can stop that.”

Part of that is casting actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities. Simmonds, who is deaf, said she’s had to go up against non-disabled actors for disabled roles. She recalled that her “A Quiet Place” director John Krasinski had to fight to cast a deaf actor and that producers wanted someone who was hearing.

“Deaf roles should be played by deaf actors,” she said through an interpreter.

At times she’s even taken it a step forward to advocate for herself.

“I’m not above calling directors or producers and suggesting that they have a deaf actress for a particular role,” she said.

But another part of the equation is giving actors rich and nuanced storylines that go beyond the three they usually get: “‘You can’t love me because I’m disabled,’ ‘heal me’ or ‘kill me,’” said Zayid.

Woodburn, who has dwarfism, remembers watching actors like Michael Dunn when he was young and seeing only stereotypes and tropes like the “sad little man” or the “devious little man” and storylines that were the same.

There is also the issue of working and how productions can be more accommodating to people with disabilities both on screen and behind the scenes. Many noted that they don’t want to ask for special accommodations.

Zayid remembered being unable to get into her trailer on the set of “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” and basically had to ask a production assistant to help hoist her up.

“Adam Sandler saw and said, ‘What is happening? Make her trailer accessible!” I said I didn’t want to be high maintenance,” she said. “He said ‘look around, we’re in Hollywood.’”

Jim LeBrecht, who directed the Netflix documentary “Crip Camp,” said it could help if the industry re-thought its own barriers to entry, like starting as a production assistant who has to carry 14 cups of coffee and work 20 hour days to get a foot in the door.

“Instead of asking what you won’t be able to do, ask is there anything I can do to help you do the best work you can,” LeBrecht said. “None of us got to your door by being oversensitive and mad at everybody...we are comfortable with our disability.”

VFX supervisor Kaitlyn Yang said that people with disabilities can be particularly effective in post-production roles. She’s also found a silver-lining in the video conferencing realities of COVID-era filmmaking: She doesn’t have to wonder now if she should address her wheelchair.

“Video conferencing is taking away the uncomfortableness that people might have if I were to take a meeting and roll into the conference room,” Yang said. “It puts us on an equal playing field.”

Talent manager Eryn Brown hopes that disability representation reach the same level of discussion as LGBTQ and racial and ethnic diversity. She said the ingrained stigma around it has even made her reticent to discuss it with her clients.

“A raised awareness in this moment of cultural reckoning is imperative,” Brown said. “Anyone at any moment can become disabled so it’s in everyone’s best interests in the world to be accommodating.”

The film academy, which puts on the Oscars, has been working to increase diversity in its own ranks and in the industry and recently set inclusion standards for best picture nominees.

“As the Academy continues to examine longstanding issues of representation within the film industry, it’s imperative we bring conversations about disabilities to the forefront,” said Christine Simmons, who heads the Academy’s office of representation, inclusion and equity.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

BBC America’s ‘Crip Tales’ features the talent of people with disabilities

from BBC America

BBC America has announced in September that October 1 would be the world premiere date for CripTales – a collection of six short films curated by Mat Fraser (His Dark Materials, American Horror Story) – each one written, directed and performed by a person living with disabilities.

The six 15-minute monologues will premiere on Thursday, October 1 at 10pm ET on BBC America and the entire collection of films will also be available to stream at the start of National Disability Employment Awareness Month across the digital platforms of the AMC Networks Entertainment group: BBC America, AMC, IFC, SundanceTV and AMC+.

Each film is a fictional monologue capturing a life-changing moment for a person with disabilities, based on factual research and lived experience and spanning the last 50 years of British history.

The monologues are written by Mat FraserJackie HaganJack ThorneGenevieve BarrTom WentworthMatilda Ibini; performed by Mat FraserRobert Softley GaleRuth MadeleyJackie HaganLiz CarrCarly Houston; and directed by Ewan MarshallAmit Sharma and Jenny Sealey.

The films cover a variety of experiences, from an actor (played by Fraser) in the present day waiting to go into an audition and dreading how it will be, to a young woman in 1968 (played by Madeley; Years and Years, BBC America’s The Watch) contemplating the future of her pregnancy.

“I’m so proud and excited to present these wonderful stories for mainstream TV audiences around the world, thanks to BBC America and BBC Studios,” said Fraser. “The authentic voices, taut direction and shining performances combine to make a series of diverse and dramatic monologues that are compelling, refreshing, and above all, entertaining.”

CripTales brings to our screens a beautiful collection of short films, curated by the incredibly talented Mat Fraser, shining a light on stories that don’t often make it to primetime,” said Courtney Thomasma, Executive Director of BBC America. “At times hilarious and at others heart-breaking, these monologues exemplify both the diversity of experience among people living with disabilities and the thoroughly relatable dilemmas we all face in life.”

During the broadcast and online, AMC Networks will share with viewers how they can support the efforts of The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), one of the leading national cross-disability civil rights organization that advocates for the full recognition of rights of over 60 million Americans with disabilities.

To mark the launch of CripTales and October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month, AMC Networks will share a Visibility Collection that includes CripTales, Critics Choice Award winner Push Girls, and This Close, which has received the Ruderman Family Foundation Seal of Authentic Representation. The Visibility Collection will be available to stream free (no log-in required) across the apps and websites of BBC America, AMC, IFC and SundanceTV for the month of October.

CripTales is a BBC America co-production with BBC Studios’ Documentary Unit, with Debbie Christie serving as executive producer. BBC America began co-producing and premiering innovative short-form monologue series with the GLAAD Media Award-nominated Queers and later the BAFTA-nominated Snatches: Moments from Women’s Lives.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

‘Rising Phoenix’ – Netflix to broadcast ground-breaking Paralympic documentary August 26

From the IPC. The photo features Italy's Bebe Vio, one of the athletes featured in 'Rising Phoenix.'

Featuring Paralympians from across the world, 'Rising Phoenix' tells the extraordinary story of the Paralympic Games
On Wednesday 26 August ‘Rising Phoenix’, a ground-breaking movie about the Paralympic Movement, will premiere in over 190 countries worldwide on Netflix.
The film release was planned to coincide with Tokyo 2020 but will now form an important part of the celebrations leading up to the Paralympic Games next year. 
Featuring Paralympians from across the world, Rising Phoenix tells the extraordinary story of the Paralympic Games. From the rubble of World War II to the third biggest sporting event on the planet, along the way sparking a global movement which continues to change the way the world thinks about disability, diversity and human potential.   
Athletes featured in the film include Bebe Vio (Italy), Ellie Cole (Australia), Jean-Baptiste Alaize (France), Matt Stutzman (USA), Jonnie Peacock (UK), Cui Zhe (China), Ryley Batt (Australia), Ntando Mahlangu (South Africa) and Tatyana McFadden (USA).    
Rising Phoenix is an HTYT Films and Passion Pictures production in association with Ventureland and Misfits Entertainment.

Netflix orders two documentaries about Deaf community in America

from Deadline:

Netflix has ordered Deaf U and Audible, two documentaries centered around the deaf community in the U.S. 
Deaf U is a coming-of-age documentary series following a tight-knit group of Deaf students at Gallaudet University, a renowned private college for the deaf and hard of hearing, in Washington, D.C. 
As the group of friends navigate the high, lows, and hookups of college life together, their stories offer an unprecedented, unfiltered, and often unexpected look inside the Deaf community. 
The doc, which will premiere on October 9, consists of eight episodes of around 20-minutes. It will be exec produced by Eric Evangelista, Shannon Evangelista and Nyle DiMarco. 
Audible is an immersive film, documenting the journey of Maryland School for the Deaf high school athlete Amaree McKenstry-Hall. 
Amaree and his closest friends face the pressures of senior year while grappling with the realities of venturing off into a hearing world. They take out their frustrations on the football field as they battle to protect an unprecedented winning streak, while coming to terms with the tragic loss of a close friend. This is a story about kids who stand up to adversity and demand to be heard. They face conflict, but approach the future with hope – shouting to the world that they exist and they matter. 
The 36-minute film is directed by Matt Ogens, produced by Geoff McLean  and exec produced by Ogens, Peter Berg, Matthew Goldberg, Brandon Carroll and Nyle DiMarco.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Kayla Cromer: ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’ inspired me to go public about being on the autism spectrum

from Hollywood Life:

Kayla Cromer plays Matilda in the series ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.’ Kayla spoke with HL about autism representation on TV, Matilda’s evolution, and season 2 hopes.

Everything’s Gonna Be Okay premiered in Jan. 2020 and became an instant critical darling. The show follows Nicholas, Matilda, and Genevieve as they come together and grieve the loss of their father. Over the course of the first season, the trio experiences all of life’s ups and downs with laughs aplenty.

Kayla Cromer, 22, was a standout performer as Matilda in the first season. Her terrific performance at the funeral for Matilda’s father set the tone for the series. In an EXCLUSIVE interview with HollywoodLife for our Emmy Contenders series, the neurodiverse actress and activist opened up how the show “inspired” her to come out about being on the autism spectrum, the season 1 scene that sticks out to her the most, and her hopes about the future of Hollywood for any actor with a difference.

What was your first impression of Josh Thomas [the show’s creator and star]? Had you heard of him before this project?
Kayla Cromer: I hadn’t heard of him but did research him before submitting to his casting. My first impression was, “Wow, he conducts auditions differently!” He came across real. He wanted to get to know me. I wasn’t just a number. We spent time chatting, even before I read for the part.

Did you draw on your own experiences as someone on the autism spectrum to help build the character of Matilda?
Kayla Cromer: I believe in finding something within the character that is you in order to create a more organic performance. Yes, I definitely revisited experiences and pulled from them. From the start, I found some similarities to Matilda that resembled me when I was younger. Autism is a very board spectrum, so I also researched by watching documentaries, movies, and read, too, so I could relate to more people.

How do you feel about Matilda’s evolution from the beginning of the season to the end?
Kayla Cromer: For it only being a 30-minute show, the writers penned her experiences very well. One key strength Matilda and I both possess is perseverance. Matilda really pushed through hurt, displayed humor without even knowing it, and showed struggle and growth. She kept it very real and relatable for viewers.

How has Matilda inspired you in real life?
Kayla Cromer: The eulogy scene was part of the audition process. It impacted me a lot! Just like Matilda, I’ve been open about my differences, except in my career. Matilda and the show inspired me to publicly come out about being on the spectrum, which turned into a snowball effect. So many people have reached out to me in a positive way.

Is there a season 1 scene that sticks out to you the most — whether it’s your favorite or the most challenging? The eulogy scene remains one of my favorites.
Kayla Cromer: The eulogy speech is also a favorite of mine. The Peach Schnapps scene that went viral was challenging in a comedy sense. In real life, I choose not to drink and I’ve never been drunk. I watched Youtube videos of people recording someone drunk and studied speech and mannerisms. My glass in the scene was filled with water [laughs].

Matilda loses her dad at the start of the series. What was it like exploring the many facets of grief through the character?
Kayla Cromer: I climbed inside and really wanted to feel her hurt. You can feel emotionally spent revisiting experiences. I lost my Grandma Shirley and tapped into that, which left me sad and happy. It’s like a tug of war with emotions exploring inner challenges in one scene and then pushing forward with healing humor in another.

The show has been renewed for a second season. Is there anything you want to explore with Matilda in future episodes?
Kayla Cromer: Advocating more for herself in school, life, and a job, driving, learning life skills, benefits of working through change, exploring romance options, too. She’s in an experimental phase. Watching her evolve will be fun and amazing.

Do you think we’ll see Matilda go back to New York to try again?
Kayla Cromer: With COVID-19, they’ll be lots of changes in production. But, hey, sets can be made! I want Matilda to realize she faced her fears head-on, to get back on track and look at it as a life lesson. It has the potential to empower people to be resilient with their goals and not give up!

Since the show premiered, have you heard from other actors and actresses on the autism spectrum? If so, what’s that experience been like?
Kayla Cromer: I mainly receive messages and fan mail from the autism community, more than actors with differences. But it’s always the same: “Thank you for representing us,” and “finally seeing myself on the small screen!” Sometimes it’s quite heartbreaking, having some pour their story into a DM. To have girls say “I look up to you” warms my heart and inspires me to do more.

What are your hopes for the future regarding actors on the autism spectrum in Hollywood?
Kayla Cromer: Not just actors with autism, but any actor with a difference. To toss stereotypes out the window! I don’t want production to think their budget will go higher with accommodations if we cast this person. Frankly, we work harder than the average person. I strongly believe we should be able to audition for characters without disabilities, too. We made a lot of progress in 2019, and I want that to keep flourishing. Casting needs to reflect the real world. Now more than ever, entertainment audiences are seeking imperfect role models! It’s time to cast them in the big and small screens!

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Disability advocates fear losing fight for inclusion in post-pandemic Hollywood

From Forbes. In the picture, Tobias Forrest, who plays Patrick in Daruma, on set, filming the trailer for the film.

For almost a year, Kelli McNeil has been fundraising for her movie Daruma, a film she calls a “dysfunctional family road trip.” 
The big twist: the two main characters, Patrick and Robert, are disabled. Patrick is a paraplegic and Robert is a double-arm amputee, but unlike most Hollywood narratives, the disabilities aren’t the focus of the script, nor are they an obstacle to overcome. And, after a nationwide search, McNeil cast two actors with disabilities to play the lead characters. 
Her work is notable in an industry still grappling with a dearth of disability-centric storylines and characters. Although representation has seen some improvement over the years in television and film, advocates argue it is still all-too-rare to see people with disabilities working in front of or behind the camera.  
Now, with the presence of a worldwide pandemic – and Hollywood virtually shut down – they fear the fight for inclusion will only get more complicated once productions start back up. 
“We don’t know how things will turn out, but there is a lot of fear among activists,”  said Deborah Calla, Co-CEO of The Media Access Awards, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and creates opportunities for people with disabilities in media. 
“Once production begins, there will likely be fewer opportunities because of modified production, lower budgets, less money, and modified storylines. We have a good chance of going back a few steps in terms of inclusion.” 
And if disability inclusion falls behind, Calla and her co-CEO Allen Rucker say, it will be detrimental. 
“You have to understand that in the field of diversity, people with disabilities were not even included until a few years ago in Hollywood, they were just left out,” Rucker said. “But about three years ago, because of the ‘Me Too’ movement, all of the sudden people with disabilities were getting hired to be guest stars on shows, then to be stars and then people with disabilities were creating their own shows.” 
“It was a real positive feeling,” he said.  
“But with the COVID pandemic, who knows what’ll happen next.”
In mid-March, COVID-19 forced the vast majority of Hollywood to come to a screeching halt. Theatrical releases were cancelled, and everything from indie film productions to entire festivals were shut down or postponed indefinitely. Everything stopped.  
Many Hollywood professionals have been out of work since, including Tobias Forrest, a quadriplegic, cast by McNeil to play one of the leads in Daruma. While it was his first lead role in a 15-year career, Forrest has seen much success in recent years, and fears how the Pandemic will impact him and other professionals with disabilities. 
“I’m really hoping the big movie people, the Spielbergs and big time producers and directors, will be like, ‘Now is our chance for authenticity,’ because they were having to watch what all of us have been having to watch during this quarantine,” Forrest said. 
“I don’t want to go back to being the ‘guy in the wheelchair.’ I want to be the lawyer or doctor… the person who just happens to be in a wheelchair.” 
Although strides have been made in recent years, doors have typically been closed for people with disabilities in Hollywood, despite being the largest minority in the United States. A quarter of the population – about 61 million Americans – identify as a person with a disability, according to the CDC. 
According to a GLAAD's 2019- 2020 Where we are on TV report, the amount of regular primetime broadcast characters counted who have a disability was at an all time high of 3.1 percent— but still a severe underrepresentation of people with disabilities in the American population. Then there's the fact that 80 percent of disabled characters on television are portrayed by able-bodied actors, according to the Ruderman Foundation. 
“We’re also fearful, post-pandemic, that people with disabilities won’t be hired because they are considered the most fragile group in terms of COVID-19,” Calla said. 
Rucker agreed, adding, “There may be producers out there and showrunners who suddenly don’t want to take that chance.”
Rucker and Calla aren’t the only advocates trying to prevent this from happening. 
Lauren Appelbaum is the Vice President of Communications for RespectAbility, a nonprofit that works to fight stigmas and advance opportunities for people with disabilities. Over the last three months, RespectAbility has been conducting virtual training sessions for numerous studios in Hollywood, including The Walt Disney Company and Sony Pictures Entertainment. They’ve worked with people in marketing, development and even screenwriters. 
“The fact that these studios are creating these opportunities for their employees to have training during this time is a good thing, because we can talk about how it’s not just the right thing to be disability-inclusive, but also the best thing to do economically,” said Appelbaum. 
The numbers don’t lie: according to Nielsen consumers with disabilities make up a billion-dollar market. When their families, friends and associates are included, that total increases to more than $1 trillion.
“There is money to be made by ensuring disability-inclusive content,” said Appelbaum. 
“People are always looking for new stories, and since there has been so few authentic disability stories told, it’s just a huge option for new material.” 
RespectAbility will also be holding a lab program during the summer for people with disabilities who want to work behind the camera. NBC Universal, The Walt Disney Company, and Viacom are among the studios sponsoring and providing content for the lab. The individuals who take part will be introduced and have the chance to network with industry professionals, with the hope that it will lead to job opportunities for the participants. 
Only time will tell how Hollywood executives handle a post-pandemic reality. In the meantime, filmmakers like McNeil are fighting for their projects to see the light of day. She hopes her film inspires other TV creators and filmmakers to create more inclusive content and make hiring people with disabilities, and writing about disabilities, more mainstream. 
“I am afraid if we don’t make this film, it’ll be years before someone tries again,” McNeil said. 
“But we’re doing everything in our power to get this made.”