Free Spirit moves the filmmakers of the future

Free Spirit Cohort Elizabeth Tawose

Free Spirit Cohort Elizabeth Tawose

Industry experts
advise future
filmmakers that
“antagonists are not
totally bad” and
“people in Hollywood
don’t read.”

Six young filmmakers presented movie concepts to a panel of industry experts during Free Spirit Media’s pitch night at the film incubator Stage 18 last Thursday night. They spoke one at a time, clicking through slide shows on a large monitor before a room full of collaborators and judges.

“I had note cards, but I didn’t use them,” says Joy Duson, who was the first to go. “I practiced a lot over the last two weeks.”

Pitch night is a key component of Free Spirit’s Industry Pathways Cohort, a 12-week intensive training program dedicated to helping a small group of 18- to 25-year-olds prepare for work in the film, media and TV industries.

Duson presented a script called Fuzzy Legs, which was written by Amber Eswani.

“It’s about a young, timid brown girl,” Duson continues. “She begins middle school and she’s trying to fit in, but with her hairy legs she stands out, so she gets bullied and provoked by other kids.”

Joy Duson
Joy Duson

Duson and Eswani had spent much of the previous month revising Fuzzy Legs. Their efforts were complemented by Free Spirit’s extensive professional network and an unexpected personal coincidence.

“It’s kind of weird, because the both of us had the same exact experience that the main character went through,” Duson explains. “I thought of things that Amber didn’t think about, and it really helped.”

After hearing about the loglines, characters, styles, budgets, distribution plans, and other essential information, the experts offered advice and asked each of them to explain exactly how and why their film deserved to get made.

Among them were Rich Moskal, Director of the Chicago Film Office; Gary Novak, Director of the School of Cinematic Arts at DePaul University; Stephanie Jeter, OpenTV’s Head of Production; and Patrick Wimp, Creative Director of Digital Hydra and scriptwriter / creator of Public Housing Unit.

Their follow-up included comments such as “This could be like Idiocracy, “You should never think of antagonists as totally bad,” and “You have to remember that people in Hollywood don’t read.”

Alexis Esparza
Alexis Esparza

Then they huddled in a conference room to determine which film concept would receive $8,000 for a two-day shoot involving all thirteen of this year’s Cohort members.

“We prepped them really well for understanding what is expected from investors,” says Vunzai Yeazel, one of the program’s facilitators. “I’ve always seen creatives going to the market unprepared for the business side.”

Yeazel’s experience includes developing strategy for Leo Burnett and teaching entrepreneurship at Columbia College. She counseled the Cohorts on everything from content preparation to physical presentation.

ALSO READ: “Drive Slow” preview at Free Spirit Media’s Focus event

“We did tell them about Slidebean and other things, but — just in case the investor doesn’t have the technology — we told them that PowerPoint is the safest way to go,” she added. “We also told them to pull from their inspirations, the Ugly Bettys and Malcolm in the Middles.

The story ideas can be broadly categorized — overcoming bodily imperfection, getting away with murder, manipulating pimps, resisting gentrification, coping with racism, and finding career satisfaction pretty much sums them up. But each one represents a degree of effort that exceeds description.

Pascal Fernandes
Pascal Fernandes

“I had some character profiles, but I hadn’t put any of that onto paper,” says Pascal Fernandes, who presented Cleopatra, a story about “a queen that didn’t know she was worthy of being a queen.”

Inspired by the Frank Ocean song of the same name, the film’s protagonist, Cleopatra, is the head stripper at Pyramids, a club in a fictional neighborhood on the near west side of Chicago.

In Fernandes’ script, she confronts a developer who seeks to transform the community into an expensive burrow of condominiums.

“I had thought a lot about who this character is,” Fernandes continues. “What she’s motivated by, what she’s fighting against, what is the system of power that she’s operating within, and how that interacts with traditional tropes of womanhood, black womanhood, humanity, ghettos, sex work.”

The Cohort is part of a larger mission pursued by Free Spirit, a nonprofit organization that “provides teens and young adults in communities of color … with a comprehensive foundation in media literacy and hands-on media production experience,” according to its website.

The participants, who applied for the program by completing an extensive selection process, were notified of their acceptance about a month ago.

Since then, they’ve gotten to know each other by partnering on scripts and working under the guidance of people like Gary Novak, whose contribution helped the program overcome a distinct new challenge.

“When Cohort started, there were no scripts,” says Chakka Reeves, the Industry Pathways Program Manager. “Only about five of this year’s Cohorts came in saying, ‘I have a story idea,’ but by the time Gary presented with them, eleven out of the thirteen wanted to write.”

Although the program has produced films in the past —2017’s highly awarded Drive Slow by Terrence Thompson was screened at the New York Television Festival — this was the first time that every member of the Cohort made a pitch.

Reeves leveraged her experience as a documentarian, producer, and former educator to help inspire the Cohorts.

“I tried to create opportunities to help them,” she says. “Like, we had a holiday party that we dubbed the writer’s room back in December.”

Angellic Ross
Angellic Ross

Among those who showed up with a script in mind was Northwestern grad Angellic Ross. She transformed a tragedy that struck her great great grandfather into a drama titled Fruits.

“My family’s from Little Rock, Arkansas,” she explains. “My grandpa used to own a piece of land and he was very successful and, unfortunately, that made a lot of the white people in that community not happy. So, one day my grandpa went missing, and a few days later, they found his body.”

In Ross’ modern retelling of the story, a woman struggles to live as a single mother after her husband is murdered in a police raid.

When asked to explain why the film is relevant to all audiences, she speaks in a polite and articulate manner shared by all the cohort members.

“If they’re interested in making the world better for future generations, they need to hear different perspectives,” she says. “Learning what people have to go through will hopefully inspire them to make a change.”

Moesha Jones
Moesha Jones

At the end of the event, the panel offered distinction to three of the concepts. Ross’ presentation for Fruits was recognized as the best pitch of the night. Fernandes’ Cleopatra was awarded most creative story. Eswani’s Fuzzy Legs was chosen to be produced by the 2018 Free Spirit Media Industry Cohort.

The completed film will premiere at Free Spirit’s annual Focus fundraiser, a late-spring gala that brings hundreds of guests from Chicago’s communications and film industries to Tree Studios’ lavish Ivy Room in River North.

The Cohorts responded to the announcement with a long round of applause. The only thing stronger than their ambition seems to be their undeniable support for one another.

Photos by Chelsea Corbin, Development & Communications Manager, Free Spirit Media

To contact Reel Chicago Editor Daniel Patton, email