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MFA Student Scores Win in National TV/Film Writing Competition

By James Macak

Jessica Hill Cabrera-Contaoi holding son
Jessica Hill Cabrera-Contaoi, MFA ’20 and her son, Trey. Courtesy photo

Jessica Hill Cabrera-Contaoi, MFA ’20 found out she won one of the Final Draft Big Break TV writing competitions about a month ago, but Final Draft officials “swore us to secrecy,” she said.

And yes, Cabrera-Contaoi said with a half laugh, it was “absolutely” tough not to speak about her win … except, that is, to her husband and her mother. “There were so many people I wanted to tell.”

Cabrera-Contaoi finally got that chance about a week ago.

Cabrera-Contaoi, a graduate student in Emerson’s low-residency MFA program in Writing for Film and TV, won in the TV Diversity category (the other two TV writing categories are for one-hour and half-hour pilots). The prize comes with $1,000 in cash, Final Draft software, and other prizes, as well as a shot at Final Draft’s Grand Prize for TV writing, which includes $10,000 cash, an Apple iPad, and an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood for meetings with executives, producers, and managers.

Grand Prize winners for TV writing and screenwriting will be announced at a red carpet ceremony at the Paramount Theater on the Paramount studio lot Tuesday, January 21. Final Draft also will honor screenwriter Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time….in Hollywood, Pulp Fiction) with its Hall of Fame Award; and writer/director Lulu Wang (The Farewell) and writer/co-creator/executive producer Steven Canals (Pose) with its New Voices Awards.

But even before that event, one of the Final Draft judges – a literary manager from a top management company – set up a meeting with Cabrera-Contaoi. And that’s another key prize in her transition from a career in marketing technology and content distribution to one involving TV writing and producing.

“As much as I love writing, I have ‘producer’ in my DNA,” she said. “I produced my first independent film back in my 20s.”

The logline from Cabrera-Contaoi’s award-winning TV pilot, From Harm, reads: “In the future, people of any age are weeded out of society if they have a propensity for ‘deviant’ behavior. A well-to-do (and pregnant) mother risks her own comfort and safety so she can save her 4-year-old from being shipped off to a corrections camp. But will her husband, a high-ranking politician, try and stop them?”

Cabrera-Contaoi said she hopes to produce the scripts she writes, and feels this is more achievable in TV than in film, especially as new streaming services like Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock, and Apple TV+ are launched and established ones like Netflix, CBS All Access, and Amazon Prime continue to grow.

“TV also gives writers more of an opportunity to maintain creative control,” she said.

Cabrera-Contaoi lives with her husband and 4-year-old son in Santa Monica, California, and currently works as a consultant with Xandr – AT&T’s new advertising and analytics division. She previously served as senior director of program management at Neustar, a marketing and information services company. She left that job in 2018, when she began the MFA program at Emerson.

“I always had a passion for writing, and as I got older, I realized it was now or never, and I needed to dive in,” she said. “I’ve always been a fan of Emerson. When I was 17, Emerson was my first choice for a degree.”

Although she visited Emerson for an admissions tour, she ultimately decided to stay on the West Coast near family and pursue a degree in TV broadcasting at Washington State. Years later, when she began thinking of graduate programs, Emerson was once again a top choice because of its unique low-residency program, combining weeklong residencies in Los Angeles and Boston with online courses. After meeting with faculty and students, she said, “I felt at home in this creative community.”

During her year and a half in Emerson’s graduate program, Cabrera-Contaoi also worked as a script reader for the HBOAccess Writing Fellowship, and as a screener/judge for Disney’s Launchpad, an incubator for developing film shorts.

Cabrera-Contaoi hopes to transition to TV writer and producer soon after graduating in May, but she isn’t naïve about the challenge this poses. She doesn’t plan on pursuing one common career path toward TV writing: working as a production assistant or development assistant, jobs  that only pay minimum wage or slightly higher, but that often lead to positions in writers’ rooms, which in turn can lead to freelance script writing assignments or staff writing positions.

“I have a family to help support and a child to put through college. There are only so many risks I’m prepared to take,” she said. “But I am open to other possibilities.”

Cabrera-Contaoi said she has friends who have gotten staffed on TV series by building a solid portfolio of scripts, networking, and being in the right place at the right time.

“I’m a big believer in the work itself. If the work is strong enough, I think you can get representation and carve out a career,” she said.

To that end, Cabrera-Contaoi has been persistent in entering competitions, writing programs, and fellowships to draw attention to her work. To date, she was named a finalist in one of the Ivy Film Festival’s film short writing competitions, and placed highly with the Austin Film Festival shorts contents and the NBCUniversal Writers on the Verge Fellowship for TV pilots and specs.

She hopes her Final Draft Big Break win might provide the “bump” she needs to get representation and maybe a staff writing job down the line, however long that might take.

“I don’t see myself losing my passion for writing and producing any time soon,” she said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Final Draft will start accepting submissions for its next Big Break competition on February 18, for its early March 3 deadline. Those interested can learn more on the Final Draft website.

Jim Macak is an affiliated faculty member in Emerson’s Visual and Media Arts Department.

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