Emerson Los Angeles (ELA) held its ninth annual PitchFest competition on November 7, 2022, the first in person since the pandemic. The event featured a total of 14 students and alumni spending 90 seconds pitching their comedy, drama, animation, and sci-fi TV and film projects to a panel of entertainment industry judges.
This year’s panel of judges included Winnie Carrillo ’14, director of development at MGM Studios; Doug Herzog ’81, host of the podcast Basic! and former president of Viacom Music Entertainment Group; Ed Lee, associate professor of screenwriting at Emerson and an acclaimed TV comedy writer; and Jordan Moncada ’13, manager and producer at My Own Daddy Productions.
Winners included Jeffrey Hopkins ’23, who received the Outstanding Student Award for his drama feature Twisted Spokes; Keila J. Brown, MA ’22, recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award for her sci-fi TV show The Divine Legacy; Kaylah Pantaléon ’11, Outstanding Runner-Up for her dramedy TV pilot Lucia; and Grace Guy ’23, who won the James Macak Audience Favorite Award for her animated series The Senior Citizens. In sponsorship with the International Screenwriters Association (ISA) and Final Draft, winners receive a free 12-month membership to the ISAConnect program and a free digital download of the screenwriting software Final Draft 12.
“I’m a winner!” Pantaléon said. “I’m so excited. I had no idea this was going on. One of my best friends brought it to my attention. I’m just so grateful I made it and got submitted. You will see Lucia very soon!”
Pantaléon entertained both the crowd and judges in her commanding, comedic delivery of Lucia. It focuses on a teenage Catholic Dominican American bruja (“witch”) from New York who must rely on brujería (“witchcraft”) for survival. While she learns to “unleash the power within herself,” Pantaléon describes her as “kicking ass,” exploring urban conflicts with comedic and fantastical elements.
“I want this to be gangster; this is not Disney,” Pantaléon said, comparing it to shows like Siempre Bruja, Jessica Jones, and In the Dark. “This is empowering for women, empowering for everybody. You forget you have this power in you and you just have to tap into it.”
Brown’s pitch focused on Bahadi, a journalist whose investigation into her missing sister leads her to Atlanta’s The Divine Institute, a school where Black women called The Blessed hone their magical gifts. She describes it as “if Hogwarts and Spelman had a baby,” mixed with fantastic elements of the TV show Lovecraft Country.
“The Divine Legacy holds up a fantastic lens to the historic difficulties Black women have faced,” Brown said. “We’ll see the personal cause [behind] Bahadi breaking generations of trauma as she’s called to reclaim her power, save her missing sister, and step into her own greatness reclaiming her legacy.”
Kara Lee Burk, an ELA faculty member who teaches The Art of the Pitch: Developing and Selling an Original Comedy Series, moderated the event. Before the competition began, she led a panel discussion with the judges about crafting the perfect pitch. Burk said that it’s important to find the right buyer for each individual pitch, noting that “knowing the room you’re pitching in may not be the room that’s buying it.”
The judges emphasized practicing pitching to gain valuable experience and understanding of how the process works. They stressed that pitchers should paint a picture with successful, specific comps and personalize pitch decks to elevate their message. Moncada said that starting with a personal connection as a segue to an original idea shows a unique perspective, with Carrillo echoing to “find yourself in the pitch.”
“It’s always trying to see whether someone gets an emotional reaction to what you’re pitching,” Lee said. “Figure out what’s weird about you and what the story is. You are you, and you have to figure out what you can write that only you can create. Dig into yourself. You’re not selling the product, you’re selling your ability to write the product.”
Herzog advised the audience to not chase the zeitgeist, but rather create new, memorable ideas that showcase your passion.
“If it doesn’t look like you care about the show, how can you expect anyone else to care?” Herzog said. “You want someone who knows it, who feels it, who’s living it. Someone who can look you in the eye and convey that idea.”
For his pitch, Hopkins shared his idea for a meaningful, coming-of-age indie film, Twisted Spokes, that won over the judges’ hearts. It centers on 14-year-old Luca and his best friend, Mark, who take a journey to find and confront the newly discovered secret male lover of his deceased grandfather. The journey brings out new feelings between the main characters.
“The story speaks to the complexity of truth,” Hopkins said. “It’s also about this internalized homophobia and the idea that older people in these generations didn’t feel like they could be themselves.”
Hopkins said he had a great time pitching, despite the anxious energy he felt.
“I’m usually very nervous about public speaking, but I’m glad it went well,” Hopkins said. “I kind of blacked out when I did the pitch, but everybody liked it. I learned a lot; I had some great feedback. I’m gonna approach this story from a different lens now and potentially continue.”
Guy’s main protagonist for her children’s animation show, The Senior Citizens, was inspired by her real-life childhood nanny, Olga, who is her self-proclaimed hero. Along with three fellow elderly friends, the protagonist of the Florida-based show takes audiences on their journey of fighting against a common enemy.
“[Olga] made it her mission in life to protect me from the scary things in life,” Guy said. “With Floridian crime on the rise, there’s only one team for the job: the senior citizens. Elderly is the most underrepresented age group in Hollywood. It aims to show kids 6–8 that loving their grandparents is cool. Think Kim Possible meets The Powerpuff Girls.”
Guy called her first PitchFest experience challenging, yet fun.
“It was an honor to be selected and to get feedback from people who are actually working in the industry—it’s super beneficial,” Guy said. “Getting to meet the other people who pitched and getting to hear people from Emerson’s ideas that you haven’t heard was amazing.”