In 2012, before he became an Imagine Entertainment screenwriter, Justin Calen-Chenn received his film education in a crappy hotel room. He’d already worked on a handful of short films, but he also had a life in the violent Los Angeles underworld that forced him to spend weeks hiding out. To pass the time, he read classic screenplays like “Midnight Cowboy” while eating Domino’s Pizza.
Four years later, a close friend suffered a brutal death and Calen-Chenn said that’s when everything changed. “I had the choice to continue to the top, or give it all up,” he said.
Calen-Chenn, who’s now 36, chose the latter. He and his creative partner Stephen “Dr” Love workshopped “The 99” as part of Imagine Impact, an intense, eight-week program that seeks unknown or underrepresented writers with unique stories and gets their projects ready for sale.
An offshoot of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine, the Impact program is incredibly competitive: For each of its three sessions to date, Impact received more than 4,000 applications from 81 countries. With about 20 slots per session, that’s an acceptance rate of less than half of one percent.
“(Other) people have paid lip service to the idea of supporting new voices, especially diverse voices,” said Amy Jephta, a South African playwright and Impact veteran. “It’s true they’re democratizing the process — you don’t need to have a dad who works wherever, or a brother who can get you a writer’s-assistant job. All you need is an internet connection.”
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For a system that often feels impenetrable, it represents a welcome entry point: Since its first pitch day in November 2018, 23 Impact projects have been acquired for development. Applications are free, and participants receive a stipend of up to $40,000. Some, like Calen-Chenn, had some industry experience; others had never used Final Draft.
Inspired by startup accelerators like Y Combinator that offer cash, advice, and networking for fledgling tech companies, Impact is meant to accelerate projects and careers. Although the Oscar-winning Grazer has more than 40 years in the business, even he admits that Hollywood is something of a rigged game.
“It’s a medieval system that makes it hard for people all around the world to enter, to bridge in, and when they get lucky enough to bridge in, they start at the very bottom of the ladder, usually just hanging from one hand on the bottom rung,” he said. “So we thought we would do something that would help democratize access to all these platforms and jump a few rungs based on merit.”
While Impact has noble intent — by Hollywood standards, anyway — the program is a for-profit enterprise that also represents how Imagine is evolving in a rapidly changing Hollywood. Once synonymous with Universal Pictures tentpoles like “The Nutty Professor” and “The Cat in the Hat” as well as 2001 Best Picture winner “A Beautiful Mind,” Imagine is now a free agent that produces Netflix movies like Howard’s upcoming “Hillbilly Elegy” and is aggressively expanding into the documentary space.
In November, Impact creators presented 17 projects for pitch day, in which they gave five-minute TED Talk-style presentations; in the audience were executives from companies like Netflix, Amblin, A24, and Paramount. Among the projects pitched were the feature “American Dreamer,” from husband-and-wife team Danny Daneau and Laura C. Lopez, about a Latina teen’s escape from immigration officers in her late mother’s legendary race car.
Laura Ramadei and Kate Dearing pitched “Mile High Club,” a half-hour social justice-minded comedy about the unlikely friendship between a Denver camgirl and an edibles entrepreneur. Romi Barta offered her hour-long “Adulting,” told from the perspective of a young woman living with the neurological condition Rett syndrome. In making her pitch, Barta used family photos and anecdotes to emphasize the personal connection: Her cousin lives with the disability.
Earlier this year, Netflix won a four-way bidding war for another Impact project, “Tunga,” an animated family musical from Godwin Jabangwe inspired by the mythology of the Shona culture of Zimbabwe, in which Jabangwe was raised.
“I feel like you can tell in a very, very short period of time whether someone’s voice is coming from the source, you know, it’s like an internal truth — you feel originality within that,” Grazer said. “We’ve met these people at Starbucks, we meet them all over the place. We go, ‘Woah, that guy is really interesting,’ or, ‘That girl, she blew my mind!'”
Jephta said her hour-long drama “The Park” was inspired by her hometown. On the fringes of Cape Town, it’s home to 500,000 black people and she described it as the “dustbowl of government housing projects.” The show follows three female emcees in the city’s underground hip-hop scene.
Impact paired her with writer Michele Mulroney (“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”). They met two or three times a week, with Jephta churning out draft after draft, all while attending Impact lectures by industry leaders like J.J. Abrams and Issa Rae.
“It’s a combination of a bootcamp atmosphere, but also a very nurturing atmosphere,” Mulroney said. “That rewrite muscle is an incredibly difficult one to build. It has all the right ingredients for a supportive, challenging, potentially career-altering experience.”
Though Imagine has a shot at buying Impact projects, it doesn’t have first-look agreements with Impact writers; all projects compete on the open market. That said, Imagine will produce “The Park” as well as Calen-Chenn’s “The 99,” a feature about an intuitive street hustler who faces a moral reckoning after she uncovers something depraved during her final job.
“It was inspired by a lot of people I ran with,” said Calen-Chenn. “My street family.”