May 24, 2018

Film & TV Production Student is Chosen for HBO Access Writing Fellowship

By Phenia Hovsepyan

Sara Alize Cross is not surprised that she grew up with a passion for telling stories. She was raised by a single mother who was a fiction writer, and from an early age was brought up to see the story in everything. Cross recalls being stopped at red lights with her mother as a child, and how her mother would point out the man sitting in the car next to them and start making up the story of his life. This was not a unique occurrence: These games of telling stories and creating narratives about the world around her defined Cross’s childhood.

From these early sparks of inspiration grew a true passion for writing and directing, and Cross is now an MFA candidate in the Film & Television Production Division at the USC School for Cinematic Arts (SCA). The learning has clearly paid off. Cross was chosen as one of eight fellows for the 2017 HBO Access Writing Fellowship, and is currently writing an original half-hour pilot under the mentorship of an HBO Comedy executive. 

For Cross, the road to HBO was filled with travel, adventure, and unexpected career turns. She did her undergraduate work at Columbia University, majoring in film studies. “I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I just loved movies and cinema as an art-form,” she says. Cross recalls being a young academic in New York City and feeling like she could do anything in the world, “I always did the things I wanted to do. I didn’t have any fear.” From Columbia, Cross went on to Oxford University where she did a one-year master’s thesis in women’s studies, focusing her research on the surprisingly feminist themes of 1930’s screwball comedy. Upon returning to New York, Cross began an eclectic life of art and entrepreneurship: She created and marketed one of the first eco-friendly fair-trade clothing brands, coolnotcruel, and was the founder and president of the Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue. Through all this work Cross continued to write and travel the world, acutely aware of how one influenced the other. “I was always an empathetic person, and the more I interacted with different cultures the more that grew. It is very important to how I understand character in my stories.” 

A clear example of the determination and focus Sara Cross puts into every endeavor is in her first Sundance story: Cross had envisioned only going to the Sundance Film Festival if she had a movie there, and that is exactly what happened! A friend of hers from Columbia connected Cross with documentary filmmakers in need of an associate producer for their project, Murderball, which was an instant audience favorite at the 2005 festival. Cross recalled how, “My first time at Sundance, Murderball was the hit of the festival! It was Crazy!” Not only was Murderball a winner at Sundance, it went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film in 2006. 

Cross was introduced to the world of unscripted branded content from connections she made while working on MurderballHer unique perspective on the world, combined with her ability to connect with people in new environments without any hindrance or hesitation, made Cross the perfect person to work on developing stories and finding characters for branded content documentaries. Before coming to USC, she worked on numerous unscripted campaigns over the course of ten years. One her personal favorite projects is a short documentary for Dick's Sporting Goods focused on the story on the Fifth War Saints youth football team in Texas. After the already struggling team lost their equipment and had to stop playing, Dick's donated new gear and money to get the team back on their feet and playing again. “When I found these people I just knew! I saw something great in this story, and we changed these people’s lives.” 

Through all of her experiences, Cross noticed that she was contributing all the hard work and talent of a director without comparable recognition or compensation. “I had gotten to the point where I had paid my dues, and was doing a lot of the work of a director but was not getting the opportunity to bid for directing jobs.” The gender disparities in the industry had become very apparent to her. “I want to get paid the same and have the same opportunities. I want to work as a professional director and I came to USC to focus completely on that goal." In retrospect, Cross says the timing was right in her going back to school to refine her craft as a director, “There is mentorship for women directors now in a way there wasn’t before, and there are more open doors.”

Sara Alize Cross knew that underneath her myriad skills and experience was an underlying passion to share her story. “I have always wanted to make art because I see very little of it that reflects my view of the world.” She added that, “I observe what is around me and then I make something out of it. I am interested in illuminating the world and feeling a connection to it.” Cross is always writing, for as she sees it, “Writing is something you can do for free without anyone else.” Furthermore, Cross has always had a director’s eye and as she worked her way into the world of film, television, and original narrative content with relentless ambition and perseverance, her utmost passion for directing became undeniable. After two years of studying filmmaking at USC, Cross was hired to direct character-driven commercials for Hornitos Tequila. “I would not have gotten this job if I did not have a website with my work. It was luck that this company was looking for someone who did exactly what I was doing, but not luck that they found me!” she says. “Do the work, and get a website,” Cross advises, “because I have never gotten a job that I applied for. I have consistently worked because of recommendations and because people knew where to find me.” 

It was at SCA that Cross found, as she calls them, “my people.” She was having a hard time adjusting to USC and Los Angeles during her first semester, but then through the USC Comedy program was introduced to supportive mentors. “[Professor and cofounder] Barnet Kellman talked about USC Comedy, and how he really wants to foster people who want to make comedy at the school. I told him that what he was saying is exactly what I wanted to be doing.” Cross got involved with organizing the Visions and Voices USC Comedy Festival, taking classes taught by Professors like Kellman who connected with her style of storytelling, and immersing herself in all the opportunities SCA has to offer. “You have to find your people. There is something for everyone here. Now, people who I have admired my whole life are my mentors,” Cross said. “The faculty here is unbelievable. I am sitting in rooms with people who are giants in their field, and they inspire me to better my work.” Furthermore, Cross has been experiencing the uniquely nurturing and supportive environment at SCA: “Here, people are genuinely happy for other people’s success. It does not feel jealous or competitive.”

Sara Cross’s success at SCA includes being chosen as the receipt of both the Jack Oakie Comedy Fellowship and the Jeffrey Jones Scholarship for Screenwriting. Her Production II class short film, Big Star, screened at multiple LGBTQ film festivals around the country. Recently, Cross was chosen as one of eight fellows from over 3,000 submissions to get one-on-one script mentorship from an HBO executive. “I dreamt my whole life of going to HBO and not being a gate crasher! When I walked in and was invited to have lunch there, I could not believe it, it was an amazing feeling!” As Cross thinks back on being among the less than one percent of applicants chosen for the fellowship, she has to add that, “This is life-changing!” However, Cross is quick to point out the many times her work was rejected, and is reminded that, “You cannot feel bad if you are not one of the eight people chosen for something like this. There were probably several hundred people who were just as talented and hard working, a lot of it has to do with luck.” Cross’s hard-learned advice is to “apply for everything and don’t allow your self-esteem be governed by those acceptances or rejections.”

As Sara Cross thinks about her own professional and academic career, one overarching lesson is that artists have to define their own terms of success. “It is very important for creative people, because our paths are not perfectly laid out for us. You have to know what success means to you, and be able to feel good about your progress.” For her part, Cross is focusing on living in the present moment and not thinking too much about what’s going to come next. “I used to always look at the future and have an answer for what I wanted to do next, and none of the things happened.” However, Cross is reminded that sometimes that’s for the best. “Amazing things I could have never thought of have happened!” she says. “I am focusing on doing the very best work I can do right now, and enjoying exactly where I am.”

Below from left to right: Jack Epps, Sara Alize Cross, and Barnet Kellman at the 2017 Robin Williams Chair in Comedy Endowment.