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October 15, 2018

Writing Student Wins Million-Dollar Screenplay Competition

By Phenia Hovsepyan

Students in the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television regularly enter screenwriting contests. So, when senior Stanley Kalu saw an email announcement for The LAUNCH, a writing competition with a million-dollar prize, he knew he had to enter. “I heard about The LAUNCH through the Office of Industry Relations. They send us regular emails about upcoming festivals and competition opportunities,” says Kalu. Sponsored by JRU Studios LLC, in partnership with the screenwriting website Screencraft, The LAUNCH offered at least one million dollars in film financing and a $50,000 education grant to the winner. The competition was only open to students enrolled in an accredited institution, although they could be from any country around the world. It was underwritten by philanthropists Chuck and Marni Bond, who wanted to support college students in the Arts.

Like every other upperclassman in the Wells Writing Division, Kalu had a finished script he could submit: The program requires students to write a full-length feature by the end of sophomore year. Titled The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, Kalu’s story is about a wealthy black high school senior who falls victim to police brutality.

Kalu, who is an international student at SCA, was born in Nigeria and grew up in several African countries. By the time he came to Los Angeles he had experienced many examples of black culture. Still, having never lived in a country where he was a minority, he was shocked by institutional racism in the U.S., particularly around the issue of police brutality. At the same time, Kalu observed that the LGBTQ community was more accepted in America than anywhere else he had lived before.  The juxtaposition of these experiences plays out in his character Tunde Johnson’s story.

Zachary Green, who ran the competition with his producing partner Jason Shuman, says Kalu’s script felt raw and honest. “When we read these screenplays we didn’t know what school they went to, where they were from in the world, if they were male or female. The thing that stood out the most to Jason and myself, as well as the others on the judging panel, was the rawness of emotion, the amazing characters, and the subject matter that’s in the zeitgeist today about racism, police brutality, and LGBTQ issues all wrapped up in this story about Tunde and how he deals with these issues in his life.” Green says the quality of the submissions overall was far better than they expected, and rivaled some of the best writing they have seen in their decades-long careers. “They were incredible, and I think one of the major reasons why is these are unfiltered, uncorrupted new voices writing about what they know.”

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is already in development, with production beginning at the end of October. Having a film in production while you’re still juggling school is not an easy task, but Kalu’s professors are helping him figure out the balance. "We're proud of Stanley and all the hard work he has done to reach this point,” says Professor Jack Epps, who Chairs the Wells Writing Division. Another SCA Writing student, Sammy Sultan, placed 7th in The LAUNCH completion with a script titled Felix's Bar Mitzvah. “Our students excel because of the extensive training they receive to create, develop and write professional caliber screenplays as part of our curriculum. They are taught by professionals to be professionals,” says Epps, adding that The LAUNCH seemed like “a great platform to enter the Industry."

Kalu says the experience of winning The LAUNCH has been “life-changing” and has encouraged his plans to create cutting-edge work about the black experience. “I want to make work that pushes film as a medium past it’s established boundaries, and do so in a manner that works to humanize the peoples’ of the African Diaspora.”