In this guest post, 2021 Film Independent Episodic Lab Fellow Marissa Díaz shares her experiences as a participant of the program. The non-Member deadline to apply for the 2023 Lab is February 10. The Member deadline is February 24. Are you developing an original TV/streaming series as a writer or creator? This Lab’s for you.
Big fish in small ponds are in for a rude awakening… or perhaps that’s just what I tell myself so I can sleep at night. This little brown girl with a big dream came of age in South Texas. I had the unfortunate pleasure of finding inordinate success, terribly young. At five, I entered an Easter coloring competition at CVS and won an oversized bunny. In elementary school, I bested summer reading challenges at the local library. At nine, I won the MF spelling bee–can you use “garter” in a sentence?
I went to a magnet school for high school, where I found filmmaking and a community of artsy weirdos who “got” me. We watched the classics, wrote and shot experimental films, and dreamed of being the next Martin Scorsese. I was a shining star destined for greatness! The world just didn’t know it… yet.
In college, all of that changed. I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and majored in Film & Television Production. The fantasy: I’d spend four years bopping around New York City like Carrie Bradshaw… but, like, with an Arri Alexa 16mm in tow. The reality: Tisch was up to its gills with film bros who loved 2001: A Space Odyssey and would ask me questions like, “Is a fajita a taco or a burrito?”
They didn’t understand me, nor my desire to tell stories embedded in indigenous mythology and Mexican folklore. My pitches–along with my heart–sank. I came to the conclusion that, maybe I wasn’t a special snowfake. I carried that sentiment with me for years. It pushed me away from writing and into the throes of producing. I got my MFA from the University of Southern California’s Peter Stark Producing Program. After graduate school, I grinded as a Hollywood assistant and then became a development executive and a producer on Generation (HBO Max) and Orgasm Inc: The Story of Onetaste (Netfix).
The pandemic hit and left me with a preposterous amount of free time. The years had gotten away from me, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was meant to write. I decided it was time to write… furiously. If I was stuck at home, I would make the most of it. I would create. I came across the Film Independent Episodic Lab and used its submission deadline as an anchor in my writing schedule. I submitted my application and pushed a Shonda Rhimes manifestation out into the universe–“Pick me. Choose me. Love me!”
Months later, I learned I was accepted into the Lab’s first all-female cohort.
It was the greatest honor I could imagine. Film Independent is a tastemaker. An institution at the forefront of discovering and fostering new, noisy, diverse voices that reimagine the landscape of storytelling. Ahead of the Lab, I read each Fellows’ pilot. As a development executive, I’d read hundreds of pilots a year and still, I was staggered by their raw talent. The scripts were varied in genre, subject matter and vision, and they were also sharp, funny and heartwarming. Did my inclusion in the Lab mean that my work rose to the occasion? Could I be… a special snowfake?
The Lab was a thrilling rush of fast friendships, story development and inspiring–sometimes horrifying!–tales of Hollywood. The week began with a “Welcome Zoom” featuring previous Episodic Lab fellows and Netfix development executives. We learned about the executives’ work, and the Fellows shared their experiences since the Lab; some found representation, others had projects premiere at Sundance or were shortlisted for an Academy Award. Another landed an overall deal. The Fellows shared the same piece of advice: stay in touch with your cohort. Nurture the relationships. Watch them grow.
In the two weeks of the Lab, we did just that. In our “Morning Mingles,” my cohort of six became an inseparable sisterhood born from a love of storytelling. We are a coven that built a circle of trust and respect that carried us through the Lab, through obstacles small and large, and notes, groundbreaking and devastating. Glen Mazzara lent his time to the Lab and shared his approach to story.
(For those wondering, the key to good television is: “Cool people doing cool shit every episode.”)
I was paired with Robbie Pickering as a Creative Mentor. He took the time to carefully read my script and in a live notes session with my cohort, provided meaningful, constructive feedback. One of his notes cracked my pilot wide open in a way I couldn’t have arrived at myself. During the Lab, we pitched our hearts out. We pitched to story experts, agents, writers and executives. Each day we reworked our pitch given industry feedback. By the end of the two-week Lab, we were pitching machines!
In the weeks after the Lab, I was paired with a Netfix executive as a mentor. Since the Lab, the coven has become a writing group that shares and workshops new work. We cheer each other on as we’ve gained representation, received awards, premiered plays and produced new work. I have Film Independent’s Episodic Lab to thank for my new family of artsy weirdos who get me.
Hey Special Snowfake, it’s your turn to apply!
About the author: Marissa Díaz is a Tejana writer, director and producer. She works across mediums including scripted and unscripted film, television and interactive media. Most recently, Marissa wrote and produced Orgasm Inc: The Story of Onetaste, a feature documentary for Net ix. She worked on HBO’s hit series Girls, produced queer teen series Generation for HBOMax and wrote Welcome to the Blumhouse Live, an interactive live event for Blumhouse and Amazon Studios.
Previously, she worked at Lena Dunham’s Good Thing Going, Fox Searchlight, MGM Studios, Bravo TV, Martin Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions and The Weinstein Company. Marissa is a Film Independent and Netfix Episodic Lab Fellow, a Film Independent x CNN Original Series Docuseries Fellow, and a Producers Guild of America x Google Create Fellow.
Marissa holds a BFA in Film & TV Production from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and an MFA from the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California, where she was awarded the Stark Special Production Grant for writing and directing and the Robert S. Ferguson Marketing Award in Television.
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(Header: Marissa on set)