New Johns Hopkins film incubator aims to support new Baltimore voices

Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media Studies established with $1M grant

Aspiring visual artists in Baltimore will have access to the expertise and connections of top filmmakers and executives through a new program launching at Johns Hopkins University.

The Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media Studies will create an incubator for budding filmmakers from Johns Hopkins and the Baltimore area, helping them to turn good ideas into viable projects. The fund aims to empower new Baltimore voices by connecting them with veteran artists, executives and entrepreneurs who can offer expert advice and invaluable networking to jumpstart work that will ultimately be developed and produced in Baltimore.

The fund has been launched through a $1 million grant from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation. Zaentz, who died in 2014, was a three-time Academy Award-winning producer whose work included One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, and The English Patient.

"We're trying to break down the industry's barriers so more people have access to the network of experts to bring their projects to life."
Roberto Busó-García, JHU film lecturer

The incubator's inaugural class, chosen from more than 75 proposals, includes 18 projects from prospective filmmakers and visual artists. At a four-day bootcamp in Baltimore last week, seven participants worked one-on-one with established artists to further develop their screenplays. Those artists included:

  • Zachary Sklar—Oscar nominee, JFK
  • Jeremy Pikser—Oscar nominee, Bulworth
  • Darnell Martin—Directors Guild of America nominee and Independent Spirit Award nominee, I Like It Like That
  • Martín Salinas—writer of the Oscar-nominated Gaby and the internationally-acclaimed Nicotina
  • Diane Houslin—award-winning producer and Sundance Institute Fellow

One film idea developed during the lab is a piece about the aftermath of police brutality set in a post-Freddie Gray Baltimore.

"We're trying to break down the industry's barriers so more people have access to the network of experts to bring their projects to life," said Roberto Busó-García, director of the fund and of the university's Master of Arts in Film and Media program. "We're giving people with great stories, great ideas, and great potential the resources they need."

An important requirement of the incubator is that all supported projects must be produced in Baltimore City, a factor the Zaentz foundation hopes will lead to the creation of sustainable jobs in the city. Anyone who lives in the Baltimore area can apply for support—including Johns Hopkins faculty, staff, and students.

Participants in the first screenplay lab were:

  • Evan Balkan: Balkan teaches screenwriting and creative writing at the Community College of Baltimore County-Catonsville. His project, Spitfire, is an inspirational period drama, set in Baltimore in the 1950s, about a teenage girl who fights to play hockey on an all-boys team, while coping with her father's death in the Korean War and the difficulties of befriending an African-American during the early days of school integration.

  • Harrison Demchick: Demchick edits fiction and memoir with the freelance editorial boutique, the Writer's Ally. His project, Time-Traveling Idea Bandits, depicts a young writer who discovers time traveling bandits who steal ideas from one era and sell them to writers in the past. The bandits steal a writer's unpublished novel and sell it to a Victorian-era writer, forcing her to concoct a complex plan involving time travel to make things right.

  • Danielle Naassana: A junior at Johns Hopkins majoring in Film and Media Studies and Writing Seminars, and minoring in entrepreneurship and management, Naassana's project, The Moray Project, comments on the social state of Baltimore City through its architecture as it follows a Baltimore architecture student's entrance into a design competition. Naassana is a member of the Johns Hopkins Film Society.

  • Matt Porterfield: Baltimore native Matt Porterfield, who teaches film production and theory at Johns Hopkins, has written and directed three feature films: Hamilton (2006), Putty Hill (2011), and I Used To Be Darker (2013). His project, Sollers Point, follows a 26-year-old man's return to society after incarceration and eight months' home detention. As he reenters a community scarred by joblessness, drugs, and deeply entrenched segregation, he pushes back against these obstacles in a search for meaning and the means to build a life.

  • Kat Lewis, Na Yung "Ellie" Park, and Zack Schlosberg: Lewis directs short films and is pursuing a degree in Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. Park is a filmmaker and screenwriter based in Baltimore and Seoul, Korea, who is working towards a degree in Film and Media Studies and Sociology at Johns Hopkins. Schlosberg is a Writing Seminars major at Johns Hopkins. Their project, Excessive Force, is set in a post-Freddie Gray Baltimore and follows an African-American man as he comes to grips with the tragic death of his wife to an act of police brutality and the challenge of raising a daughter by himself.

The 13 initial incubator participants who didn't participate in the feature screenplay lab will get one-on-one mentoring with established professionals. Everyone in the inaugural class will be eligible to apply for grants through the fund to help finance their projects.

"We seek to support artists who embody the uncompromising creativity of Mr. Zaentz through projects that will advance the art and craft of audiovisual media," Busó-García says. "Baltimore has countless stories that need to be told, and we aim to provide the groundwork to help its citizens use their voices to do so."

The gift establishing the incubator counts toward Rising to the Challenge: The Campaign for Johns Hopkins, an effort to raise $5 billion, primarily to support students, research and discovery, and interdisciplinary solutions to some of humanity's most important problems. The campaign, supporting both the university and Johns Hopkins Medicine, began in January 2010, was publicly launched in May 2013, and is targeted for completion in June 2018. So far, the campaign has raised $3.84 billion.