Student wins million-dollar screenplay competition

Stanley Kalu, a senior majoring in writing for film and television, won The LAUNCH Million Dollar Screenplay Competition for his screenplay “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson.” His film explores the life of a wealthy, black high school senior who continually faces the obstacle of police brutality. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

The LAUNCH, an international screenplay competition, puts the question of “what would you do if you had a million dollars” to rest.

Late last year, writer and producer — and USC alumnus — Jason Shuman approached his colleague Zachary Green with a proposition from philanthropists Chuck and Marni Bond: a screenwriting competition for college students that would give them the means to bring their film ideas to life.

Green and Shuman brainstormed the best use of the money and came up with The LAUNCH Million Dollar Screenplay Competition. Students over the age of 18 and enrolled in a two-year, four-year or graduate school program are eligible to submit their screenplays for a $1 million prize to go toward production costs.

“We thought that if we had the ability to try to give back just a little bit and to have this screenplay competition for college students to be able to find new, undiscovered talents and be able to help them break in the business as well as pay for the rising cost of college would be an amazing thing to do,” Green said.

According to Green, hundreds of screenplays were submitted from 208 colleges and universities in 37 countries and 33 states from the United States. The submissions were evaluated by the LAUNCH Board of Advisors, ScreenCraft and technology platform Coverfly.

Out of those hundreds, USC student Stanley Kalu’s was chosen.

“Everyone read the top 25, and we all met for a meeting and it was a pretty wonderful discussion of how touched and impressed and moved everyone was by Stanley’s screenplay,” Shuman said. “We talked for a long time about which one should win and when it came down to it, it was pretty unanimous that everyone was excited to help Stanley tell his story.”

Kalu, a senior majoring in writing for film and television, was born in Nigeria and has lived all over sub-Saharan Africa. He came to the United States to attend USC and began writing “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” in his screenwriting class as a sophomore.

“I wrote it in one draft and had been sending it out places. It did pretty well last year … but I didn’t win anything,” Kalu said. “This year I still had it and I just kept sending it out and I finally won something.”

“The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” tells the story of a wealthy, black high school senior who is subjected to an endless loop of police brutality.

“I moved a lot in my life,” Kalu said of his inspiration for the screenplay. “I moved all over Africa, and what that does to a person and their perspective is you’re constantly being introduced to new spaces.”  

Kalu was shocked by American culture and institutionalized racism when he arrived. He came to America during a time when police brutality was prevalent, following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

But he was also surprised at how accepting American culture is to the LGBTQ community.

“Where I’m from, our queer culture is really subjugated rather violently,” Kalu said. “I thought it was really, really, really beautiful to see the culture embrace … the idea of homosexuality and being queer and being proud of [that] fact.”

It was experiencing and interacting with these elements of American culture that inspired Kalu’s script.

In addition to winning the $1 million to produce his film, Kalu is receiving a $50,000 educational grant. The remaining seven finalists will also be receiving education grants, and second- and third-place winners will be landing representation.

Production for “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” is set to start  this October.