38th Annual Caucus Awards: USC community continues to make a mark in the industry

Actor and director Alfonso Ribeiro announces three current or former USC student filmmakers as recipients of the 2020 Caucus Foundation to assist them in their upcoming projects. Photo courtesy of Carol Marshall Public Relations.

Many awards shows are virtually hosting their celebrations online due to the pandemic. Despite the circumstances, the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors, a pillar in the entertainment industry, held its 38th annual awards show Thursday. Throughout the evening, the award show highlighted young filmmakers and professionals as well as praised honorees for their cinematic achievements in 2020.

Planning the show looked different this year. Sharon Arnett, president of the Caucus Foundation, and Jim Hirsh, caucus co-chair and board member of the foundation, were able to put on a spectacular show using the limitations of a virtual ceremony to their advantage. 

“I will say our list of honorees, as spectacular as it is, would not have been possible in a non-[coronavirus] world,” Hirsh said. “Lord knows where everybody came from, the ability to do this as we are [virtually] is probably the only way it would have happened.”

The honorees were spread across time zones from Nicole Kidman in Australia to Susanne Bier in Denmark. 

The show started with a sweet message from the legendary Norman Lear, who reminded the audience to stay safe and wear their masks. 

The host, James Pickens Jr., introduced Kidman as the presenter of the Director of the Year award which was given to Susanne Bier for “The Undoing.” Kidman praised Bier’s spirit of collaboration and attention to detail in character.

“I would thank the Caucus for giving me this prize, in particular Jim Hirsh and Rob Papazlian — thank you so much,” Bier said. 

Robert Papazian, Caucus co-chair, presented the Writer of the Year award to Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin, writer and director of “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” noting his deft storytelling ability.

Sorkin kindly thanked the Caucus and commended them for acknowledging and financially supporting students.

“The Caucus plays a more important role than just giving me an award,” Sorkin said. “The money the Caucus raises to award grants to promising students, helps them get started in what we all know is a very difficult world.”

The Caucus is not only representative of its members, but they also have a subset, known as the Caucus Foundation, which awards up-and-coming filmmakers grants to complete their projects. 

Three of the six 2020 grantees were current or former USC students. 

USC students Damon Laguna, Kathryn Boyd-Batstone and Mel Orpen were honored during the ceremony in a segment hosted by Alfonso Ribeiro. 

“Since its inception [the foundation] has given over $2 million to college students to finish their projects,” Hirsh said. “A part of what we’re trying to raise money for Thursday night, is to plan for a future in which we can reach even further, not just help college students finish projects, but open the door to help all kinds of people to find a path in the industry.”

USC professor and producer Gail Katz received Educator of the Year. Katz is the Mary Pickford Endowed chair and the faculty chair at the School of Cinematic Arts. Dozens of students have been recognized for their work under her tutelage. She thanked her students for their resilience in her acceptance speech. 

The Humanitarian Award, presented by Hirsch, was given to St. Louis community leaders and philanthropists Jeanne and the late Tom Townsend. The Townsends began Pianos for People to grant easier access to musical education in marginalized neighborhoods in St. Louis. 

Jeanne’s acceptance was accompanied by a performance by Royce Martin, a Pianos for People student prodigy. 

Octavia Spencer presented the Producer of the Year to Reese Witherspoon, Lauren Neustadter and their production company, Hello Sunshine. Witherspoon and Neustadter accepted the award and vowed to continue to make women-centered stories going forward. 

“I have met some of the most extraordinary female storytellers and learned so much through our collaborations,” Witherspoon said. “I never thought I would have these opportunities to create with my most extraordinary peers.” 

Marsai Martin was awarded the Rising Star Award. Martin is best known for her roles in “black-ish” and “Little.” Donna Langley noted Martin’s vast accomplishments, reminding viewers that she is only 16. Martin is a world record holder for youngest executive producer and a nine-time NAACP Image Awards recipient. 

To conclude the night, television producer Vin Di Bona earned the Caucus Legend Award which honors a successful career in the entertainment industry. Ribeiro presented the award and noted Di Bona’s solidification in television history for his work with “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

The awards show finished with virtual applause. But, the Caucus extends beyond the awards and grants. Throughout the year they host panels about diversity and inclusion in the industry that are accessible on their website. 

Now that the awards are over, Arnettt and Hirsh are looking forward to reading submissions for the 2021 grant recipients. 

“For me getting to hear other viewpoints, seeing where people come from, how they approach it and watching their creativity and ingenuity, I’m very happy to be encouraging [the next generation],” Arnett said. “It’s very exciting.”