It was a decidedly Hollywood affair at the Paley Center for Media on Tuesday. Photo flashes, velvet rope — the only thing missing was a red carpet.
Professionals from both the engineering and entertainment fields came together to judge 12 finalists as they pitched an original TV show that calls for a female engineer protagonist.
Hosted by the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the National Academy of Engineering and The Paley Center for Media, five winning finalists received $5,000 and the chance to work with an entertainment industry mentor in order to take their idea from pitch to pilot script. It’s called “The Next MacGyver” competition and it was started with the goal of finding the next MacGyver-like role model — for women.
But not all judges who made it out to the live pitch event were from the entertainment industry.
Debbie Sterling is the founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, a company that makes toys designed to get young girls interested in engineering. She explained what she was looking for in a winning pitch.
“What I’m going to be looking for most are people who try to make STEM — science, technology, engineering, math — particularly entertaining for young girls,” Sterling said.
Several of the judges who were in attendance do work in Hollywood though, like Roberto Orci. A writer and producer with credits on TV shows such as “Fringe” and “Sleepy Hollow,” as well as the latest “Star Trek” movies, Orci described what kind of show he wanted to see at the competition.
“It can’t be pandering,” he said. “Only a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down and if you can have a decent story that hides the message, that’s what works ... a real character, doing a real thing, that’s awesome. ”
Actress America Ferrera also was a judge. At her own company, Take Fountain Productions, she said she’s always looking for new ways to reflect women in TV and film. But like several of her fellow judges, Ferrera said the quality of the narrative was still paramount.
“It starts with great character and great story and once you have that, you get to weave in the themes and the issues that you’re trying to have conversations about in the world,” Ferrera said. “But it comes down to fun entertainment and coming up with a world that people are excited to get lost in.”
Once the pitching got underway, presenters had just five minutes to convince the judges that their show concept was worth pursuing.
Not all of the pitchers had experience writing scripts. Beth Keser is a principle engineer at Qualcomm in San Diego. In her pitch she said she wants her TV concept, “Rule 702,” to “show young women that being an engineer can be exciting, rewarding, and even fun.”
After the pitching session ended, the 12 finalists nervously awaited the results while the judges deliberated in a separate room.
("The Next MacGyver" judges deliberating. © The Paley Center for Media)
But according to “MacGyver” creator Lee Zlotoff, just getting to the pitch round meant the contestants had a promising script.
“It’s entirely possible that an idea will not win this competition and still end up on television because we have a whole audience of entertainment people here,” Zlotoff said.
Miranda Sajdak won for her concept called “Riveting.” She said she still has plenty of work to do before her pitch becomes a show though.
“Next for me is just taking the script from the treatment stage that it’s in now and turning it into a pilot, but it will definitely be a lot of writing,” Sajdak said.
For Jayde Lovell — who won for her show “SECs” — the $5,000 prize was appreciated, but it really wasn’t the reason for competing.
“I literally forgot about the money until just now,” Lovell said after the winners were announced. “It’s such an honor to be able to stand up in front of all these people that we love and that I look up to.”
Lovell says the real prize is getting to work with Roberto Orci. Well, now he’s just Bob.
“My mentor is Bob, who’s one of the writers behind ‘Star Trek,’ so I think I really lucked out with a great writer and a great guy,” Lovell said. “And I’m looking forward to that real world experience of learning not just how to write well, but to get a show across the line and be produced.”
Here's the full list of the five winning finalists:
Name: Beth Keser
Mentor(s): Lori McCreary, CEO and Founder of Revelations Entertainment; President of Producer’s Guild of America ("Madam Secretary," "Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman"); Tracy Mercer, VP of Development, Revelations Entertainment
TV Concept Title: "Rule 702"
Name: Jayde Lovell
Mentor(s): Roberto Orci, Writer/Producer ("Star Trek," "Scorpion," "Sleepy Hollow," "Hawaii Five-O," "Fringe")
TV Concept Title: "SECs" (Science and Engineering Clubs)
Name: Miranda Sajdak
Mentor(s): Clayton Krueger, Senior Vice President of Television, Scott Free Productions ("3001: The Final Odyssey")
TV Concept Title: "Riveting"
Name: Craig Motlong
Mentor(s): Anthony E. Zuiker, creator and executive producer of the "CSI" franchise
TV Concept Title: "Q Branch"
Name: Shanee Edwards
Mentor(s): America Ferrera, actress/producer ("Ugly Betty," "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"); Gabrielle Neimand, Take Fountain Productions
TV Concept Title: "Ada and the Machine"