Universal Cable Productions (UCP) has selected Erin Woods and David Merrit II as the winners of the company’s second annual Pitch Fest competition, Variety has learned exclusively.
In its second year running the competition, UCP focused on diversity with the goal of discovering writers and stories that highlight a range of topics from ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, to socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, and religious beliefs. The competition attracted more than 1,400 submissions, with 18 finalists given 10 minutes to pitch their idea to UCP’s development team. The winning pitches, “Futures,” submitted by Wood, and “The Haints,” submitted by Merritt, have both been placed into active development at the studio.
“We had a harder time picking the winner this year, which is why we picked two,” Dawn Olmstead, executive vice president of development for Universal Cable Productions and Wilshire Studios, told Variety. “There were probably 10 real strong contenders and two came out of that. Last year we had 500 submissions, this year we had 1,400. So we nearly tripled the amount of submissions so it was really hard to get down to the finalists.”
Wood is a graduate of UC-Berkeley and holds a bachelor of arts degree in multicultural literature. She participated in the Bay Area production workshop, Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP) where she wrote, directed, and edited her first short film “The Saint,” which went on to screen at several film festivals. Her winning Pitch Fest submission is centered around five brilliant millennials from disadvantaged backgrounds who discover they are each owned by private shareholders who are banking on their future. With the realization that their lives are not their own, they will be forced to focus their superior minds on how to break free.
“There were a couple of reasons why we liked this and Erin,” Olmstead said. “If you are an underprivileged kid from one of these disparate backgrounds, that automatically gives you an outsider view of the world. We felt that through these different perspectives and the different reasons why these families were vulnerable to this kind of sponsorship, the taking advantage of the underprivileged but in a futuristic way, made this very compelling.”
Merritt earned a bachelor of arts degree in art history from East Carolina University and a master’s degree in film from the University of North Carolina. He began his career in the entertainment industry as a writer and director for “WWE Monday Night RAW” on USA Network and “WWE Smack Down” on The CW. Later, his horror script, “Hangman,” placed in the finals of the Screamfest LA screenwriting competition and in the second round of the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. His winning Pitch Fest submission is a sci-fi thriller set in the early 90’s where six African-American teens are implicated when a white female classmate goes missing. Determined to bring her back alive, the teens delve into the world of tormented spirits and demons that plague the forest surrounding their urban home.
“I think [David] was incredibly well prepared with diagrams of where the spirits live, how the town worked, the history of what could have haunted this place,” Olmstead said. “He had a deep mythology that supported this take on both race and a time of your life that should be full of hope and how that can quickly end. He’s from the South, so he comes from a town that believes in these phenomenon. We also read his other work and really enjoyed it.”
To expand its outreach efforts this year, UCP partnered with NBCUniversal Talent Infusion Programs (NBCUNI TIPS), which are dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion within the television industry.