For Nic Novicki, there’s no task too great. Whether in front of the camera, where he’s acted on The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and Private Practice or behind the scenes writing, directing and producing short films, web series, or independent feature films, the guy is adept at just about any role he finds himself in.
But the actor, comedian and producer knows better than anyone about the trials and tribulations of finding steady work in the entertainment industry. At three feet, 10 inches tall, he knows it’s an even steeper climb for people with disabilities.
To help counter this under representation and foster greater inclusion, Novicki created the Disability Film Challenge four years ago to boost the profile and opportunities in film for those with disabilities. Since its inception, he’s received more than 150 entries from aspiring filmmakers, and the list of sponsors keeps growing. This year, he joined forces with Easterseals to expand the Challenge, now called the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. The contest is straightforward enough: write a script, shoot the scenes and edit a three to five minute film in a single weekend. Winners are awarded mentorships with industry luminaries and an invitation to submit their film to the HollyShorts Film Festival.
During a conversation with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper, Lia Martirsyan and actress Christina Cannarella, Novicki spoke passionately about this year’s Film Challenge, his origins in the entertainment industry, and why we don’t see more people with disabilities in films.
Chet Cooper: When did the Film Challenge come about?
Nic Novicki: I’m a comedian and an actor and a producer, and I’ve always been doing my own stuff. Rather than just do stand-up or go on a couple of auditions a year, I’ve always produced my own films—my own shorts. About four years ago, I was directing, writing, and starring in a short called “A Little Broke,” and it was such an amazing moment where I was like, “God, I love what I’m doing with this!” And I thought to myself, “There’s not enough people with disabilities doing this. I bet I’m the only person right now who’s doing all aspects of a short—writing, producing, directing, and acting.” And I thought, “We need to come up with an incentive for people who don’t have disabilities to want to work with people who do have disabilities.” Because work gets more work. I was on The Sopranos and that led to me being on Boardwalk Empire.
The problem is people with disabilities were not getting that first job. A lot of times, it’s us waiting: “I hope I’m going to get that job.” So the Film Challenge gives incentives to people who don’t have disabilities to enter the contest, because each film has to have an actor, writer, director, and producer with a disability, someone either in front of or behind the camera. So I was making my short, and I thought of this idea, and I was like, “I’m going to come up with this crazy Film Challenge.” I then met someone at Dell computers right away, and I came up with a deck on how the Challenge would work. I got mentors on board, and we had our first Film Challenge. People made these awesome films. They loved it. It was a great experience. The winners’ films screened at the Chinese Theatre during HollyShorts Film Festival, and I myself had directed a couple of shorts that were in there. A lot of it was just using people I had already worked with initially and asking, “Would you mind being a mentor? Would you mind letting us screen in your festival?”
The second year I got actor Peter Farley to be a mentor, which is a bigger mentor, and then I got more people to sign up and enter, so it became more of a thing in New York, Los Angeles and in the Midwest. The third year was even bigger. And then this last year I partnered with Easterseals, which has been our biggest Film Challenge by far. It’s everywhere now. I know a lot of people on Facebook who are kind of related to it, but when I go on Facebook, that’s all I’d see—people trying to promote their awareness campaign or talking about how they were excited about the Challenge.
Christina Cannarella: What year did this all start?
Novicki: I came up with the idea in 2013, and the first Film Challenge was in the spring of 2014. Just last weekend was our fourth Challenge. It’s crazy how much it’s grown.
It’s opened me up so much to learn about other disabilities. I’m a little person, so I know little people stuff. I go to little people conventions. My wife is a little person as are a lot of our friends. It’s a weekend film competition where you must have someone with a disability in front of or behind the camera. But now I know so much about all these other disabilities from doing the Challenge and talking to people and figuring out accessibility concerns. It’s interesting, and I’m proud of all the filmmakers. Great stories came out of it.
Lia Martirosyan: How many entries did you have?
Novicki: We had around 60 and out of that, 35 made it, which was more than ever before. Participants have certain requirements to follow. They have to do the whole thing—write, shoot, edit—over the course of a weekend, and it has to follow the genre and certain elements. Some weren’t able to complete their film over the weekend.
Martirosyan: Who comes up with the genre?
Novicki: I usually come up with it. This year I worked with my partners on finalizing the genre, and it was good for everyone else. But usually, I come up with one genre and the themes, and I’ll ask people I trust—mentors and judges—”What do you think of this?” Just so they’re all on board, and it’s something everyone’s excited about.
Cooper: This year you decided it had to be inside an airplane, and people had to jump out as part of the challenge? (laughter)
Novicki: Yeah, exactly! I said, “Everyone needs to jump out of an airplane if you want to be in the Challenge. Parachutes are optional.”
Cooper: That’s why only 35 people made it! (laughter)
Novicki: Yeah. I usually keep it vague about how many films we went through. But, as crazy as it is, we have a significant portion of the films made with disability content each year. For the last four years, the films made represent a vast majority of content that deals with people with disabilities in a scripted narrative. There’s just a lack.