Viacom Program Finds the Next Generation of Directing Talent
By Stuart Winchester
Two years ago, Elvira Ibragimova was working at an upscale Manhattan architecture firm, designing a pavilion that would sit at the junction of Uber’s new headquarters and the Golden State Warriors’ new San Francisco arena.
The glamorous job could have been a tidy endpoint for Ibragimova, who left Uzbekistan for the United States with her family at age 10, a refugee considered endangered in the former Soviet Union for her mixed Jewish-Muslim heritage.
But architecture was demanding and, worse, unfulfilling. Working until midnight was not uncommon. A friend recommended she take an improv comedy class to help her better manage client relationships. “Once you start, it’s kind of a cult,” Ibragimova remembers.
Hooked, she applied to and was accepted to Second City Chicago’s Harold Ramis Film School. She quit her job and moved west. She wrote and did lighting and produced. She learned teamwork and trust. And she directed Dingus Wishes, a short political fable dressed as a children’s film.
As her program ended, Ibragimova applied for Viacom’s ViewFinder director development program, which helps promising emerging directors from under-represented communities break into the industry. The program works with the Directors Guild of America to match participants with a working director, a job-shadowing rotation that will help equip them with the skills, experience, and connections they need to jumpstart their careers.
Viacom’s goal is to hire each participant within one year, eventually building a roster of diverse directors that its networks can tap. Participating properties include Paramount Television, Paramount Network, BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, and VH1.
“Because Viacom has so many networks that represent different cultures and different target audiences, it’s important for us to also consider the perspective of our audience and how that’s reflected within our talent in-house,” says Juan Hernandez, manager of the ViewFinder program for Viacom’s Office of Global Inclusion. “We’re able to bring stories from these directors who have actually lived and experienced these things, and they’re able to tell them and connect with the audience because they come from the same world.”
Such programs have multiplied as the industry as a whole continues to show mixed results on efforts to diversify the directing ranks. Other media networks have launched similar programs, and ViewFinder builds upon previous director diversity efforts within Viacom.
A Chance to See How the ‘Circus’ Works
ViewFinder recruits from competitive film schools, industry organizations, and film festivals, winnowing hundreds of highly qualified applicants down to the six to 10 individuals that the program accepts each year. A panel of Viacom production and development professionals considers not only a candidate’s directorial work, but life circumstances that suggest they could bring a fresh perspective to the directing ranks.
Justin S. Lee is a first-generation immigrant who grew up bouncing from Pennsylvania to Taiwan to California. Between lackluster Mandarin that made him feel foreign in Taiwan and Asian heritage that wasn’t common in his area of Pennsylvania, he struggled to find a sense of belonging.
“I think a big reason why I became a storyteller was to have an expressive outlet, because I think by moving around a lot, I always felt like an outsider,” Lee says. He tried writing short stories, but that wasn’t fulfilling. “It wasn’t until the end of high school and the beginning of college in California, where I finally picked up a movie camera, when I realized that all the stories that I was writing growing up were in the wrong medium. The stories in my head were always supposed to be movies and TV shows.”
He found his place at the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts, where he directed Drone, a short film exploring the trauma that Air Force drone pilots experience. It earned a 2015 Student Academy Award Nomination in the Narrative category.
That blend of life experience and early directorial excellence caught the attention of the ViewFinder program, and after a months-long application and selection process, Lee found himself in Vancouver, shadowing accomplished director Kate Woods on the set of a yet-to-be-released Paramount Television show.
The shadow experience is fully immersive. When Ibragimova arrived in Los Angeles, her shadowing assignment on Nickelodeon’s Henry Danger wouldn’t start for several weeks. The showrunner invited her to hang around and absorb everything she could.
“He was like, ‘The best way to get anywhere in Hollywood is to just show up and never leave,’” says Ibragimova. “So I just started coming pretty much every day.”
The crew showed her the intricacies of camerawork, lighting, and production design. She sat in on the writer’s room. When her official shadow assignment began, director Adam Weisman guided her through the steps of blocking an episode.
But she also learned intangible skills that are vital onset and transcend even expert technical knowhow.
“Young directors often think they have to prove themselves by going it alone and proving they know everything,” she says, after explaining how Weisman called in multiple departments to advise on how to shoot a fight scene within a narrow truck trailer. “And I’m certain that’s what I would have done if I hadn’t shadowed.”
For a novice director, the on-set experience can be exhilarating, providing invaluable experience in the art of on-the-fly decision-making and even-handed leadership required to direct something as complex as a television show.
“I would describe it, in the most complimentary way possible, as a circus. There’s just so much going on,” said Lee. “That’s why a program like this is so awesome, because when you literally get taken through prep to production, to post-production on an entire episode, on a professional high-scale project like this, you really do get to see how it all works.”
Lee wasn’t all wide-eyed wonder, however. To maximize the experience, he poured over the scripts and prepared shot lists as though he were directing the episode. Each day, he would compare his plans to Woods’ execution.
“Oftentimes she would make a very different choice,” said Lee. “And to realize why that was a smarter choice for that moment or why her years of experience made her make that choice, being able to do that every day, every scene, every take, every shot, it was a great lesson.”
With their on-set shadowing wrapped, both Lee and Ibragimova are awaiting word on their own directing assignments. Ibragimova is still waiting on post production for her episode, and Lee wrote a TV pilot called Welcome to the Scene, which has James Shin and Scooter Braun attached to produce and was recently accepted into the Imagine Impact program and the Film Independent Episodic Lab.
This year’s application window for the ViewFinder program has closed. Viacom anticipates this year’s winners will be announced in the fall and will begin accepting new applicants in spring 2020. For more information, visit viacomviewfinder.com.