Universal’s Global Talent Development & Inclusion (GTDI) department marks its five-year anniversary with the debut of the Universal Writers Lab, elevating the Universal Writers Program experience, which the Studio launched in 2014.
The Lab – one of the only studio writing programs dedicated to feature films – aims to increase the participants’ knowledge of the Studio system, expand their networks both within NBCUniversal and industry wide, as well as enhance their ability to deliver commercial concepts and scripts, setting them up for increased job opportunities and career momentum during and after their tenure.
The Universal Writers Lab remains a one-year paid program that provides professional development through workshops, seminars, executive and filmmaker-led roundtable discussions, as well as mentorship from the participants’ dedicated producer advisors, in addition to an in-depth immersive look at the Studio’s production process from pitch to post-production. During their time, the selected writers will participate in various writing exercises and actively work with production executives and filmmakers to deliver scripts with commercial appeal and to be considered for potential job opportunities, including open writing assignments, pitches on Universal intellectual property or library titles, further development of concepts they have generated within the Lab, or open staffing on television series.
Representing the AAPI, Black, Indigenous and Latino/Hispanic communities and bringing to the table a wide range of life experiences, with backgrounds in computer science, school counselling, music and journalism, the six writers joining the first cycle of the Universal Writers Lab are Brandon Collins, Jorge Alfonso Granera, Taryn Hillin, Diana Ly, Arun Narayanan and Joey Rayburn.
They will spend the year partnering closely with their producer advisors, which include Universal Pictures’ first-look partners at Malcolm D. Lee’s Blackmaled Productions, Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Jack Ivin’s The Great Company, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Lord Miller, Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, Dan Lin’s Rideback and LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Company.
“Writers are the lifeblood of the film industry. I’m so glad to see first-hand that Universal is nurturing talent at every level,” said Krysty Wilson-Cairns, co-writer of 1917 and Last Night in Soho and co-founder of The Great Company. “The Universal Writers Lab is visionary, vital and provides true access to the industry, and Great Company and I are thrilled to be involved.”
“In the last five years, GTDI has seen more than 50% of our alumni talent secure credits following their respective tenures in our programs and initiatives. While we are proud of their accomplishments and our industry-wide impact, as the business evolves, so must the strategies to ensure that we are always on the cutting edge and driving real results,” said Janine Jones-Clark, Executive Vice President of Inclusion – Talent & Content, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. “We can’t wait to see what this dynamic group with distinct voices creates in our reimagined Universal Writers Lab.”
Alumni from GTDI’s writing program have garnered success on various films, broadcast and cable television series. Most recently, Jennifer Coates became the first writer to receive a blind script deal with Universal coming out of the original program, and Derek Asaff’s script from his tenure is currently being developed by the Studio. Additional successes include Juel Taylor, who is developing a project with Universal and SpringHill Company; Sarah Cho, a staff writer on the Hulu and Universal Content Productions series The Girl from Plainville; and Leon Hendrix, co-writer and executive producer of Peacock’s upcoming series Cointelpro.
Read details about the six writers below.
HOMETOWN: Ann Arbor, Michigan
BACKGROUND: From being a Chappell Player in college to producing his own shows and podcasts, Collins is a multi-talented and versatile stand-up veteran of MTV, VH1, and College Humor. When he isn’t writing jokes or screenplays in various genres, he serves as the producer and host of the successful Rotten Tomatoes accredited podcast “Medium Popcorn”
WRITING INSPIRATION: His unique perspective of growing up in the suburbs as a black man and working in various odd jobs allows him to hilariously comment on the oddities of life in his writing. His goal with producing content is to use his platforms to highlight diverse artists and stories.
JORGE ALFONSO GRANERA
HOMETOWN: San Francisco, California
BACKGROUND: Granera found his passion for storytelling at a young age from Saturday morning cartoons. By high school, his creativity turned to music when he learned how to play the bass and formed a punk hardcore band. When college came around, he decided to take his passion for writing and put it towards screenwriting for film. He wrote and directed the short film Kaleidoscope which has won several and has played at festivals such as the Marina Del Rey Film Festival in 2021.
WRITING INSPIRATION: His stories tend to deal with characters in the moral gray areas of life. The goal is to tell thrilling stories with characters that accurately reflect the diverse world in which he has grown up.
HOMETOWN: Temecula, California
BACKGROUND: After graduating from Yale, Hillin made a name for herself in news and media as a writer/producer for TMZ, Associate Editor for The Huffington Post on Weddings & Divorce, a Sex and Love reporter for Fusion where she covered topics like weed and sex, reproductive health, and sex-positive stories. She co-wrote the horror film Pernicious, earned a writing credit on the action-feature Stranger In Paradise and just completed the year-long Sony Television Diverse Writer’s Program.
WRITING INSPIRATION: Of Native American, Spanish and Irish descent (and as a cancer survivor), Hillin loves telling stories of strong female protagonists who persevere against all odds. Once recruited by the CIA, but ultimately rejected, Hillin’s passion for film and TV includes high-concept action-adventure, supernatural, and of course spy movies that tackle themes of identity.
HOMETOWN: Makati, Philippines
BACKGROUND: Ly grew up as an expat in the Philippines before studying Computer Science at Stanford, and subsequently working at Google and the YouTube Space LA. She’s currently a Women in Film|Black List Feature Resident, a member of the Sống Collective’s Inaugural Việt Writers Lab (Playwriting), and she has been selected for a Ragdale Artist Residency. She is pursuing her MFA in Playwriting at Hunter College.
WRITING INSPIRATION: A Vietnamese American screenwriter and playwright, Ly writes stories about dysfunctional families, immigrants, nerds, and women who defy stereotypes.
HOMETOWN: Southbury, Connecticut
BACKGROUND: By day, Narayanan was most recently a Metadata Research Specialist at Netflix, working to advance their recommendation algorithms. By night, he is the creator and star of the Webby and YouTube Streamy Award nominated web series Arun Considers, the writer of the 2018 PixL original TV movie Time Capsule, and a producer and video editor who has worked on independent films, music videos, and branded content for companies like Disney and Sephora.
WRITING INSPIRATION: Growing up a neurotic child of weirdly-chill south Indian immigrant parents, Narayanan navigates his own personal experiences by creating funny and strange alternate realities populated by characters who struggle to connect with each other and with the world around them. Using a balance of witty dialogue and heartfelt emotion, Narayanan tries to turn those stories into fun, wild rides for a wide audience.
HOMETOWN: Tulsa, Oklahoma
BACKGROUND: After graduating from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2019, Rayburn’s scripts have received several honors, including a finalist placement at the Austin Film Festival for his drama feature If I Needed You. Outside of writing, Rayburn is an avid fan of basketball and baseball.
WRITING INSPIRATION: A Cherokee screenwriter, Rayburn crafts his scripts to push his characters to confront their realities, allowing them to find peace in the inevitable battles life throws at them. This perspective has ties to the perseverance of Rayburn’s tribe, and he is eager to contribute to the collective Indigenous voice, reiterating through art that the native people of this country are still here and have a perspective worth hearing.
In its five years, GTDI, a first-of-its-kind diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) department for a film studio, has amassed an impressive and inclusive talent pool through its live-action and animation writing programs; directing and composing initiatives; and below-the-line traineeships. Established in 2017 by Universal Filmed Entertainment Group Chairman Donna Langley, the business-led group creates programs, initiatives and strategies ensuring that DEI is at the forefront of Universal Pictures, Focus Features and DreamWorks Animation’s work culture and content creation, both in front of and behind the camera.