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 Martirosyan and 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.
Cannarella: Why do you think that is?
Novicki: It all goes back to why there are not enough incentives. Studios, networks, producers are thinking about, “How can I sell the show? How can I get viewers?” And there is a huge population of people with disabilities, but they’re not showing them. They’re not coming out and saying, “We need content.” They kind of are, I guess, since Speechless, because that’s been a huge hit. But I don’t know. There’s a lot of different disabilities, and I think sometimes that can be tough, too. People won’t think somebody has an invisible disability, that that person has a disability.
But it was cool, though. This year there was a significant growth in our films. We had way more people enter the Challenge and more films were finished. Part of that was because of our new sponsors with SAG-AFTRA and CBS Entertainment Diversity. Dell has sponsored every year of the Challenge. But also having Easterseals Southern California partnering with me, we renamed it Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, but having them as the largest disability services organization in the nation helped to give it out to all other chapters, all affiliates of Easterseals found out about the Challenge and spread the word. It’s been a great year. I’m excited about everything.
I traveled a bunch, too. I went to the ReelAbilities Film Festival in Cincinnati as a celebrity VIP. I got people to sign up from there. I did a lot of shout-out videos with actor RJ Mitte. I did a shout-out video in which RJ and I went to Facebook, and we did a Facebook live, where we talked to all of his followers, which was amazing. I was talking to him like, “Hey, if you want RJ’s number, if you’re into RJ, sign up for the Challenge.” We were talking about all the exciting mentors and opportunities for participating in the Challenge. It was cool.
I did a workshop at SAG-AFTRA in New York, too, which was amazing, where a lot of people come out. It was fun. We did a workshop at Performing Arts Studio West, where there were 100 plus people attending. I find sometimes when I talk about the Challenge in email or it’s sent out in an email blast to a school, it doesn’t necessarily translate into submissions. But when I go into a school and tell people, “Look, I’ve been an actor and a comedian and a producer for 16 years. I’ve been in 40 TV shows and movies. I’ve gotten Martin Scorsese attached to projects and shot my own pilots. You have to create your own content. You have to produce your own stuff. No one’s going to just give you things. My Film Challenge,” I will say, “offers better incentives than any other—even if you get your film into Sundance, it’s amazing, as that’s the pinnacle of all festivals. Once you’re at Sundance, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get a mentor meeting. You won’t necessarily be in front of an executive. But you do get that amazing screening opportunity and the experience of being there, but we also offer the experience of screening at the Chinese Theatre and being at HollyShorts Film Festival and attending all the events.” We make it cost-effective for people to enter the Challenge, and we have a special agreement with SAG-AFTRA, so participants can use Leonardo DiCaprio, if they can get him, in their film. If they want him to be in a Film Challenge and he agrees to do it, he could be in a short and they don’t have to pay him. There’s a deferred payment we have with SAG-AFTRA. So it’s been really cool.
Martirosyan: What’s your background in entertainment?
Novicki: I started doing stand-up when I was 18. The best thing about stand-up is that you don’t need a film crew. With acting, you’re still at the mercy of a play or a movie. With stand-up, you can just go out and do stand-up, which I’ve been doing for years. That was the same mentality I had when I entered the film and TV business; I’ve got to just do it, even if it’s not great. I always tell people, “Look, your first film’s not going to be Titanic. You can’t think about it like, ‘I’m going to win the Academy Award.’” The first short I directed was so bad; it was so terrible, I apologized to all the actors and everyone. “Look, I’m sorry.” At the end I was like, “We’re not submitting this anywhere. I was 100 percent honest.” But my next short was a lot better. That got into festivals. The short after that, I sold to HD and streamed online. You just learn the more you do these things. You learn how to be better with the crew and the cast, and I found that not only does work get you work, but the people who get you work are the people who are on your team. If you’re in a short film together, you’re going to want to work with them again. Even though this short was done with no budget, you get ten grand from a producer or from a client to do a commercial. Wouldn’t you rather hire the people you’re already comfortable with than the people you’re not comfortable with?
Martirosyan: But where do you think people with disabilities are making the greatest inroads in film?
Novicki: I think it’s the independent film movement and specifically for people with disabilities, it’s driven more by us. Yes, the studios and the networks need to be more involved and give us more opportunities. As an actor who’s 3 foot 10 inches, I’ll be honest, sometimes it can be really frustrating to not get a certain amount of auditions, especially when I already have a large body of work. But ultimately, I can’t wait for someone else. For people with disabilities, the numbers show that we can’t wait. We, as a community, have to be more proactive. I think the studios and the networks can be more inclusive and try to help us get into more mentoring programs. There’s a lot of writing, producing and directing programs. I think they need to give a little bit more training. Maybe if outside companies offer more training for people with disabilities, they can get into these showcases and diversity programs.
Cooper: If I did film mentoring, I’d use the Titanic as well, except I’d say, “Your film will sink.”
Novicki: (laughs) That’s the thing. Most films do end up sinking like the Titanic. But if you’re lucky enough to get the lady who drops the necklace in, you’re in good shape. It’s hard, though. But that’s the beauty of doing shorts versus doing a feature film. When you do a feature film, you’re investing a lot of money, whether you’re lucky enough to raise money from people you don’t know personally. You’re only going to get one shot from people like that. Or, if you’re getting money from your friends and family for this feature, there’s a lot of pressure that this feature has got to be amazing. You’ve got to know what you’re doing and learn through trial and error, web series, doing other shorts, and just playing around.
That’s the thing with iPhones now. You can do so much. They look great. If you light an iPhone and get the proper lenses, it’s amazing., I have a friend who was in the movie Tangerine, (filmed using three iPhones), and it was exhibited in 700 feature film screens.
Cooper: You did a good job.
Novicki: Thanks. It’s crazy. Some of it just fell into place. I was a writer for CBS’ Diversity Showcase, so they knew about the Film Challenge from me talking about it, and they became a sponsor.
Cooper: Was the Diversity Showcase years ago?
Novicki: They have one every year. It’s the biggest diversity showcase each year around the country. It’s where Kate McKinnon and Randall Park got discovered. I was the only person out of 200 or something with a disability.
Cannarella: It’s not just disabilities but diversity in general?
Novicki: No, it’s pretty much anti-disability. (laughs) I happened to be on camera.
You have to be able to write at least one sketch every day for the Showcase. And it’s performed in front of 100-something people from the night before to that day.
Cooper: Oh, this is new information.
Novicki: You have to have a certain level of comedy experience, which a lot of people, unfortunately within the disability world, don’t have.
Cooper: This event at CBS is humor-based?
Novicki: Yes. It’s a sketch comedy showcase. They’ve done it for almost 15 years. It’s a big showcase.
Martirosyan: What are the requirements?
Novicki: You have to submit a writer packet. It’s bigger for the actors. That’s where a lot of people get development deals.
Cooper: Do you know Jeff Charlebois?
Cooper: He’s been writing for us for years. He does stand-up comedy. He’s known as Ham on a Roll, and he’s funny. How many days are you on the road doing stand-up?
Novicki: It varies. This year I’ve focused solely on the Challenge. Running it, coming up with ways to get more people to sign up, and promoting it. I was all over the country promoting the Challenge, and I filmed a pilot in Tupelo, Mississippi. I talked to a kid at Ole Miss while I was there, and the community college in Tupelo, Mississippi. I was in New York a couple times. And every time I go to those places, I’m like, “I’ve got to get up and do stand-up some time.” My stand-up is sort of like a drug. You want to do it. You’re looking for places to get up on stage. But I’ve done Tours for the Troops; I’ve performed in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Europe. I’m performing quite a few places. But on the road, it varies. I was just on the road this last weekend. I’ll be doing stand-up every day this week. It kind of changes based on what gigs are out there.
Cooper: It sounds like you’ve been to some interesting places around the world. Have you ever thought—maybe it’s too dangerous? Have you ever thought of going to New Jersey?
Novicki: (laughs) I’ve been to a lot of dangerous and crazy places. But once I went to New Jersey, actually I was just in Atlantic City two weeks ago.
Cooper: Where? What venue?
Novicki: I wasn’t at a venue. I was there for a bachelor party.
Cannarella: Ooh! Tell us about that!
Novicki: It was a good time. Atlantic City was fun. The last time I was in Atlantic City, it was technically a sound stage. It was fun to go back there. I went to college in Philadelphia, and when I was there, we used to go to Atlantic City sometimes.
Cooper: Drexel University?
Novicki: I went to Temple University.
Cannarella: What did you study?
Novicki: Business. I double-majored in marketing and entrepreneurship, and then I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was doing stand-up the whole time, and when I got out of school, it was one of those things where I had a crazy job working for Citigroup. I did the private show for all Harvard MBAs. These guys were high up in the finance world. And they all loved me. And the CFO of Citigroup wanted to hire me. He was like, “I want you to work for me.” And I decided not to and to just do stand-up. So I went from that job opportunity to living with four comedians in a two-bedroom apartment.
Cooper: I saw that show.
Novicki: (laughs) Yeah!