Accelerator Starfish Launches Program for Diverse Talent (Exclusive)

Vanessa Benton Derek Nguyen Cherien Dabis Mikaal Suleiman Amir Suleiman - Publicity - Split - H 2020
Courtesy of Subject; Fabrizio Maltese; Thierry Van Biesen; Ahron Foster; Antar Hanif

Each of the program's first four awardees will receive a $50,000 stipend and support from three to four mentors, including content experts, topic experts and a fandom representative.

Newly launched accelerator Starfish has selected the first four participants of its six-month paid program designed to highlight the visions and voices of people of color within the entertainment industry. 

Black genre writer Vanessa Benton, Vietnamese American playwright and filmmaker Derek Nguyen, narrative television writer, Palestinian American producer and director Cherien Dabis, and black poet enthusiasts and creative brother duo Amir and Mikaal Sulaiman are the inaugural participants, chosen from a pool of over 60 applicants.

Starfish awardees will each receive a $50,000 stipend as well control over the creation and development of their ideas. Each awardee will be supported by a creative village consisting of three to four mentors who include content experts, topic experts and a fandom representative. 

Starfish is backed by the Pop Culture Collaborative, Doris Duke Foundation, and an advisory committee that includes buyers, funders, investors, producers, community organizers, influencers and innovators. The founding team is led by writer and producer Mahyad Tousi of BoomGen Studios and includes international best-selling author Reza Aslan, as well as former Sundance program officers Alesia Weston and Nina Spensley, and serial tech entrepreneur and change catalyst Sian Morson.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Tousi explained Starfish's overall goal was to "create an alternative pipeline" for creative people of color. 

"We are a creative accelerator that is investing in premium IP from mid-career storytellers of color. IP is the key here. A script is not an IP. A pitch is not an IP. You don't own anything. A book is, a podcast is, a digital comic is. The industry favors IP," Tousi said. "So we are encouraging our creators to establish their IP — whether they want to make a TV show or a film."

Tousi said Starfish's accelerator model was inspired by tech accelerators, and further developed by "interviews, surveys, academic research, market reports as well as our own lived experiences as creators and entrepreneurs of color."

"There's a lot of really amazing work being done by a lot of different people in this space," he continued. "We didn't want to come in and do something that's already been done.... How can we do something differently and really build an ecosystem around everyone who is doing this work and the industry itself."

Awardees spoke with THR about being accepted into Starfish's pilot program and how they hope their upcoming projects will both enrich and diversify the current entertainment landscape.

Dabis is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who was raised between Ohio and Jordan. Following her work in film (Amreeka, May in the Summer) and television (executive producing and directing Ramy's second season), Dabis aims to put forth a half-hour television dramedy titled Authentic. The show will follow four self-absorbed siblings who are forced to reckon with each other when they learn that their obsessive-compulsive, hypochondriac mother has cancer. Based on real life events, Dabis' project aims to explore women’s issues, the health care system, modern medical ethics and elderly care.

"My goal is to offer audiences something they’ve not seen before," Dabis said of Authentic. "A show that depicts the lives of a family of Arab American women of multiple generations. One of the topics I’m looking to explore is what it means to be a woman in this day and age where many of us are opting not to marry or have kids. What I’m also looking to explore is how our relationships with our parents change as they get older. Nothing in our culture prepares us for seeing our parents become more fragile or taking care of them when they get sick. It’s a conversation most of us don’t want to have, although I feel that shifting somewhat. I want to explore these topics with humor and humanity. I want audiences to recognize themselves in the characters, and I want to create dialogue around challenging issues in order to push cultural boundaries."

Asked what advice she'll offer to future Starfish participants, Dabis said, "Lean into what makes you uniquely you. And trust that. That’s your voice. Cultivate it. It’s what will make you stand out."

Benton, who has written for How to Get Away With Murder and co-hosts her own podcast titled We Went to School for This, specializes in stories grounded in the psychological trauma that women of color and marginalized people face in those worlds. With Starfish's support, she is looking forward to creating the pre-apocalyptic webcomic titled God Bless the Promise Land, set to launch in 2020.

"My goal for the webcomic is to inspire action," Benton said. "I chose to make God Bless a pre-apocalypse because that’s literally what I feel like we’re living in today. While postapocalyptic stories are a warning signal and teach us what could be, to me, they still feel distant enough to not illicit a sense of urgency. God Bless touches on a bunch of different human experiences during the pre-apocalypse. My goal is if I can introduce the most relatable characters and the psychological trauma they go through, readers will be reminded about taking action against politicians who do not care about climate change, and the corporations who contribute to it."

Benton noted Hollywood's own necessity for action and change when it comes to its current representation of people of color, both onscreen and behind-the-scenes.

"It still feels like many people in Hollywood see representation as a chore. While, on the outside, Hollywood promises that it cares about representation, it feels like pulling teeth when it comes to implementation," Benton said. "On the flip side, because there aren’t a lot of black, or indigenous, or trans, or disabled people making the big decisions, it’s difficult to actually make the changes needed to have a full spectrum of representation both on- and offscreen. You can look at the backlash of the Oscar nominations to see that."

Nguyen, a refugee of the Vietnam war whose credits include his play Monster and Gothic romance horror film The Housemaid, shared his emotional response to learning he'd been selected by Starfish.

"I actually started to tear up when they told me that one of the reasons why I was selected was because I spent so many years supporting other storytellers at the expense of my own work," Nguyen said, noting his work with The Population, which focuses on producing feature films by or about women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ and other underrepresented groups.

Nguyen added the excitement to further his project, Burning Bayou, a true-crime narrative podcast launching this year. 

"My goal is to create a podcast version of Burning Bayou to be released in 2020 and then use that as a springboard to create an episodic television miniseries for a premium cable or streaming service. However, my vision for the podcast and the TV show are quite different," Nguyen explained. "The podcast will be framed as an investigative report chronicling the case of two missing Vietnamese children in Louisiana in 1985. The narrator will be a Vietnamese Canadian journalist who unravels the mystery in the present day. The TV show will be entirely set in 1985 and will depict the events as they unfold. I hope that these two approaches offer disparate ways for audiences to experience the story while utilizing the strengths of each of the mediums. I hope to create a story that not only entertains, but also raises pertinent questions about race, white supremacy and class in America."

Brothers Mikaal and Amir Sulaiman have experience across multiple facts of the industry — Mikaal as an award-winning sound designer and composer for dozens of films and Amir a published poet who was featured for two seasons on Russel Simmons' HBO series Def Poetry Jam. The two will share their passion for poetry in Cornerstore Folklore, a conversational podcast set to launch this year. 

"What we're most excited about is the communal aspect, the people that Starfish will open up to us, and the support we'll have to explore different ideas." Amir said.

The podcast itself will touch on how poetry can offer global exploration and understanding. "Poetry is about deep curiosity, deep curiosity of internal workings of things. I think anything can really be poetic if you really go down to the atomic level of something," Mikaal added. "It's a reason why this podcast is so important to us because we know that we can really go that deep." 

With Starfish's goal for awardees to, in time, mentor the next wave of program participants, the Sulaiman brothers noted they'd do what they can to share both mistakes and successes. "Anything that we learn in this process, we want the next cohorts to start at the level where we left off — that level of knowledge, wisdom and experience," Amir shared. 

Starfish's program begins March 15, and by the conclusion of the program Sept. 15, all awardees will have launched their projects.