The 38th Annual Caucus Awards highlights the best of today’s entertainment industry

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The 38th Annual Caucus Awards, a virtual awards gala, honored big Hollywood names as well as surpassed their fundraising goal to award students grants.

By Karla Vazquez

The 38th Annual Caucus Awards was hosted by actor James Pickens Jr. on March 4, 2021. The virtual ceremony started with a special guest appearance made by The Caucus Co-Founder and television writer and producer Norman Lear.

Lear shared how The Caucus was formed in a Chinese restaurant, with a group of men known as the 12 angry men because no one had ever heard of writers and producers before. Also known as hyphenates, writer/producers or writer/directors, the hyphenates were having a small war with The Writers Guild of America over a strike they had called.

“The guild did not understand how writers could also be producers and at the time we yelled at each other until we realized in order to be taken seriously, we had to create a bona fide organization,” said Lear.

The Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors was then born to recognize and celebrate individuals who represent the best of today’s entertainment industry.

The Caucus Foundation, the non-profit section, was also created to give production grants to students to promote diversity. The awards gala presented scholarships to six students.

This year alone, worthy students will be awarded over $100,000 in aid for completing their projects.

“Every year we gather to recognize and support diverse and outstanding film and television students who, let’s face it, are the future leaders and creators in our industry,” explained Pickens.

The recipients of the grants were Myra Aquino from UCLA, Damon Laguna, Kathryn Boyd-Bastone and Mel Orpen from USC. From Chapman University, the recipients were Christine Cho and Tessa Germaine.

Aaron Saffi, manager of the new filmmakers program for Panavision and fellow UCLA Bruin, presented a grant for a $60,000 camera package rental to the 2020 Caucus Foundation First-Place Gold Circle Winner, Mayra Aquino and her film “Beauty Queen”.

“I want to be a filmmaker not only because I find it incredibly fulfilling, but also because I want to elevate the stories of underrepresented communities,” Aquino explained. “I also feel that it is important that they are seen and heard in bold and refreshing ways.”

The first award of the night was presented by Academy Award, Golden Globe, SAG and Emmy winner Nicole Kidman. Kidman presented the 2021 Caucus Director of the Year Award to Danish Director Susanne Bier.

“This year’s recipient could not be more deserving. She is virtuosic, tenacious, imaginative, decisive and totally brilliant,” Kidman explained. “Someone whose body of work speaks to decades of creative success and reflects the ongoing mission of The Caucus. Simply put, Susanne Bier is one of the finest filmmakers I have worked with.”

Bier has recently directed every episode of a series in which Kidman stars in, known as “The Undoing”.

“I would really thank The Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors for giving me this price, which I am just completely blown by,” Bier expressed.

The award for Writer of the Year was presented by Caucus Co-Chair Robert Papazian. The recipient was Academy Award®-winning writer, producer and director Aaron Sorkin.

“Thank you very much. This is a wonderful honor. I am humble to be included among the writers who received this award in the past,” said Sorkin. “I get to earn a living doing exactly what I love doing. I get to work with the brightest, most creative, most talented people in the world. I get to tell stories.”

Sorkin also took time during his speech to address the importance of supporting students who want to succeed in the industry.

“Of course The Caucus plays a more important role than just giving me an award, though that’s not an unimportant role. The money The Caucus raises to award grants to promising students to develop and complete film and television projects helps them get started in what we all know is a very difficult world. This is a terrific compliment and my family and I thank you very, very much,” said Sorkin.

The other recipients of the night included USC Professor of Cinematic Arts and Producer Gail Katz. Katz is also the Mary Pickford Endowed Chair and the Faculty Chair of the School of Cinematic Arts. Katz received the Educator of the Year award which was presented by Shaun Cassidy.

Vin Di Bona, chairman of Vin Di Bona productions, was presented the prestigious Caucus Legend Award by America’s Funniest Home Videos host Alfonso Ribeiro.

The Rising Star of the Year Award was presented by Chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, Donna Langley. The recipient of the award was actress and executive producer Marsai Martin who is known for her work in “Black-ish” and “Little”.

Marsai Martin accepts the Rising Star Award on March 4, 2021 over Zoom during the 38th Annual Caucus Award show.
Marsai Martin accepts the Rising Star Award on March 4, 2021 over Zoom during the 38th Annual Caucus Award show.

“As a young person in this industry, I genuinely embrace the responsibility to inspire, to make sure people my age and everyone in general, know that anything and everything is possible,” Martin explained.

The Caucus Humanitarian Award was presented by Caucus Co-Chair James Hirsch. The recipients were St. Louis community leaders and philanthropists Jeanne and Tom Townsend. Hirsch shared the story of how the Townsend family has overcome obstacles in their life. Music and pianos have been a vital part in their healing.

Susanne Bier accepts the Director of the Year Award on March 4, 2021 over Zoom during the 38th Annual Caucus Award show.
Susanne Bier accepts the Director of the Year Award on March 4, 2021 over Zoom during the 38th Annual Caucus Award show.

Townsend’s world was suddenly changed with the death of their oldest son Alex. Alex was killed in an auto accident. In 2012, the family founded Pianos For People, a project that would impact not only their lives but others as well. Pianos For People have provided hundreds of free and restored pianos to families who could not otherwise afford them and free piano lessons to tens of thousands of underserved young people.

The Pianos for People student prodigy, Royce Martin, did a special performance during the gala.

“Tom believed very deeply in the power of art to make the world a better place. He felt a huge responsibility particularly after our son Alex’s death, to foster art in our young people through our support and mentorship,” Jeanne Townsend said. “He would be so honored to receive this award, and I am deeply deeply honored to receive it on behalf of both of us.”

Actress Octavia Spencer was a special guest star who presented the Producers of the Year award.

“It’s a particular delight because we are talking about two powerful women who are committed to paying it forward to other women,” emphasized Spencer.

The awards recipients were Academy Award®, Golden Globe, Emmy winner and Hello Sunshine Founder Reese Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine’s President of Film and Television Lauren Neustadter.

and Reese Witherspoon accept the Producers of the Year Award on March 4, 2021 over Zoom during the 38th Annual Caucus Award show.
Lauren Neustadter and Reese Witherspoon accept the Producers of the Year Award on March 4, 2021 over Zoom during the 38th Annual Caucus Award show.

“I never thought I would have these opportunities to create with my most extraordinary peers, and it has been such a rewarding experience for me,” said Witherspoon.

The virtual awards gala, before it even started, was facing challenges. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, the annual awards dinner could not be held in person. The awards dinner is traditionally hosted at the Skirball Center in Beverly Hills.

Nonetheless, the virtual gala was a success. It surpassed the fundraising goal to fund The Caucus Foundation Scholarships and Grants for the next generation of burgeoning filmmakers.

“We exceeded expectations by a tremendous amount. Perhaps 85% of suggested targets,” said Hirsch and Papazian.

To learn more about the recipients, The Caucus Foundation and the 38th Annual Caucus Awards visit The Caucus.