It drew nearly 2,000 hopefuls pitching to turn their ideas into the first breakout TV series featuring a female engineer lead. In all, 12 finalists took the stage at the Paley Center for Media, five winners took home duct tape — yes, that was the winning trophy — and the spirit of MacGyver took new form for the 21st Century.
A purse was thrown in - $5000 for each winner. But the sweetest deal was the chance to see these female engineer heroes come to life on the screen. As part of the package, the winners were paired with a successful Hollywood TV producer who will mentor them in creating an original TV pilot script. They also have access to technical expertise to guide them in developing the engineering-focused storylines.
And the winners are...
Beth Keser, a globally recognized semiconductor engineer, won for the adventure-procedural “Rule 702” . She will be mentored by Lori McCreary (Madam Secretary) — Morgan Freeman's longtime producing partner and President of The Producers Guild of America.
Jayde Lovell, a STEM communicator for the New York Hall of Science won for her high school dramedy “SECs”(Science and Engineering Clubs). She'll be working with Roberto Orci, writer/producer of Sleepy Hollow, Hawaii Five-O and Fringe.
Indie filmmaker Miranda Sajdak will get her WWII drama “Riveting” developed by Clayton Krueger, senior vice president of television at Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions (3001: The Final Odyssey).
Craig Motlong, a Seattle-based creative director was chosen for “Q Branch” - a spy action thriller. He will come under the wing of Anthony E. Zuiker, creator and executive producer of the CSI franchise.
Shanee Edwards, film critic at SheKnows.com, is taking her steampunk concept “Ada and the Machine” to actress/producer America Ferrera (Ugly Betty, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) and Gabrielle Neimand of Take Fountain Productions.
Winners (cockwise from top left): Shanee Edwards "Ada and the Machine", Miranda Sajdak "Riveting", Beth Keser "Rule 702", Craig Motlong "Q Branch", Jayde Lovell "SECs"
Why this platform? Why now?
This idea of a marriage between Hollywood and engineering has been around for a long time.
Back in the early nineties, Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, proposed a new idea for a TV show. Instead of L.A. Law, he said, how about a L.A. Engineer? More recently, Andrew Viterbi, co-founder of Qualcomm and namesake of the USC Viterbi School, opined in Forbes: “The first step in raising the profile of STEM professionals is getting the mainstream media on board…Is it ridiculous to think we can elevate the top minds within the scientific community to true celebrity status?”
Dean Yannis C. Yortsos and USC Viterbi’s Office of Communications and Marketing didn’t think so.
After brokering an alliance between USC Viterbi, the NAE, The Paley Center, Zlotoff's MacGyver Foundation and The White House's Megan Smith, chief technology officer of the United States, the search for The Next MacGyver began in earnest during National Engineer’s Week 2015 (February 23-27).
It kicked off a global contest challenging entrants to create a TV series with a female main character, who, like MacGyver, would use her engineering powers to win the day. Celebrities like actress-producer America Ferrera and writer-producer Roberto Orci joined the movement and offered to mentor the winners.
Pictured (L-R): Wanda Austin, President & CEO, Aerospace Corporation; Madeline Di Nonno, CEO, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media; America Ferrera, Actress/Producer; Gabrielle Neimand, Producer & Head of Take Fountain Productions; Maja J. Matarić, Professor and Chan Soon-Shiong Chair in Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Pediatrics; Vice Dean for Research, USC Viterbi School of Engineering
Even President Obama was briefed. He and First Lady Michelle Obama have long challenged media's stereotypical portrayals of women. The president spoke about this openly at a town hall meeting in Los Angeles last year: “When you see an engineer or a tech person on a TV show or in movies, something like 90 percent of them are male. So if you never see yourself in that position, it’s hard to imagine, well, that’s something I should be doing. Apparently, when CSI came out…the number of women who applied to get into forensics skyrocketed. So we know that just these cultural cues that we send out can make an enormous difference.”
Sending out cultural cues is Hollywood's bread and butter. In the midst of the heated TV pitch season for Tinseltown, on July 28, hundreds of people — studio executives, TV agents, STEM leaders, students and journalists — arrived at the Paley Center and used the relative intimacy of the theater to make it feel like a real VIP party.
Changing the conversation
When the lights dimmed, Dean Yortsos addressed the young women in the audience with their “More Than Robots” T-shirts representing FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), saying: “Across the nation, less than 20 percent of engineering students are women. This cannot continue. We must change the conversation. One of these young women could be the next female iconic Bill Gates, the next Wanda Austin, the next Maja Matarić. The new face of engineering is not Dilbert of the cartoons. It’s the face of bright women and men, spanning societal, ethinc and racial divides."
Winning concept artwork (from top): "Q Branch" by Matthew Kikry, "Riveting" by Tim Szabo, "Ada and the Machine" by Zoe Chevat
The attractive visuals that accompanied the pitches enveloped the stage in a gently curving screen. And then something magical happened.
“The Next MacGyver” emerged from the canvas.
First, as a designer of nano-fashion who gives “dressed to kill” a new meaning. Then, an imagineer webbed in a comedy of errors, an explorer creating the first human settlement on Mars, a young science prodigy who ditches her corporate life to become an expert witness, a beautiful but snotty teenager who joins the high school Science and Engineering Club to avoid getting expelled, a lovelorn engineer in World War 2 who tips the balance of the war.
During the judge’s deliberation, Bloomberg Associates’ Katherine Oliver moderated a discussion on the process of taking a TV show concept from idea to pilot. Her guests included agent Ann Blanchard (CAA), studio executive Marci Cooperstein (ABC Family), Danielle Feinberg (Pixar Animation Studios) Director of Photography for hits “Wall-E” and “Brave”, and Ann Merchant, deputy executive director of The Science and Entertainment Exchange.
Pictured (L-R): Ann Merchant, Science and Entertainment Exchange; Danielle Feinberg, Pixar Animation; Marci Cooperstein, ABC Family; Ann Blanchard, CAA; and moderator Katherine Oliver, Bloomberg Associates
A win for all
Megan Smith congratulated the finalists on behalf of President Obama via video message: “The stories you tell are inspiring everybody to be the best that they can be [and] solve some our greatest challenges in the spirit of MacGyver. Congratulations to everybody.”
In the end, there would only be five winners.
Zlotoff did the honors of handing them their trophy — an exclusive MacGyver-branded duct tape. But before doing that, he turned to the audience with this:
“If you didn’t win,” Zlotoff said, “it doesn’t really matter. And the reason it doesn’t matter is because failure is not the opposite of success, but the seedbed of success. Every one of these judges, whether they’re in engineering or entertainment, has failed. I have failed! They have failed! Anyone who takes up these endeavors experiences failures. It is not the end the line; it is only the beginning. And the important part of this competition is that we had this competition. The bell got rung, the songs got sung and once again we have said to the world that women need to be part of the solution to fixing the problems of this planet. We’ve already won.”
Lee Zlotoff, creator of the original MacGyver series congratulates winners of "The Next MacGyver" competition with a roll of MacGyver branded duct tape