It was late afternoon on New Year’s Eve in 2021 when Juli Jackson received an email saying they had won an award for their television series pilot script.
“To hear that I won was kind of surreal,” said Jackson, a 2021 master of fine arts in film and media arts alum. “I was definitely elated and overwhelmed.”
Jackson was one of two winners to be awarded the Sloan Student Discovery Prize from the Museum of the Moving Image and Sloan Science & Film, an organization that supports filmmakers as they transition out of graduate school and into the film industry.
Jackson won a $20,000 grant and a year-long mentorship from a science advisor and film industry professional for their pilot episode of a television series called “Delta.” The Museum of the Moving Image hosted a virtual award ceremony for the winners on Jan. 19.
Jackson began working on the pilot script for “Delta” in Fall 2019.
The pilot is set in a rural community in Arkansas in 2020, and is about a farmer, Tom Francis, and a biologist, Emily, who are trying to improve farming practices but are met with resistance from other townspeople because of the tense relationship between Tom and the rest of the town.
The series’s secondary plotline is about the relationship between Tom and his preteen child, Nikki Francis, who is questioning their gender, reflecting Jackson’s own experiences coming to terms with being agender, they said.
“She is basically going through an identity crisis while she’s in middle school, which is similar to my experience of trying to figure out I was agender without having that language,” Jackson said.
In 2021, when enrolled in LeAnn Erickson’s Exhibition Distribution of Independent Media class, where students created a multi-platform distribution plan for a project, Jackson chose “Delta” as their project.
Erickson, a film professor, helped Jackson develop “Delta” during her class by utilizing materials like posters and press kits to help students visualize the potential of their projects. After working more with Jackson, Erickson encouraged them to create a short film version of the show for their graduate thesis, she said.
Erickson was excited to work with Jackson because she grew up in Iowa and resonated with how Jackson was attempting to explore beyond stereotypes of Southerners, she said.
Jackson’s award is well deserved and Erickson thinks that they will leave a positive impact on the world, she said.
“From seeing their application materials to get into our program, I just thought, ‘Oh, this is somebody different, this is somebody who’s really going to make a mark,’” Erickson said. “I feel like this opportunity is so well deserved, and will end up really making a significant mark in popular culture.”
Afia Nathaniel, an assistant film professor, emailed a call for submissions in Spring 2021 about the Sloan Award and nominated Jackson’s script.
Nathaniel was drawn to the unique characters, setting of the show and how well Jackson portrayed it all, she said.
“[Jackson] has a really gorgeous sense of the moment and how it translates for the screen,” Nathaniel said. “I could see that in the writing, you know, and I thought it was so compelling— I was drawn to that, that kind of sensibility.”
Jackson feels most stories about the South are not told by southerners and, as a result, southern characters feel inauthentic, they said.
“There are often stereotypes of what people think southerners are like,” Jackson said. “That includes the way we speak, our intelligence level, the way people think we behave.”
Jackson specifically wants to push back against the stereotype that being southern or having a southern accent means someone is unintelligent, they added.
Erickson feels Jackson’s work is unique and hopes more people will recognize and appreciate it.
“It’s no surprise to me that this has happened to somebody who’s quite as driven and organized and talented as [Jackson], because they’ve earned every bit of success they’ve gotten,” Erickson said. “They have, in my opinion, a mature and sophisticated approach to filmmaking — that is not something we see all the time.”
Jackson is looking forward to turning the script into an actual pilot and is grateful all their hard work has finally paid off.
“So many of us are often working so, so hard, and it doesn’t always have such an exciting payoff, but this time, it did,” Jackson said.