Temple University student’s web series diversifies film industry

The senior film and media arts major’s work is written and produced primarily by women of color.

Senior film and media arts major Jenna Lam acts during a scene for the season finale of "Ambitious," a web series she created. Lam plays the show's main character Samara. | SYLVAIN BATUT / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Well-known writer, producer and director Shonda Rhimes’s commitment to diversity inspired Jenna Lam.

Rhimes’ shows on ABC Television Network regularly feature diverse casts and female leads, like Viola Davis in “How to Get Away with Murder” and Kerry Washington in “Scandal.”

“She put a lot of women of color forefront to the shows, and I figured as an actor and a producer ‘Why not combine both?’” said Lam, a senior film and media arts major.

Fueled by Rhimes’ work, Lam established a cast, crew and creative team for her web series, “Ambitious,” starring 23-year-old Asian-American woman Samara, played by Lam. Samara is a college dropout and the series follows how her life decisions impact her friends and family. The show’s crew filmed the sixth and final episode of the first season this month.

Lam said she will submit the show to film festivals in hopes of obtaining a distribution deal, rather than uploading the show on a video-streaming service.  

The show’s cast, crew and writers are meant to reflect the United States’ diverse society. Lam said most of the show’s writers are women and the production team is mostly women of color. The show’s cast is primarily Black and Asian-American women.

According to a 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report, 18.7 percent of leads in broadcast scripted shows were minorities and 81.3 percent were white from 2015 to 2016. That same year, 35.7 percent of leads in broadcast scripted shows were women and 64.3 percent were men.

“This show is a platform for those whose voices never get heard,” she said. “I wanted to make sure the show is aggressively diverse.”

Lam’s commitment to diversity is shared by her team.

“The crew is very diverse, from women directors and directors of photography to female gaffers who are in charge of the lighting on the set,” said Samantha Tan, a junior film and media arts major and the show’s producer.

Tan is responsible for recruiting a filming crew, casting characters, scouting locations and dealing with contracts.

Khaila Monet, a scriptwriter and actress on the show, plays Samara’s friend and roommate Lenny. Monet said the show’s writers decided in their first meeting that Samara would be a college dropout.

“Being a college dropout is not seen a lot, and it can be more relatable to people, especially in this generation,” Monet said. “A lot of people now don’t go to college, or they do and then they drop out, but they can still be successful.”

Lam said the show is for everyone who feels like a misfit.

“[It’s for] every little person who debated whether to go back to school when their college was giving them financial hold, when they don’t know where they’re going to get their rent money or where they’re going to get their next job,” she added.

Lam and Monet met in 2016 at Playhouse West, the Philadelphia location of the Los Angeles-based acting school which famous actors like Jim Carrey, Michelle Pfeiffer and James Franco attended.

“She has a really amazing, strong sense of voice, and I feel like she captures Philly really well,” Lam said of Monet. “Her writing is very real, it’s very funny, but it’s also emotionally honest.”

For Monet, one of the best parts of the experience is being in the show’s writers’ room.

“I learned a lot about collaboration,” she said. “It’s easier to write when there are multiple people in the room.”

She added the writers often workshop each other’s half-thought-out ideas into something useable.

“Who you’re working with really has to do with chemistry, and what they can bring to the table,” Lam said. “As an executive producer and a creator, you just have to find the best people and make them shine.”

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