In Collaboration With Disney’s Celebrated Launchpad Program, Initiative Works To Remove Economic Barriers For New Filmmakers

Each Finalist To Receive Mentorship And $35,000 Microgrant To Direct Short Film


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – March 8, 2023, Los Angeles, CA – The American Film Institute (AFI) announced today the Disney/AFI Underrepresented Storytellers Initiative, a new pathway program in collaboration with Disney’s Launchpad program to support underrepresented directors. The initiative serves as another benchmark in the relationship between AFI and Disney with the goal of removing social and economic barriers that prove obstacles to underrepresented and under-resourced filmmakers. The new program provides an opportunity for four emerging first- or second-time directors to create a short film. Each filmmaker will receive a microgrant of $35,000, along with professional development workshops and mentor meetings hosted by AFI and Disney Launchpad. The recipients of the 2023 Disney/AFI Underrepresented Storytellers Initiative grant are: Razzaaq Boykin, Paige Compton, Blake Pickens and Sophia Youssef.

This collaboration is an expansion of Disney and AFI’s longstanding relationship and is part of Disney Future Storytellers, Disney’s commitment to investing in the next generation of storytellers. Disney’s investment in AFI supporting underrepresented filmmakers spans decades, with recent support for AFI’s Diverse Storytellers Scholarship Fund, AFI DWW+ and the AFI Cinematography Intensive for Women, all programs which currently serve as a pathway for diversity and talent for the entertainment community. Most recently, Disney Launchpad has collaborated with AFI to provide the program curriculum for Launchpad filmmakers.

“Building on the success of our innovative programs that have redefined the landscape of the entertainment industry, the Disney/AFI Underrepresented Storytellers Initiative provides a critical opportunity for emerging filmmakers, and we look forward to working with our notable Alumni to serve as mentors and our esteemed Faculty to provide the necessary tools for success for each of the finalists,” said Susan Ruskin, Dean of the AFI Conservatory and EVP of the American Film Institute. “Thank you to our collaborators at Disney for their continued commitment to increasing creative representation and championing the AFI community.”

The AFI Conservatory’s Bridge to the Future program and Alumni Affairs office in the Lawrence Herbert Alumni Center will oversee and manage the program. The Disney Launchpad Team will work with AFI to mentor applicants. Deniese Davis (AFI Class of 2012), four-time Emmy® nominated producer and the Founder/CEO of Reform Media Group, which recently announced an exclusive development deal with Tyler Perry Studios, will be the Production Mentor to the four filmmakers.

“AFI has been with us since the start of Launchpad and we are grateful to continue this journey to give filmmakers a more open playing field to creating art,” said Mahin Ibrahim, Director, Creative Talent Pathways, Representation & Inclusion Strategies.

“AFI has long been a successful training ground for the filmmakers of tomorrow,” said Phillip Domfeh, Senior Manager, Launchpad. “We couldn’t be more excited to expand our scope and work with them to reduce the social economic barrier to directing underrepresented storytellers face.”

AFI Conservatory graduates from the Class of 2015 through the Class of 2021 who met the eligibility criteria submitted applications in Fall 2022 for consideration. Additionally, Disney Launchpad invited nonprofit organizations who are leaders in supporting underrepresented voices to nominate eligible applicants. The finalists will go into production of their short films in the coming weeks and complete their films in Summer 2023.



Razzaaq Boykin

Razzaaq Boykin is a Los Angeles-based director-writer who has worked in entertainment for over 15 years. He is a New York native and a graduate of the University of Michigan and the MFA directing program at the AFI Conservatory. Influenced in his youth by science fiction and comic books, Razzaaq is interested in making unconventional coming-of-age stories that explore themes of dysfunction, family, morality and manhood. Razzaaq’s AFI thesis film THE PORTRAIT, a modern adaptation of Osar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” with an all-Black cast, is currently playing on the film festival circuit.


Paige Compton

Paige Compton is a graduate of the AFI Conservatory with an MFA in Directing and, prior to that, the Art Institute of Washington with a BFA in Digital Filmmaking and Video Production. During her time in the U.S. Army, she held the title of Visual Information Equipment Operator/Maintainer (25R) and cross-trained into Graphic Design and Photography. The last four years of her military service were spent as an Audio-Visual Director for the offices of the 44th President and VP of the United States. Paige is currently working on writing her first feature and TV show, while planning her wedding side-by-side with her fiancée, Kate Lugtu.


Blake Pickens

Blake Pickens is a Chickasaw comedian and filmmaker who creates content with a focus on diversity and inclusion. He produced the feature film THE LAND (2016) and co-produced WILD INDIAN (2021) starring Michael Greyeyes and Jesse Eisenberg, both of which premiered at Sundance, and produced commercials that have won a Grand Prix at Cannes Lions and line produced the Emmy®-winning P&G commercial THE TALK. He also produced John Legend’s music video, SUREFIRE, which won an MTV Video Music Award for “Best Fight Against the System.”  He is currently producing THE ROOF for Disney+/Launchpad and is part of Illuminative’s Producers Program. As a writer, Blake was selected for the inaugural 2020 Sundance Indigenous Intensive for his comedy pilot, “The Wildest West.” The script was also selected for the Black List’s Indigenous List. Blake is a graduate of the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC, has an MBA from LMU, and is also a graduate of the University of Oklahoma.


Sophia Youssef
Sophia Youssef is a Lebanese-Greek director, writer and producer. Raised in the Middle East and Europe, with no one place to call home, Sophia’s experience of growing up between cultures has shaped her work. Her films are often heavily atmospheric character studies that delve into themes of identity, isolation and social inequity. Recently, Sophia has been shortlisted for a slew of fellowships including the 2022 Tribeca Women’s Filmmaker Program, and Hillman Grad’s Rising Voices. Her latest short TO THE DUST premiered at AFI FEST, and she is set to follow that up with two more films in 2023. For the last ten years, Sophia has also produced and developed countless doc series, films, commercials and music videos for companies such as The BBC, Talos Films and ONE Entertainment. Based in Los Angeles, Athens and Dubai, Sophia holds a BA in Film from Emerson College and an MFA in Directing from the AFI Conservatory. She is currently in development on her first feature BLACK SHORE, an atmospheric body horror set on the picturesque Greek island of Santorini.


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The American Film Institute (AFI) is a nonprofit organization with a mandate to champion the moving image as an art form. Established in 1967, AFI launched the first comprehensive history of American film and sparked the movement for film preservation in the United States. In 1969, AFI opened the doors of the AFI Conservatory, a graduate-level program to train narrative filmmakers. The Conservatory, which counts Deniese Davis, Affonso Gonçalves, Susannah Grant, Matthew Libatique, David Lynch, Melina Matsoukas and Rachel Morrison as Alumni, is ranked the #1 film school in America. AFI’s enduring traditions include the AFI Life Achievement Award, which honors the masters for work that has stood the test of time; AFI AWARDS, which celebrates the creative ensembles of the most outstanding screen stories of the year; and scholarly efforts such as the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and the AFI Archive that preserve film history for future generations. AFI exhibition programs include AFI FEST and year-round exhibition at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Maryland. AFI Movie Club is a destination for movie lovers from around the world to celebrate and engage with the art form every day. Other pioneering programs include workshops aimed at increasing diversity in the storytelling community, including AFI DWW+ and the AFI Cinematography Intensive for Women. Read about all of these programs and more at and follow us on social media at,, and


About the AFI Conservatory

The AFI Conservatory opened its doors in 1969 to an inaugural class that included Terrence Malick, Caleb Deschanel and Paul Schrader. Today, the Conservatory offers a two-year MFA degree in six filmmaking disciplines: Cinematography, Directing, Editing, Producing, Production Design and Screenwriting. In a collaborative production environment, AFI Fellows learn to master the art of storytelling, collectively creating up to 175 films a year. Fellows actively participate in the entire life cycle of a film, from development through production and exhibition.

Alumni of this elite program, ranging from modern masters to bold new voices defining the state of the art form include Andrea Arnold, Darren Aronofsky, Ari Aster, Deniese Davis, Sam Esmail, Brad Falchuk, Affonso Gonçalves, Susannah Grant, Liz Hannah, Patty Jenkins, Janusz Kamiński, Matthew Libatique, David Lynch, Melina Matsoukas, Polly Morgan, Rachel Morrison and Wally Pfister, among others.


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