“Rain in My Head” was the big winner at the 10th annual Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, taking honors for best film, director Chrissy Marshall and actor Layne Apffel.

Also saluted were Nathan Cox, editor for “Smash or Pass”; Rachel Handler, writer, “Unlucky in Love”; and Judith Rubin and “Leap of Love” for best awareness campaign.

The winners were announced May 4 at an orange-carpet ceremony and reception at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City. 

For the competition, registered filmmakers were given five days within a designated timeframe to write and produce short films (three-to-five minutes) promoting disability inclusion. Every year’s contest has a theme, and this year it was romance, which resulted in a wide range of viewpoints on the topic.

There were a record 115 submissions, from nearly every U.S. state and from around the globe, including entries from Austria, Bolivia, Canada, England, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, The Netherlands and Timor-Leste.  

The awards were begun by actor-comic-producer Nic Novicki, who served as host for the evening. Novicki says, “As the entertainment industry strives to build a more diverse and inclusive workplace, we must keep disability in the conversation. I created the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge to help accelerate change within Hollywood and to provide filmmakers and actors with tangible work experience and with an opportunity to tell authentic stories — and once again, I am humbled by the overwhelming response. We are proud of the amazing films produced this year and over the past 10 years — which have been viewed around the world — and the successes our participants have gone on to achieve.” 

The films are available for viewing on YouTube.

Mark Whitley, president-CEO of Easterseals Southern California, adds “Hollywood has only begun to tap into the power of inclusion and to showcase this significant segment of our society. The Easterseals Disability Film Challenge gives filmmakers, actors and their crews invaluable entertainment experience and a chance to network with industry professionals. Likewise, it’s an opportunity for studios, networks, guilds, talent agencies and people working in entertainment to get involved to change the way we all experience and understand disability.” 

Winners receive access to entertainment leaders and resources, opening the door to an industry notoriously difficult to enter. They are also given a variety of prizes, including $2,000 grants provided by NBCUniversal; Dell Technologies computers; one-year membership to IMDbPro; screenings at Academy Award-qualifying festivals; a one-year subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud; and mentorship meetings with entertainment industry executives and talent, such as Phil Lord & Chris Miller (“Cocaine Bear,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”). 

According to the CDC, 25% of U.S. residents, more than 61 million people, have a disability, making it today’s largest minority population. Yet according to a Nielsen study released in 2022, about 95% of characters with disabilities in Hollywood’s top TV shows were played by non-disabled actors while only three of the 61 Oscar nominees and 27 winners who played disabled characters were actually disabled. 

Presenters at the ceremony included longtime champions of disabled talent like producer-director Peter Farrelly (“Green Book”) and the filmmaking team of Lord & Miller. 

The 2023 Film Challenge was judged by a diverse group of industry talent, including Variety senior VP Tim Gray;  filmmakers Jim LeBrecht (co-director of Oscar-nominated docu “Crip Cramp”), Jenni Gold (“CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion”) and Lawrence Carter Long; Col Needham, founder-CEO of IMDb; Gil Robertson, President, African-American Film Critics Assn.; and actor-comedian Danny Woodburn.  

Each award had a heavyweight sponsor: Warner Bros. Discovery, NBCUniversal, imDB, Adobe, Netflix and Prime Video.