Daveed Diggs (left) and Rafael Casal (right) hosted a screenwriters salon in Oakland to help foster connections among local Bay Area talent (pictured with Jasmine Cephas Jones). Credit: STARZ

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Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs were in Oakland last weekend to promote the season finale of their Starz series, Blindspotting, a spin-off of their critically acclaimed 2018 film of the same name, which follows the story of a multi-racial family living in West Oakland. While in town, the creative duo took the opportunity to host a screenwriters salon on Saturday, Aug. 7, at Chabot Space and Science Center—a chance for aspiring screenwriters to pick the brains of two homegrown talents, and network with other local writers. 

“The idea was just to create a sense of community around screenwriting in the Bay because when we started doing this, we felt very much by ourselves,” Diggs said about hosting the salon. “We were constantly driving to L.A. to network. The goal was to get people to look at each other and be like, ‘Oh, you do this too.’” 

The announcement was posted on Monday, Aug. 2, and in less than 48 hours over 400 people had applied. “What this tells you is that there’s this phenomenal desire to tell stories in these mainstream formats,” Casal said.

Attendance at the screenwriter’s salon was capped at 70, due to COVID safety precautions. For this first salon—Casal and Diggs say they plan to host more—invitees were kept to those actively working on TV shows or wanting to pursue a career as television writers. 

The salon was a chance for aspiring screenwriters to pick the brains of two homegrown talents, and network with other local writers. Credit: Romell Hoskins

Oakland isn’t known as a filmmaking hub on par with places like Los Angeles, Atlanta, or New Mexico. But local screenwriters and filmmakers have made a name for themselves in recent years, despite Oakland offering no tax incentives for production companies to film in the city. In San Francisco, qualifying projects are eligible for a refund of all payroll tax and city fees up to $600,000 per production. 

Financial incentives like those available just across the Bay, said Diggs, are a major difference-maker for filmmakers, especially those operating on a limited budget. “Getting productions up here [in Oakland] is going to be all about if you can prove that it’s $1 cheaper to shoot here than it is to shoot wherever they were gonna shoot,” he said. 

With the salon, Diggs’ and Casal’s goal was to connect with local talent and answer some of their questions about what it takes to produce a TV show. What they encountered was a level of enthusiasm that exceeded their expectations.

“We were astounded by how many people were immediately interested and how dedicated so many people are, even without a thriving [local] industry,” Casal said. “And this deep desire from everyone to be able to do, maybe not all, but a lot of [the film production] from here.” 

Salon participants asked many questions, but some of the most popular included how to get funding to kickstart a project, and get a script in front of executives. “I think everyone’s got a bunch of different concerns that are really about how to navigate the industry,” said Casal.

Wen Calm, a young Mam woman from Fruitvale, is one of the writers who snagged a coveted space at the salon. Calm, who wants to tell stories about working-class immigrant families from Oakland, came away from the workshop inspired by the fact that she’s not alone in her desire to tell stories about the Town. 

Calm came to Oakland at the age of one from Todos Santos, a village in Guatemala. Her family is among a growing population of indigenous Mam-speaking Guatemalans who have forged a community in Oakland. Her upbringing in Fruitvale and the broader melting pot that is Oakland helped shape her desire to become a storyteller. 

Wen Calm (right) with Daveed Diggs (middle, and two other participants) was one of the 70 people invited to the screenwriters salon. Credit: Wen Calm

“I could be telling not only my story but the story of my community, especially living here in Fruitvale where we have this blend of cultures,” Calm said. “We are so much more similar than we realize.” 

Oakland and the Bay Area, noted Calm, don’t lack the talent to write, direct, and produce stories. Instead, local creatives lack resources, causing many to relocate to other cities in search of jobs and opportunities to break into the industry.

“I’ve felt like I had to move to L.A., and I don’t want to move to L.A. because that’s not my home. Oakland is my home. This has been the place where I have found my storytelling and source of creativeness.” 

Casal and Diggs are currently awaiting news as to whether or not Blindspotting will be renewed for a second season. However, they plan on hosting more salons in the future, as often as they can, when their schedules permit. Announcements for future salons will be posted on their social media channels.

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.