Sara Alize Cross grew up with a love for storytelling. She was raised by a single mother who wrote fiction, and from an early age was brought up to see a story in everything.
As a child, Cross recalls stopping at red lights with her mother, who would point out the man sitting in the car next to them and start making up the story of his life. Those games of creating narratives about the world around her defined her childhood.
That inspiration also led to the dream of writing and directing, and eventually to Cross’s status as an MFA candidate in the Film & Television Production Division at the USC School for Cinematic Arts. And her education has yielded a big dividend. Cross, who was tapped as one of eight fellows for a 2017 HBO Access Writing Fellowship, is currently writing a half-hour pilot under the mentorship of an HBO comedy executive.
HBO writing fellowship and other career turns
The road to HBO was filled with travel, adventure and unexpected turns. Cross did her undergraduate work at Columbia University, where she majored in film studies.
“I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I just loved movies and cinema as an art form,” said Cross, who recalls feeling like she could do anything in the world as a young academic in New York City. “I always did the things I wanted to do. I didn’t have any fear.”
From Columbia, Cross went to Oxford University, where she completed a one-year master’s thesis in women’s studies focusing on feminist themes of 1930s screwball comedies. Returning to New York, Cross began an eclectic life of art and entrepreneurship: She created and marketed one of the first eco-friendly fair-trade clothing brands, coolnotcruel and was founder and president of the Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue.
Through all this work, she continued to write and travel around the world, aware of how one influenced the other.
“It is very important to how I understand character in my stories,” she said.
Determined to succeed
An example of the determination Cross puts into every endeavor comes across in her first Sundance Film Festival story.
Cross had envisioned going to the Sundance only if she had a film to present, and that’s just what happened. A friend from Columbia connected Cross with documentary filmmakers seeking an associate producer for their project, Murderball, which turned out to an audience favorite at the 2005 festival.
“It was crazy,” she said.
The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature film in 2006.
Cross was later introduced to the world of unscripted branded content from connections she made while working on Murderball. Her wry perspective on the world, combined with an ability to connect with people, led to Cross developing stories and finding characters for branded-content documentaries.
Before coming to USC, she worked on numerous unscripted campaigns over the course of 10 years. One of her favorite projects was a short documentary for Dick’s Sporting Goods that focused on the story of a youth football team in Texas. After the already struggling team lost its equipment and had to stop playing, the company donated new gear and money to get the team back on its feet and playing again.
“I saw something great in this story,” she said.
It was at SCA that Cross found, as she calls them, “my people.” She was having a hard time adjusting to USC and Los Angeles during her first semester, but then was introduced to supportive mentors through the USC Comedy program.
“[Professor and co-founder] Barnet Kellman talked about USC Comedy and how he really wants to foster people who want to make comedy at the school. I told him that what he was saying is exactly what I wanted to be doing.”
Cross became involved with organizing the Visions and Voices USC Comedy Festival, taking classes taught by professors like Kellman, who connected with her style of storytelling, and immersing herself in all the opportunities SCA has to offer.
There is something for everyone here. People who I have admired my whole life are my mentors.
Sara Alize Cross
“There is something for everyone here. People who I have admired my whole life are my mentors,” Cross said. “The faculty here is unbelievable. I am sitting in rooms with people who are giants in their field, and they inspire me to better my work.”
Cross was chosen as one of eight fellows from over 3,000 candidates to get one-on-one script mentorship from an HBO executive.
“I dreamed my whole life of going to HBO and not being a gate crasher,” she said.
Words of wisdom
Her hard-earned advice is to “apply for everything and don’t allow your self-esteem to be governed by acceptances or rejections.”
Looking back at her professional and academic career, one overarching lesson, she said, is that artists have to define their own terms of success.
“You have to know what success means to you and be able to feel good about your progress.”
For now, Cross is living in the moment and not thinking much about what’s to come next.
“Amazing things I could have never thought of have happened,” she said. “I am focusing on doing the very best work I can do right now and enjoying exactly where I am.”