Home Arts & Entertainment NXT UP Fest 2023: A Return to the Red Carpet

NXT UP Fest 2023: A Return to the Red Carpet

by Art U News

By J. Elliott Mendez

NXT UP Fest 2023 took centerstage on Friday, May 5, to celebrate the outstanding achievements of emerging artists and filmmakers from across the Schools of Acting, Motion Pictures & Television (MPT), and Writing for TV, Film, and Digital Media at Academy of Art University.

The two-hour ceremony, a hybrid event, opened to a live studio audience for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began back in 2020. A milestone that was not lost on the evening’s hosts Vice President of Brand Storytelling and Schools of Entertainment Executive Director Jana Sue Memel and MPT Director Randy Levinson.

“I’m really excited to be here in person with everybody and all of our students and faculty and friends on Zoom at the same time,” Memel said, “which is a very good example of how we teach students from everywhere in the world at the same time that we’re teaching students here in San Francisco.”

Memel went on to briefly note the success of the hybrid teaching model that allowed for some of the night’s nominees to direct productions via Zoom from their home states and even countries, underscoring the event was not only showcasing the next generation of filmmakers but the future of the entertainment industry as a whole with the ever-growing ability for collaborative creativity and storytelling to happen across borders and boundaries.

“Some of the people nominated tonight,” Memel said, “directed people on soundstages in San Francisco from their home countries and other states via Zoom. So that’s pretty cool.”

This year, NXT UP Fest saw the most submissions of any of their previous shows. Awards were decided and presented by working industry professionals and Academy staff and faculty, and celebrated the exceptional talents of the filmmakers, recognizing their outstanding achievements in storytelling, cinematography, writing, editing, directing, acting, sound, and documentary filmmaking. The Audience Awards, determined by the popular vote of over 1,100 people via social media, reflected the films and talent that resonated the most with the public.

Chelsey Coleman accepts an award for Best Actress in a Drama at the 2023 NXT UP Fest. Photo courtesy of the Schools of Entertainment.

The awards ceremony recognized excellence in various categories. Elijah Roberts and Samantha Girard both took home awards for Best Actor and Actress in a Drama for the roles opposite each other in “The Way It Used To,” while Sunseray Morson was chosen as the all-around favorite comedic actress, winning both the Best Actress in a Comedy and Audience Award for Best Actress in a Comedy for her role in “20s.” Claudia Yu and Shunshun Li won an award for directing “Project Read,” with Li also winning for “Eva’s Conundrum.” Yu also won the Editing Award for her work on “Dinner with Friends,” and it was noted she worked around the clock for seven days to edit 80 percent of the trailers shown at the ceremony. 

Award winners tied in four categories this year; “The Audience” and “Just Me, You… and Manny” tied for the most awards won by a single production with three a piece. Additionally, a special Award of Excellence for Achievement in Production Design was awarded to Meiyu Jing, honoring her work on numerous projects, including “Eva’s Conundrum,” “In the Darkness Are Stars,” “Normal,” and many more.  

In perhaps one of the more touching moments of the night, Tyriek Gibson, who tied for the Cinematography award for his work on “Whispers,” was caught completely by surprise. His win was so unexpected that just happened to be tuning into the show via Zoom right before he was scheduled to work a shift at his day job. However, the expression on his face, realizing that his work had been recognized, was likely more telling than words could express. “I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting this. I apologize that I couldn’t be there. Thank you.”

NXT UP Fest 2023 proved to be an exceptional showcase of talent, creativity, and innovation. The hybrid awards ceremony highlighted the exceptional achievements of emerging filmmakers while also providing a platform for industry professionals to discover and support the next generation of storytellers.

With the curtains closing on the event, Memel quickly offered some final words of encouragement and appreciation to end the show and move the night on to the after-parties.

“So that’s it for 2023,” Memel said. “You are all spectacular.”

NXT UP Fest 2023 Winners List


Best Actor in a Drama – Elijah Roberts, “The Way It Used To”

Best Actress in a Drama – Samantha Girard, “Dinner with Friends” / “The Way It Used To”


Best Actor in a Comedy – Travis Hill, “Just Me, You… and Manny”

Best Actress in a Comedy – Sunseray Morson, “20s”

Documentary & Commercials

Best Microdoc – TIE: Maria Madonna Tarrayo Bueno “Kat and Bailey’s” / Jiahao “Oliver” Huang “Lazy Man’s Best Friend”

Best Documentary – Sydney Joanna Sheng, “The End of the Longest Way”

Best Commercials and PSAs – “Project Read” Directors Claudia Yu and Yage Shen & Shunshun Li

12 Minutes

Best Directing Under 12 minutes – Mario Gonzales, “Off To Care”

Best Directing Over 12 minutes – Griffen Bier, “The Audience”

Best Picture Under 12 minutes – “In Darkness Are Stars,” Hava Turner, Director

Best Picture Over 12 Minutes – TIE: “The Audience,” Griifin Bier / “Knockout,” Marisa Camplin


Best Screenplay – Micki Rios, “Noah’s Bunker”


Shot in a Day – Marco Padilla, “Confession”

Short Film Challenge – Annie Blumenstein, “Just Me, You… and Manny”

Scene Production Laboratory – Sienna Sparks, “Routine”

Cinematography- TIE: Max Miles, “The Audience” and Tyriek Gibson, “Whispers”

Editing – Claudia Yu, “Dinner with Friends”


Sound Design – Jack Maniglia, “Knock Out”

Best Music Scoring – Kevin Edison, “Lucky, Lucy”

Audience Awards

Best Actor in a Drama – John Delia, “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Best Actress in a Drama – Chelsey Coleman, “Life Under the Stars”

Best Actor in a Comedy – TIE: Bryant Smith, “Blue Surge”/ Travis Hill, “Just Me, You… and Manny”

Best Actress in a Comedy – Sunseray Morson, “20s”

Best Picture Under 12 minutes – “After Midnight,” Tommy Harkness, Director

Best Picture Over 12 Minutes – “Eva’s Conundrum,” Shunshun Li, Producer/ Changlong Gong, Director

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