In Her Own Words: CSF Alumna Nicole Goes to the Oscars

CSF Alumna (and future Oscar winner?) Nicole Serrato this past Sunday.

By CSF Alumna Nicole Serrato

I attended the 94th Oscars Award Ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood this past Sunday. As an aspiring actress, director and screenwriter, I was elated by the opportunity to be in the same room with my heroes. But how and why did I get to attend the Oscars?

Amy Schumer talked about it briefly during the show. It’s the longest kept secret in Hollywood.

A large portion of the audience at the Oscars are seat fillers, so when the camera pans the theatre, there are no empty seats on live television. When a celebrity or attendee leaves the theatre to grab a drink at the bar or use the bathroom, a seat filler is ushered over to fill the seat before the show goes back on the air.

Seat filling at award shows is a highly sought position, but most seat fillers are employees of the Academy or invited by the Academy to attend. The selection process is rigorous. To be considered, you must pass a background check and multiple Covid tests, be vaccinated, boosted, and referred and vetted by the Academy.

A series of events starting with the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) led up to the moment I stepped onto the red carpet. I received a scholarship from CSF to attend a private school in Los Angeles starting in seventh grade. After speaking at the 2018 20th Anniversary Gala, which honored CSF’s co-founders and long-time supporters, I kept in touch with Darla, CSF’s President, and to my surprise, she offered me a part-time job at CSF’s New York office while I attended film school.

“A series of events starting with the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) led up to the moment I stepped onto the red carpet.”

In early 2019, I stayed late in the office to meet one of CSF’s supporters. After learning that I was majoring in film, she referred me to an internship program with The Moving Picture Institute (MPI). MPI offered me summer internships in Los Angeles with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Gold Rising Program, a diversity inclusion initiative, and Millennium Media’s development and sales departments. The Academy Gold internship opened my eyes to a different side of the entertainment industry, introducing me to professionals rooting for my success.

​After graduating Magna Cum Laude with a BFA in Film Studies and a minor in journalism from The City University of New York: City College in 2020, I accepted a full-time position at CSF and moved back to LA to pursue a career in film.

During the pandemic, I accepted a leadership role with the Academy’s LHC (Latinx, Hispanic, Chicano) Affinity Group, hosting Q&A panels with Academy members, such as Lou Diamond Phillips and Jaime Camil, and organized social gatherings for other LHC members of the Academy Gold Program. I’ve continued to work with the Academy, helping with their diversity initiative by hosting networking events among the other diversity groups. Last month, along with the other 500 alumni in the diversity program, I was invited to apply to be a seat filler for the Academy and was among the 20 or so alumni chosen for the role this year.

Although the ceremony didn’t begin until 5 pm Pacific time, my Oscars day started early, prepping my hair and makeup at 8 am to get to the theatre for orientation by 10:15 am. After signing in and receiving our credentials, we were shuttled over to the Dolby Theatre, passing the red carpet on our way and arriving around noon for lunch on the 2nd floor of the Loews hotel. The dining room had round tables covered in beautiful white tablecloths, and salads were already on the tables with water and tea. After the salad, the servers bought out the main entree (either chicken, steak, or a vegan dish), followed by a delicious round cheesecake topped with fresh fruit. It was the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted.

After lunch, I mingled, caught up with other Academy Alumni, touched up my makeup using vanity stations near the restroom, posed for group pictures and a few selfies, and had my photo taken in front of the Oscar statue by a professional photographer. 

Eventually, the time came for the ceremony to begin. I ended up spending most of the evening very close to the stage and right behind the cast and crew of CODA, which won Best Picture, and next to the team behind Encanto, which won Best Animated Feature. Along with the rest of the audience, I watched in shocked silence as the drama between Will Smith and Chris Rock unfolded. That episode aside, there were many moments of pure joy and pride as I applauded the winners and nominees who worked hard on their craft.

My heart fluttered when the Folklorico dancers graced the stage during Sebastian Yatra’s performance, reminding me of my days in grade school, when I learned the Mexican folk dance. It brought me so much joy seeing my culture represented on the Oscars stages, especially during the performance of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Encanto; the theatre was filled with so many bright, beautiful colors and Latin dance moves.

Jill Scott, a famous R&B singer, sat in front of me. I’ve been a fan of her music since my teenage years. Ava DuVernay, an American filmmaker and director whose career I’ve been following for some years now, sat behind me. I made eye contact with both of them a few times throughout the night. The Williams sisters and Megan Thee Stallion sat across from me, but the best part of the night was when I walked by my favorite director, Guillermo del Toro, a personal hero. Of course, a trip to the bathroom at the Oscars is just as exciting as sitting in the theatre, passing by celebrities such as Jacob Elordi, John Leguizamo, Stephanie Beatriz, and Jay Ellis. And during commercial breaks, other stars walked around saying hi to friends in different sections. Simu Liu passed by my area to say hi to friends, as did Will Smith pre-slap.

Some of my friends sat closer to the stage near Beyonce, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Garner, and other A-list stars. It was a memorable night. I left inspired and planning what I intend to wear to the Oscars when I attend as a nominee.

As I reflect on my journey and the experience of a lifetime, I am grateful for the path CSF set me on when they gave me a scholarship when I was twelve years old. The scholarship gave me a chance not only for a better education but also a different perspective on life. And after the scholarship ended, CSF kept giving back, offering me a job and guidance. In my role at CSF, I host webinars that help guide alumni and provide them with occasions for networking that can help them succeed in life. It is a real privilege to have a part in offering other scholarship alumni opportunities that open doors, just like those I was offered.

Marlee Matlin hugs another guest after CODA’s Best Picture win was announced. Nicole can be seen clapping on the left, just above the cellphone.