Journalism alum would like to thank the Academy – and UWM

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Josh Rosenberg was eating Thai food on his couch when he won an Oscar.

The award, in the “Best Short Documentary” category, was for Breakwater Studio’s film “The Queen of Basketball.” Rosenberg was the project’s Head of Production, but as tickets were limited, he stayed home to watch on television while the film’s director, Ben Proudfoot, attended the Academy Awards ceremony.

The couch was comfortable. The Thai food was tasty. And then, on the TV screen, Proudfoot was called to the stage to accept a statuette.

“It was just very surreal,” Rosenberg recalled. “It was a really proud moment to see, to (come from) such humble beginnings to now all of a sudden seeing Ben up there winning an Oscar. It was just incredible.”

Humble beginnings

Rosenberg’s humble beginning started in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where his high school had a partnership with Time Warner cable. Using equipment purchased with a grant from Time Warner, he studied video production – both filming and editing. When it was time for college, he looked for a school that had a good broadcast journalism program so he could keep on filming.

He found one in UWM, and then he found Mark Zoromski.

“You get a couple of great teachers in your life. I met Mark Zoromski literally on a campus tour,” Rosenberg recalled. Zoromski, now the director of student media at Marquette University, used to teach broadcast journalism in UWM’s Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies program. He also ran PantherVision, a student-produced cable newscast.

“He is the most impassioned journalist,” Rosenberg said. “One thing that has always stuck with me from my time in the Journalism Department and working with Mark was being able to tell a story that can connect with an audience. That’s something I’ve always held onto.”

Rosenberg interned with news organizations like WUWM, but he was frustrated that traditional journalism didn’t allow him to delve into a story as deeply as he wanted. He toyed with the idea of becoming a filmmaker – and when he graduated in 2007 into a shaky job market, “I did a super lucrative move that my parents were really excited about: Self-financing an independent feature (film),” Rosenberg laughed.

The experience led to bigger things. Rosenberg met a fellow filmmaker named Scott Foley on set, and the two decided to seek their fortunes in Chicago after they wrapped up their feature film, “Tracks.” Eventually, Rosenberg found himself working for Oprah Winfrey’s production company Harpo, and later with the Oprah Winfrey Network in Los Angeles. Over the years, he completed shoots with names like Steven Spielberg, Michelle Obama, and Dwayne Johnson.

He and Foley also kept working on their own films. They co-wrote a film called “Jessica” – Foley directed, Rosenberg produced – and entered it in the Phoenix Film Festival in 2016. There, they met Ben Proudfoot, himself a filmmaker with a vision: Proudfoot wanted to create a studio that produced great content while giving filmmakers a safe place to test their craft.

So, Proudfoot founded Breakwater Studios in 2012 and hired his friend Rosenberg as the Head of Production in 2018. Breakwater Studios has two lanes: Brand filmmaking, where the studio works with select brands to tell humanistic stories, and original short documentary films. The studio was nominated for an Academy Award in 2021 for the film “A Concerto is a Conversation.”

Then, in 2022, their film “The Queen of Basketball” also received a nomination – and a win.

The Queen of Basketball

The Queen of Basketball” tells the story of an overlooked legend. Lusia “Lucy” Harris scored the first basket in women’s Olympic history and remains the only woman to ever be officially drafted to the NBA.

“We were like, how is she not on billboards and how is she not on the lips of every sports fan in America? So, we knew we just had to tell the story,” Rosenberg said.

The film drew some big names as executive producers, including Shaquille O’Neill and Stephen Curry. The documentary is a long interview with Harris herself, who tells her story with aplomb. The narrative is overlaid with archival shots of Harris’ basketball days. That footage was an incredible find. Proudfoot and his cinematographer, Brandon Somerhalder, went to Harris’ old college and found boxes upon boxes of undeveloped photographs from basketball games from the mid-70s.

“We were able to get that restored and fully scanned,” Rosenberg said. “That’s always kind of the holy grail of filmmaking. It’s like giving a little gift back to the world, in a way. This stuff hadn’t been seen for years and years.”

The archival shots and Lucy herself charmed audiences – enough that “Queen of Basketball” ended up on the Academy Awards nomination list and won the Oscar. Unfortunately, Harris passed away unexpectedly in January. Proudfoot invited her children as his guests to the Academy Awards ceremony.

The day after their win, Rosenberg said, the studio held a big party and passed around the statuette. Then, Proudfoot stood up and announced that just because they were Oscar winners, didn’t mean they could rest on their laurels or treat anyone differently. They are still in the business of producing quality documentaries.

Rosenberg’s next projects include the Breakwater Studios film “The Best Chef in the World,” which just premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and will get a release on The New York Times Op- Docs later this month. Also available for rent or purchase is the Wisconsinmade “Small Town Wisconsin,” which Rosenberg produced along with Scott Foley, Wisconsin native Niels Mueller, and Oscar winner Alexander Payne.