Brendon Sawatzky reflects on his time as NSI Features First program manager

Brendon Sawatzky

This is my last year as NSI Features First program manager. I’ve been involved with the program for almost 10 years.

The first time I became aware of NSI Features First was when I was in early development on Sean Garrity’s Inertia – my first feature as a producer.

When I applied to NSI Features First, I had completed a few short films and was working for the Winnipeg Film Group, a Winnipeg based film co-op.

I applied to NSI Features First with Inertia thinking it was simply a funding program. Little did I know the training it offered would enable me to actually produce the film.

Producers Alex Raffe and Victoria Hirst ran the program, providing industry insight and guidance. Quite literally, I wouldn’t have been able to finish Inertia without the knowledge I got from the program and their expert knowledge.

Two years later Inertia was being released in theatres.

We secured Canadian distribution after winning the Best Canadian First Feature Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. I was looking for a greater challenge in my career. It was at this time that the National Screen Institute came calling.

I accepted a ‘three-part’ position at NSI: managing Movie Camp; programming the industry centre for the NSI FilmExchange Canadian Film Festival; and coordinating NSI Features First with then program manager Shirley Vercruysse.

Shirley had already run the program the previous year and had practical knowledge of feature filmmaking in Canada as a producer. I immediately started co-managing the program and we worked together as a team. Shirley left the following year, having shared so much of her experience and program methodology with me. A search was conducted for a new program co-manager and we brought veteran distributor Jim Murphy on board. Jim had vast experience as a distributor and a marketer.

Jim and I collaborated on NSI Features First for a number of years right up until his untimely death.

I know that I learned more from Jim during those years than the many program participants, and they learned a great deal. Jim’s legacy lives on through the creation of the Jim Murphy Filmmakers Bursary which has benefited one NSI Features First team each year for the last three years.

While no one could ever fill Jim’s shoes, we brought Marguerite Pigott into the NSI Features First family as program advisor. Marguerite had long been involved with the program and was a natural fit. Her experience as a distributor and story editor were invaluable to the participants.

During that time, NSI allowed me to step out and produce my second feature film, Matthew Bissonnette’s Who Loves the Sun.

Marguerite left the program over a year ago and NSI Features First alum Will Pascoe was brought in to be the new program manager. Will’s skill as a working writer and past experience with the program offer him a unique perspective.

By now, I wasn’t working full time at NSI. Movie Camp was long gone, NSI FilmExchange had run its course and I was focusing solely on NSI Features First.

To date, the program developed 56 feature films of which 15 have been produced, screened at festivals, in theatres and on television and won a number of prestigious awards.

The program has constantly evolved and adapted to the complex and ever-changing Canadian film industry. Its curriculum has been fluid and flexible, always staying on top of trends and the big picture of Canadian filmmaking.

Many of the program participants have gone on to careers in the film, television and digital media industries. They have also frequently promoted NSI and its many programs – doing their part to give back to NSI Features First and NSI. The program alumni now stretch from one side of the country to the other, forming a network of support and a framework for which the Canadian film industry continues to be built upon.

NSI has shown great wisdom by allowing its staff to increase their own knowledge of the industry. Providing me with time off to produce my own features greatly increased my working knowledge of current practices for feature filmmaking: knowledge that I eagerly brought back to share with the program participants.

When I have the opportunity to travel with my own films to festivals and markets I know there are filmmakers in each city that I can meet with who have gone through NSI Features First. I am proud of my time at NSI, its great faculty, staff and alumni. But I am most proud of the NSI Features First program and all its accomplishments.

I know the program will continue to grow and expand while offering first-rate training and development to the next generation of Canadian filmmakers.

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of such a great program over the past 10 years.

Brendon is currently working as a term producer with the National Film Board. Brendon’s company Inferno Pictures has produced or co-produced projects including the television projects House Party andCBC Short Shots and feature films InertiaWho Loves the Sunand Goon.

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