NSI Features First 2017 students on their training boot camp

NSI Features First is presented in association with Telefilm Canada

Arnold Lim, Ryan Bright, Jeremy Lutter, Susie Winters, Mark Wolff, Shayne Metcalfe and Jennifer Liao

Clockwise from left: Arnold Lim, Ryan Bright, Jeremy Lutter, Susie Winters, Mark Wolff, Shayne Metcalfe and Jennifer Liao

Our newest NSI Features First students just wrapped their first training boot camp in Toronto. At the end of the week we asked them to write about it.

• • •

Susie Winters | Writer, All-In Madonna


A good script

For the week of the first boot camp I survived on coffee and 2 p.m. chocolate chip cookies.

I didn’t see much of Toronto outside of The Hilton Garden Inn, downtown. I’m not disappointed, however, because this week Toronto came to me.

From the same seat, morning through evening, I heard legend after legend – writers, broadcasters, distributors, filmmakers and more – share their insights on making movies in Canada.

Through all of these seminars there was a common thread: the script must be good. This is obvious. It should not be the stuff of epiphanies. But it’s easy to fall into a trap, confusing potential for merit.

Here’s what a good script means, as I came to learn over the week:

  • Good script means perfect script
  • A good second draft is a bad script
  • Good scripts are written for the audience, not the writer

I got the impression that good scripts are rare beasts.

Glenn Cockburn of Meridian Artists compares the writing process to solving a Rubik’s Cube – it requires patience, mental stamina and the bravery to start over.

I’m looking at my work with clarity, knowing that the perfection of All-In Madonna is key to our success. I embrace the challenge and prepare for an uphill battle.

Arnold Lim | Producer, All-In Madonna

Arnold Lim

I remember getting the phone call like it was yesterday.

After being shortlisted for the National Screen Institute’s Features First program last year, but falling just outside the final four, it felt so good to get the call informing me that Susie Winters (my writing partner) and I were heading to Toronto.

While I’ve been aware of the program for many years and logged countless hours researching and applying for it, reading about the program and experiencing it proved to be two very different things.

The learning, networking and growth opportunities for our feature film All-In Madonna far surpassed expectations that were already very high.

While it wasn’t always easy, I’ve always felt anything worth doing always hurts at least a little bit along the way and NSI Features First was just the right mix of ‘burn and learn.’

I feel like I could take the exact same week of learning over again and still feel like I had missed pieces, there really was that much information swirling around the classroom every day.

Week one went by in the snap of my fingers and I’m so excited for week two in March.

I feel like a better filmmaker today than I was last week, and I couldn’t have asked for a better gift to kick off 2017.

Shayne Metcalfe | Writer, Hunting Season

Shayne Metcalfe

Let me tell you about the whirlwind of goodness that is NSI Features First.

Our team was fortunate enough to be selected for the 2017 NSI Features First program. It has been quite a ride so far.

The week kicked off with David Barlow: writer, producer, story advisor, professor and part of the team behind the classic King of Kensington. David helped us refine our logline. He talked about a number of valuable things. One key thing was looking at the concrete and emotional objectives that support the theme.

Next on the list was a complete page turn on our script with Melissa Kajpust [program advisor]. This was one of the most valuable things we did. Melissa brought years of story analysis experience as a buyer and writer. Day one finished with a tour of the Deluxe post facility and some very welcome wine and cheese.

On the second day we were at it bright and early covering two more scripts and meeting with lawyer Gigi Morin to go over our chain of title. Chain of title can be a daunting and strange term, but Gigi creates a relaxed environment and makes the process seem straightforward.

To end the day we met with NSI alumni Jeremy LaLonde and Jordan Walker who discussed creative finance, shared success stories around crowdfunding and leveraging name talent to help raise funds in the digital space.

Day three started with notes on the fourth feature project. The afternoon was packed with a broadcaster panel made up of Bell, TMN, Super Channel and Hollywood Suites decision makers. Next, we got to hear from Brad Pelman. Brad is an executive who manages a 5,000-hour library and is also an NSI board member. He’s the only executive producer who didn’t tell me getting Tom Hardy for my film was impossible.

We ended day three with a storytelling roundtable where all the teams could provide feedback to each other in a session with Shelly [Quade, program manager] and Melissa.

Day four kicked off with a panel of all the major Canadian distributors. This included Entertainment One, Raven Banner Entertainment, Elevation Pictures, Mongrel Media and Search Engine Films. It was a cold slap of reality mixed with hope for feature films.

We spent lunch with Dan Lyon, feature film executive at Telefilm. Dan loves the circus. He also loves film and provided us with an opportunity to do a mock pitch. Even though no team was ready to pitch, it was a great experience to determine which parts of the project are ready and what needs work.

Next up was Glenn Cockburn, the founder of Meridian Artists. Glenn offered an intense session including stories about Lego, not doing cocaine and what it really takes to make it. He didn’t sugarcoat anything, but spoke about the advancement of cinema, the importance of goals for filmmakers and left us with energy.

We finished the day with another roundtable of story notes that included all four teams, Melissa, Shelly, Brendon Sawatzky [director of programming] and John Gill [CEO] from NSI. John gave us a parting message which included some things to consider when pitching the following day.

The last day was an opportunity to pitch four executive producers. This included Darius Films, A71 Entertainment, Entertainment One and Raven Banner Entertainment. I’ve pitched a few projects before, but having a half hour in a relaxed setting with industry pros who want to help you succeed was never on the table. This opportunity was incredible and left us with solid advice on how to move our project forward.

After that, we did a quick review of feedback from the executive producers, had our pictures taken and it was off to the airport.

It was a thrilling ride that beat us up, picked us up and dusted us off for the next phase. Thanks NSI. The experience has been amazing. I will never forget it.

Mark Wolff | Producer, Hunting Season

Mark Wolff

First off, I would like to say that I am truly honoured to be part of the NSI Features First program.

This is a select group that will create waves in the industry for years to come. The program allows contact with key industry players in comfortable interactive sessions. The conversations within these sessions contain industry information that would take years to acquire.

I really appreciate the time taken by all of the presenters and panelists who spoke to us and their willingness to share their knowledge.

The program’s interactive process facilitates an evolution of the project in both aspects of creative and production. Rather than only receiving one-dimensional feedback, the facilitators discuss the underlying reasoning for their feedback. This allows the team to implement changes to the script and production model based on the experience of industry professionals.

Ryan Bright | Writer, We Came From the Sea

Ryan Bright

Boarding the plane from Vancouver to Toronto, I had no idea what to expect from the NSI Features First boot camp. I mean, I got the schedule and knew what was planned. And Shelly Quade assured us it would be amazing. Life-altering, even. But could she be trusted?

The answer was yes.

Over a five-day period we gained a year’s worth of education. It began with the development of our pitch, turning our mediocre logline into something that actually sounded interesting (turns out “the script is better than the pitch” isn’t a great selling point).

Next were script notes where Melissa Kajpust dished out three hours’ worth of gold on each project.

Then came an amazing list of guest speakers who provided us with cold reality checks mixed with enough inspiration to keep us going. Well, that and the fresh baked cookies and chips from the hotel. Goodbye New Year’s resolutions (thanks a lot, Hilton!)

The whole thing was capped off with the opportunity to pitch our projects to leading figures in the Canadian film industry.

All that we learned in the days prior allowed us to confidently describe our projects, ourselves and strategies going forward. It was sort of like speed dating but longer and, for once, I had something of value to offer.

I can’t speak highly enough of the amazing experience that was NSI Features First. I gained more than I could have hoped. And maybe filmmaking is a crazy pursuit but I have returned to Vancouver far more confident in my craziness than ever before.

Jeremy Lutter | Producer, We Came From the Sea

Jeremy Lutter

Living on the west coast of Canada, I often forget just how big this country really is.

I was honoured to be selected for the NSI Features First program, and it exceeded all of my expectations.

The feedback, workshops, panels and speakers were all valuable and I felt that I grew as a filmmaker, but the most important part of the program came as a surprise.

I gained a better sense of Canadian identity. I got to work with filmmaking teams across Canada and that small meeting room held a huge diversity of stories and people. Being Canadian means many things to many people and in my opinion that is a perfect way to be.

After a week focusing on Canadian feature films and how to make them, it was clear we have some huge challenges ahead.

With digital distribution evolving at breakneck speed, the landscape of Canadian storytelling is changing and it’s at risk.

I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am that programs like NSI Features First exist and we still have Canadian broadcasters trying to tell Canadian stories.

Now is definitely the most important time to tell our stories. We need to reach out internationally and at home for an audience, to share and also protect our diverse and special identity.

The course reminded me why storytelling is important. It took me back to a time when I was a kid going to the movie theatre to see my first feature film: the excitement of new ideas, some surprises and the common themes that bring a diverse group of people together. It was magical and inspiring.

Thank you, Melissa, Shelly and NSI. Let’s tell some great stories.

Stephanie Law | Writer, Smash Smash Revolution

Stephanie Law

Boot camps are by definition intense training sessions. The NSI Features First phase one boot camp was no exception!

It was a whirlwind week that touched on pitching to decision-makers, story-editing sessions, meeting industry experts and learning from NSI alumni.

We were forced to re-examine our project from multiple angles, including who our audience is and where the project might fit into the current marketplace. It was enlightening. Sobering.

While I came into the program as the writer (Jennifer Liao is the producer), I came away from the boot camp with a better understanding of other aspects of the business such as broadcasting and distribution.

I realized very quickly that one cannot write in a bubble. Every project exists within a delicate ecosystem that is continually challenged and disrupted. Nobody knows exactly where things are going in the future but, at the end of the day, there seemed to be a common thread: nothing beats a great script. There will always be a need for content. (Yes! Hope for all writers!)

Beyond that, the only thing that matters is audience – the one thing they don’t teach you in film school. Why? Because no filmmaker or writer wants to think of their project as a product. But the truth is every film has a destination and is consumed – whether it’s arthouse or blockbuster. It isn’t called the film ‘industry’ for nothing.

This isn’t meant to discourage the dreamers and storytellers and artists. In fact, this knowledge should empower us to be smart about how we tell our stories and position them so they stand the best fighting chance of getting made while staying true to what we want to say.

Finally, a huge shout-out to our wonderful program leaders, Melissa Kajpust and Shelly Quade. Their insights and guidance made the entire boot camp experience a success.

Congrats as well to my fellow participants for surviving phase 1. It’s never easy to open one’s heart and mind to this challenging development process but it was a pleasure getting to know the very brilliant Susie, Arnold, Mark, Shayne, Jeremy and Ryan.

Onward to phase 2!

Jennifer Liao | Producer, Smash Smash Revolution

Jennifer Liao

The first phase of our journey with the NSI Features First program was an incredibly packed week of story editing, pitching and visits from industry guests speaking to a wide range of topics around feature filmmaking in Canada.

Every morning at 9 a.m., the 10 of us (the four filmmaking teams of two plus program manager Shelly Quade and advisor Melissa Kajpust) would assemble in our hotel conference room and kick off the day’s activities.

Melissa’s in-depth story-editing sessions were the bedrock of the week. She has great skill at identifying and articulating problem areas and alternate directions worth reviewing. It was educational to observe this process for every script, each of which is very different from the others.

There were also periods scheduled for us to provide feedback on each other’s scripts which gave us even more of a variety of valuable notes to consider.

We had incredibly informative panels with broadcasters and distributors, NSI alumni recounting their financing and production experiences and veteran industry members like Brad Pelman, Glenn Cockburn and Dan Lyon sharing their views on the industry.

We also got to sit down with writer David Barlow to break down our loglines and lawyer Gigi Morin to review our projects’ chains of title.

We prepared pitches for our films, taking into consideration as much as we could of what we learned. We ended the week practicing them on a supportive set of producers and development pros in mock meeting situations.

As a result of the week, I am newly energized to work with my teammate Stephanie Law to refine the direction of the script and put together a package that no financier, distributor or audience member, for that matter, could say no to.

I’m also looking forward to reuniting with Shelly, Melissa and the other teams for more training. Bring on phase two!

• • •

NSI Features First is a development training launch pad for producer/writer teams looking to produce their first or second feature film with strong commercial appeal.

NSI Features First 2017 is funded by Presenting Sponsor Telefilm Canada; Supporting Sponsors Entertainment One, Super Channel, Corus Entertainment and Breakthrough Entertainment; NSI Core Funders are Manitoba Sport, Culture and Heritage and the City of Winnipeg through the Winnipeg Arts Council.

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