2019 NSI Totally Television students talk about their training boot camp week

Joy Loewen, Tajana Prka, John Titley, Stephanie Ouaknine, Ian Bawa, Tarique Qayumi, Michelle Ouellet, Sarah Goodman, Nicholas Carella, Julie Di Cresce

Above from left: Joy Loewen, Tajana Prka, John Titley, Stephanie Ouaknine, Ian Bawa, Tarique Qayumi, Michelle Ouellet, Sarah Goodman, Nicholas Carella, Julie Di Cresce

Our 2019 NSI Totally Television students just finished their boot camp training week in Toronto learning from some of the top industry experts in Canada.

This year’s associate faculty included senior writers Adam Barken (Killjoys, Flashpoint), Noelle Carbone (Wynonna Earp, Saving Hope), Andrew De Angelis (Killjoys, Orphan Black) and Karen Walton (Ginger Snaps, Orphan Black); broadcast executives Corrie Coe (Bell Media), Michelle Daly (CBC) and Carolyn Newman (Netflix); president and co-founder of Sundance Productions, Laura Michalchyshyn; Fox Television and Incendo Productions vice-president of program sales, Brook Peters; and LA-based entertainment coach and strategist Carole Kirschner.

After a week of workshops and one-on-one time with story editor mentors, here’s what the students had to say about the experience.

Tajana Prka (producer), Bonavista Drive

Tajana Prka

The program was very well designed, organized, and super comprehensive. It covered all the questions I had when I wrote my application and I also learned many new things I was not aware of. Every part was important because I got an overview of the whole process and, as a producer, it’s important to know how every part connects to the other.

I feel like I’ve gained so much more clarity about the development process. Before we arrived, I knew we had a compelling story with a lot of heart but I didn’t know how to realize it as a story fit for television.

While working with Andrew De Angelis, a showrunner and alumnus of NSI Totally Television, he made us aware of the shortcomings of our project and gave us great suggestions on how to improve it. After leaving the program, I know how to structure a multiple-season series in several different formats.

I’ve developed a clearer vision about the specifics of the tone of our show. I think this is where it touches on both the creative and business aspects of television – a very different approach than producing feature films. This was the greatest challenge for us, coming from the feature film world, and the thing that probably helped us the most in defining our project for possible sale to a TV station or broadcaster.

This training was crucial to move our story forward. We came with an idea of a story we want to tell and left with a concrete game plan for how to proceed, and next steps for creating and making our dream tangible.

Tarique Qayumi (writer), Bonavista Drive

Tarique Qayumi

First, the development aspect of the program helped me understand how to make my project more TV-ready. Coming from a feature film world, I work with a finite story model, and working the infinite story model of television was daunting. However, I feel coming out of the program, I know how to make the story compelling for TV.

Second, the market landscape of the television world is important because every station has its own branding and there’s also a diverse mechanism of delivery, which one should be familiar with.

I feel confident about the changes made to our project. The whole process of getting a show on television really seemed impenetrable. There were gaps in my knowledge about story development and the marketing landscape of the television industry but the program was really well designed and really helped demystify the process and give us the right contacts and knowledge base to achieve our goals.

The story editing was fantastic. We had Andrew De Angelis who immediately got us thinking about putting the most dramatic aspects of our show up front. We had skirted or saved dramatic elements for the second season. He encouraged us to develop a better story engine so the TV show could have legs.

We came out of the whole program with a clear plan of how we could rewrite the show and find the right tone for the television outlets we target. We also came up with a plan B and even a plan C of making small changes to our project for other channels, in case our first plan doesn’t work out.

Stephanie Ouaknine (producer), The Golden Mean

Stephanie Ouaknine

We’ve mentioned this multiple times, but it bears repeating: NSI Totally Television is a unique training program in Canada because of its extensive roster, deep network and its singular focus on the writer/producer relationship. Learning in tandem can only help strengthen both our creative and financing strategy going forward.

Joy (Loewen, program manager) and Julie (Di Cresce, program advisor) put together an impressive week of workshops, panels, market intel, frank creative discussion and one-on-one meetings with the utmost care and attention to detail.

Unlike at large conferences, executives and producers have an intimate, safe space to discuss the highs and lows in great detail – and give us the specific insight that’s key to moving forward.

I found the story days incredibly fruitful. It’s a privilege to work with someone not only as experienced as Noelle Carbone, but also like-minded – a writer/producer dedicated to bolstering female voices on screen and behind the lens who’s been on some of my favourite Canadian television series: Wynonna Earp, Cardinal, Rookie Blue and Coroner.

Hammering out ‘big picture’ ideas and character dynamics on the first day allowed us to jump into the ‘re-break’ of the pilot on day two with fresh eyes and a determination to take the project to the next level.

I can safely say we’re both excited to tackle the creative challenges and opportunities that came out of the session. Spending these days bouncing ideas back and forth, we managed to get a handle on our wily heroine, her season arc and how to ground the show in compelling family dynamics.

It was also a relief to embrace the cultural specificity of the show and its identity, rather than shoehorning it into something it’s not. Let’s lean on what works, and double down on what makes it a unique story for us to tell.

I found it insightful to meet with creatives and executives from all sides of the table, and compare their thoughts. Not only did we hear from showrunners and network executives, but also from international packaging agents and broadcasters-turned-producers.

In this age of Peak TV, not only are there 500+ scripted series on air, but also 500+ ways to finance and package a series – and the NSI Totally Television program understands this.

We chatted with broadcasters from every network in Canada, but also those shepherding international co-productions, co-ventures with the US, and those vying for international distribution coin to jumpstart development right out of the gate.

For our team, it was heartening to get a thumbs up on our financing strategy. Not only do we have a clearer idea of what the show is and how best to convey it, we’re on the right path for next steps and excited to see where it leads us.

Finally, it’s always the quality and enthusiasm of your fellow participants that make or break a boot camp. We were fortunate to bounce off of and have fun with a talented, diverse bunch of filmmakers. From a team that has worked in Germany and lived in Kabul to actors-turned-writers and folks from all corners of the country, I’m sure we’ll stay in touch and keep tabs on each other’s projects. Hopefully we’ll meet again sooner rather than later!

Sarah Goodman (writer), The Golden Mean

Sarah Goodman

Coming in to the NSI Totally Television program, I was excited to dive back into The Golden Mean, break it open and build it back again.

Among many things, I enjoyed the pitching workshops with Carole Kirschner which forced us to streamline our series and how we talk about it. Why this show, why now and why us?

Moreover, we spent time honing our ‘personal loglines’ and working against our polite Canadian sensibilities to pitch ourselves not only as the project’s writers, but also as the only ones to deliver this specific vision.

Throughout boot camp, we also got to pitch the series – and its ever-evolving logline – multiple times, day after day. Hearing it out loud and tweaking it continuously made us both more comfortable as a team and, crucially, better able to convey the tone of the show and the personal connection we both have to the lead character, Rachel, and the world of the show. Drilling down on that connection is so helpful in terms of being able to articulate it to others and also for ourselves as we move forward with a rewrite of the pilot.

Noelle Carbone’s generosity, brilliance and clarity opened so many doors for us creatively. We had an incredible time workshopping the series with her. Seeing what resonated for Noelle, as an Italian Roman Catholic who could relate to the overbearing family in The Golden Mean, showed that the close-knit, intensely Jewish family at the centre of the show holds universal appeal.

It also helped guide us to draw out the specificities of the world in a way that will pull people in, even if it’s not the world they came from. Noelle pinpointed places where what’s in my head is not quite what’s on the page, and guided us toward elegant and deceptively simple solutions rooted in characters that feel real.

Our big picture discussion about all the core character relationships was also invaluable; I feel I know my main character, her family, and her antagonists with more depth and clarity now. I’m excited to dive back into the re-break of the pilot, working the macro and micro notes we discussed, and incorporating Noelle’s feedback, especially where our character binaries and ensemble dynamics are concerned.

Knowing we’re aiming for a co-venture or co-production also allows me to write for the intended scope of the show, rather than limiting it with a budget in mind.

It was awesome doing this with my amazing partner in crime Steph Ouaknine, and being guided by the kick-ass NSI duo Julie Di Cresce and Joy Loewen, who put an incredible week together.

I’ll end this with: we are the audience for this female-led Peaky Blinders or, as we called it in boot camp, the Jewish woman’s Breaking Bad.

Michelle Ouellet (producer), Ethics 101

Michelle Ouellet

Having never participated in an incubator like NSI Totally Television, I didn’t know what to expect. I can honestly say the entire experience surpassed my expectations.

Going in, I felt like we had a solid idea in a marketable genre (the procedural) but other than that my partner (Nicholas) and I had little to no experience creating TV. We felt we were lacking in terms of form, especially since we’re used to writing and making feature films, and certain elements, like the ‘act break’ for example, were new to us.

Working with our executive producer Karen Walton was completely eye-opening not only in terms of addressing some of our practical issues around form but also in terms of really fleshing out our characters and their arcs, and really focusing our show. It was a great reminder that, even though procedurals focus on the procedure, it’s the character relationships that keep us coming back.

At present we are hard at work, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting! I feel like our series is so much more compelling and focused after working with Karen.

In addition to the two days with Karen, I also really enjoyed the marketplace intel we got from all the major broadcasters and the creator case studies. The creator case studies were especially eye-opening. It was interesting to hear how many different ways a show can come together and how the experience can vary from show to show.

Lastly, and perhaps most unexpectedly, I didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy meeting the other teams. Every day we would hang out in the hotel after the last session and talk shop and workshop our series ideas, loglines, etc. It was so refreshing to work alongside other creators from across the country. We have planned to stay in touch.

Nicholas Carella (writer), Ethics 101

Nicholas Carella

I’ll admit I was skeptical about the impact a one-week program could have on our project and hoped (at best) that the few tips and potential contacts we would make could maybe be worth something. You can see where this is going, right?

I was naive and flat-out wrong about the impact this boot camp could (and would!) have.

From a creative standpoint, working with Karen Walton on our show helped evolve what we already thought was a fresh take on the medical procedural into what I believe could be an important show that appeals to a large audience.

We dug deep. We talked about the world. A pair of simple questions, “Why this show?” and “Why you?”, forced us to really consider our responsibility as storytellers and ultimately improved our project in ways we hadn’t anticipated (and prompted more rewrites than I wanted to do).

From a business standpoint my mind was straight-up blown. BLOWN. Why? Because midway through day one, it occurred to me I had NO IDEA how television development worked. I’ve pitched television shows and had no idea what the actual process was, how things got made, who funded what, etc. Crazy, I know.

By the end of boot camp, I truly felt the whole process was demystified and the preconceptions I’ve had about ‘gatekeepers’ (I know I’m not alone here) were likely motivated by fear and a lack of opportunity to fail safely.

Through a week of feeling free to ask dumb questions, I’m now in a place where I’m comfortable to pitch my work and feel a lot less like a fraud. I expect this program will have a tangible ripple effect on all my future projects.

Ian Bawa (producer), The Lucky Ones

Ian Bawa

I’ll be honest, we didn’t know what to expect when we first stepped into the little hotel conference room to start our six-day boot camp for TV producing and writing for our show, The Lucky Ones – an anthology series about the dark side of the lottery.

My writer and partner on the project, John Titley, and I both entered the room with three other teams ready to learn, be challenged and have our minds blown. The reality of the situation was this: we learned new things, we were challenged on our ideas and we had our minds blown with new information.

The initial start to the week began with a reintroduction of ‘the basics’ – storytelling and how it works, presented by speaker Bill Robertson. I won’t lie, my mind instantly went to, “I already know this stuff.” *insert sarcastic-jovial laugh*

However, I seemed to have forgotten one important factor: hearing a professional talk about ‘the basics’ is completely different from what I think ‘the basics’ are. Bill’s lecture and case study on the show Transparent got our minds into storytelling mode and excited to see what the week held for us and our show.

Our second and third days are best described in two words: Adam Barken (technically that’s a name and not two words, but I think I’m right/funny, and comedy is subjective).

Adam is a working, successful showrunner, and John and I were lucky to have him go through our script and story bible and give us notes and feedback on our show. Not only did Adam challenge us, but he gave legitimate life advice and became the only other person (besides myself) who enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass. We’re excited to call Adam a friend, and his shared guidance and wisdom will not be forgotten.

The days after were a blur of new information encoded into our brains (i.e. ‘having my mind blown’). Between our talks about financing with the Canada Media Fund, to learning about the international market with Todd Berger, and having one-on-one meetings with industry professionals such as Sarah Adams (CBC), Tom Hastings (Bell Media), Tara Woodbury (Sphere), Samantha Morris Mastai (Lark) and a bunch of others, we stepped out of the program as stronger, smarter and more invigorated filmmakers ready to sell and make not only The Lucky Ones but as much TV as humanly possible.

[Applying for] NSI Totally Television was definitely one of the best life choices John and I have made in developing and furthering our careers, and being part of it will [be helpful] as we move forward as filmmakers.

John Titley (writer), The Lucky Ones

John Titley

What a week! It’s already been a few days since NSI Totally Television boot camp and I feel like I’m still wrapping my head around it which, I’m happy to say, was one of the best creative and professional experiences of my life.

Ian and I have been developing The Lucky Ones together for about nine months prior to getting the call to take part in the program. When we got the news we had been accepted we were both excited and, admittedly, a little nervous. We loved the concept and felt good about our material, but how would it fare under the scrutiny of NSI’s mentors and executives?

We did as much prep as we could at home in snowy Winnipeg, meticulously going over the script and experimenting with our pitch and loglines, before flying to Toronto to take part in the week-long boot camp. From day one we knew we were in the right place.

From creative sessions breaking down story structure, to getting valuable industry insight during candid round-table discussions with broadcast executives, from information on financing models and audience development opportunities, NSI Totally Television boot camp delivered on everything it promised to be and more.

One particular session that stood out to Ian and I was hearing a real-world, behind-the-scenes case study from Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern (Flashpoint, X-Company) along with their creative producer Lesley Grant from Temple Street outlining their relationship as writers/creative producer. Sessions like these let Ian and I feel confident about our own dynamic as a writer/producer team, and gave us a glimpse into a world where we can best use our skills to help this show become a reality along with other projects moving forward.

The shining jewel of the program was getting the chance to spend two full days working one-on-one with our story editor and creative mentor Adam Barken (showrunner and executive producer, Killjoys).

We knew Adam was a huge ‘get’ for us and were immediately nervous about the prospect of working with one of the most respected writers and creative voices in the industry. Adam, of course, couldn’t have been nicer and immediately put us at ease by saying he not only liked our script, but that we had, in his words, a “unicorn” show before handing us the floor to outline where [we thought] he could help us.

I could write 10 pages on how incredible this time was, and I have zero shame in saying Adam helped us improve literally every aspect of our creative. Because of the conceptual nature of the show, we started with conversations about our vision for the show, with Adam challenging our vision and helping us articulate the themes we wanted to explore.

Then we got down to business, going page by page through the script, with Adam asking us deep and detailed questions, including helping to reshape our ending to maximize the impact of our story and theme. He gave us his formula for creating a good bible and what broadcasters look for, helping us rewrite our episode outlines and loglines as well as encouraging us to embrace both the fun and the challenge of creating a show around winning the lottery.

He also helped us outline and rehearse our pitch, telling us how best to pitch (and how not to pitch) this show, and the best ways we can position ourselves moving forward with what is an unapologetically ambitious concept. I know for Ian and I, these sessions were intense, vigorous and exactly what we needed.

Adam also spoke to us as a friend and confidant about the business itself, telling us what to look for in a broadcaster partner (“Find people who believe”), in an agent (“Trust your gut”) and what to expect should we go into production (“It’ll be the most fun/hardest thing you’ve ever done”).

We got to be vulnerable, and Adam took us under his wing. Speaking personally, as someone who’s been working hard to create this kind of material, probably the most important thing Adam told us was that we were ready. Needless to say, coming from him, this meant a lot.

All of this led to two more days of boot camp sessions with some of the best minds across the industry, more questions and more late nights for Ian and I discussing every detail of our show, before ending with a whirlwind day of one-on-one speed-dates with production company executives and broadcasters.

One of the themes of our show is ‘be careful what you wish for’ and, in this case, Ian and I feel very fortunate that we got exactly what we wished for from NSI Totally Television.

We came in with a show we were excited about and got our minds blown with both the encouragement we wanted and the scrutiny and challenge we needed. We’re coming out one week later with even more excitement and a clearer vision for what our show needs with lots of work still to come.

I know for The Lucky Ones this week was only the beginning, but I couldn’t be more thankful for what it means for us moving forward. Ian and I are coming out stronger as creatives, along with a network of new mentors, potential partners, opportunities and friends to work with into the future. One of the mentors joked to us that getting a show made is kind of like winning the lottery. We haven’t ‘won’ anything yet, but after the [boot camp], I’d like to believe our odds went up.

• • •

NSI Totally Television provides hands-on development training for teams serious about getting their TV series concept made. The 11-month program starts with a week-long boot camp in Toronto where teams work with leading industry experts to hone their TV series ideas.

The program has produced 13 series that have been developed: six went to air, one was piloted and another was produced as a feature film which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Most recently TV series project Wolfville, developed through NSI Totally Television in 2017-18 by writer Jon Mann and producer Rob Ramsay, was optioned by Take the Shot Productions, a St. John’s, Newfoundland-based production company.

NSI Totally Television is made possible by Presenting Sponsor Bell Media; Program Partner Telefilm Canada; Supporting Sponsors Corus Entertainment and Breakthrough Entertainment. NSI Core Funders are Manitoba Sport, Culture & Heritage and the City of Winnipeg through the Winnipeg Arts Council.

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