NSI Features First writer students attend producer boot camp; here’s how it went down

Lauren MacKinlay, James Fanizza, Kulbinder Saran Caldwell, Muna Deria, Nick Schelle, Gemma Holdway, Gharrett Paon and Andrew Dryden Mortimer

Our current NSI Features First producer students finished a second week-long intensive boot camp where they worked on their feature film projects with some of the best experts in the industry. This year the writers came along to producer training and we asked all the students how it went down.

• • •

Gemma Holdway | Writer, Reminiscent

Gemma Holdway

The second NSI Features First boot camp is all about the producers.

Traditionally, the writers aren’t even supposed to participate but we’re a keen group. Certain players pushed for the writers to tag along and I am so grateful they did. (I’m also eternally grateful for the continued support and generosity of program advisor Al Magee and program manager Shelly Quade who made this happen.) This part of the program was a real education for me.

During the first boot camp, our scripts endured grenade attacks over a full day of story editing. But this time our producers’ budgets became the targets. Paul Scherzer [also an NSI alumnus] spent a whole day going through four budgets with us. But it’s not like the writers could just lean back. Paul had read all of our scripts and could plainly see where we were needlessly overspending.

Writers love their blue sky. This session was such a luxury because Paul not only has a wealth of experience, but he’s also very mindful of the creative; he knows what’s important to the story. He’s also very realistic about what it takes to make an independent film in Canada.

Hearing from various producers and distributors, it quickly became apparent to Nick [Schelle, producer] and I that we have a variety of financing options we can pursue with our story but each comes with pros and cons and largely depends upon whether or not Nick directs the feature.

It wasn’t until our last day that I started to get a sense of the way forward. We pitched our project to Mehernaz Lentin who gave us some tough love. Nick and I both admired her candidness. One of the best things about this program is the honesty of the speakers and mentors who openly acknowledge the roadblocks they’ve encountered. And some will not hesitate to confront you about your own (often self-imposed) roadblocks.

Nick Schelle | Producer, Reminiscent

Nick Schelle

The second boot camp week felt very different to the first. Along with a focus on budgeting and financing and a ton of great speakers helping fill in all the knowledge gaps for getting our project made, our groups actually had the head space and time to really bond and connect.

We kicked the week off spending all day Monday breaking down our budgets with Paul Scherzer. It was extremely valuable to learn where to find the numbers and how to better calculate each line item to create a more realistic budget.

Also over the course of the week we had Damon D’Oliveira do a financing workshop, and Justin Rebelo give us a case study about putting the financing together for his film (Room for Rent). Both sessions gave me a greater understanding of how to put together financing and how crazy unpredictable the plans tend to be until everything is locked in.

Like the first week, the second week also ended with a pitch session, and just like the first, the main feedback we got was that this project would best be realized at a higher budget-level than we are currently aiming for.

The biggest difference for me this time was I was finally ready to listen to this and come to terms with the idea that my goal of leveraging this project as my first feature as a director is actually our project’s biggest roadblock, and for it to reach its full potential I will have to step aside as director.

With a newly found focus on producing this project to its full potential, and a better understanding of how to budget, finance and package this film, I’m so excited to ride the momentum of this program and get this film to the screen. I’m also so grateful for all the relationships I’ve built with the other participants and with all the mentors and guests.

Lauren MacKinlay | Producer, In Vein

Lauren MacKinlay

The producers boot camp for NSI Features First was a crucial and comprehensive week of training. As a producer who has always learned on my feet, I really valued strengthening my business affairs knowledge without the pressure of the ticking clock of production counting down all the money wasted by learning on-the-fly.

NSI continued to bring in some of the most exciting, knowledgeable and relevant industry professionals. The budget session with Paul Scherzer was incredibly valuable; having the opportunity to go through all our budgets, line by line, gave us a ton of great resources needed for moving forward.

Michael Steinberg and his team from National Bank gave us a surprisingly engaging presentation. We were all a bit incredulous afterwards as the words, “I love the bank??” came out of our mouths. Alan Bacchus from Harold Greenberg Fund gave a session that was very encouraging and thorough. I appreciated his tips on what he thinks makes a strong producers package, and I plan on implementing his advice in future funding applications.

As we look forward to casting and relationships with actors, having sessions with Taisa Dekker from ACTRA and casting director Marissa Richmond contributed to a solid foundation in these areas.

Michael Paszt from Raven Banner and Damon D’Oliveira from Conquering Lion Pictures both gave amazingly comprehensive presentations on film financing. As someone who has never gone through that process (Features FIRST, after all), I can confidently say that financing went from an abstract idea to a goal with tangible steps because of those two sessions.

I can’t adequately explain how generous all speakers were with their time, insight and experiences. I felt like I was able to peek at the proprietary secrets of industry professionals who have found success in our country, and I know our films and careers will benefit immeasurably from our time in this program.

One of the best aspects of the NSI Features First experience is the ability to go through this process with the other teams. Some of us have more experience with budgets and financing, while others can fire off a solid casting breakdown or pitch package with ease but, ultimately, it feels like we’re all in this together. Our individual team goals are certainly to get our films made but it really feels like we are all equally invested in our cohort’s entire slate of projects. I’ve made friends with an incredible collective of filmmakers and I know this is just the beginning of us being champions for each other’s work.

Muna Deria | Writer, Black Gold Muslimah

Muna Deria

The focus this time was on taking our projects from script to screen. In other words, if the first boot camp was about giving writers an opportunity to flourish and create within the constraints of an intuitive and conceptual framework, this one was about looking at the script within the constraints of production. It was also about learning ways to create the project we set out to create but within the limits of our tentative budgets and production schedules.

We discussed essentials such as where to spend dollars in ways that count. I was also able to get a sense of key skeleton crew required to move even the smallest productions forward. This is so important for me to understand as I’ve created projects at various budget levels throughout my career. With an indie project I learned it would be useful to focus on spending the most time with actors. That information is really useful for next steps in both production and writing.

I gained a much clearer idea of the cost of music licensing, how a budget is built, and how it’s broken down in terms of dollars spent on locations, crew and cast.

I also learned more about union and non-union projects, and why different filmmakers chose one option over the other. My increased knowledge about the terminology and short form used around production like ‘global,’ ‘fringes’ and ‘pre-sales’ is appreciated. This type of information is so important – to have a language around what you want that is industry standard, allowing you to be in a better position to articulate the needs of your project. I could only get this type of information working on various productions, or via intensive sessions like this.

Every industry expert who shared their knowledge provided me with new and crucial information that will help in the next cycle of my film.

The most important takeaway is that nothing really happens unless it’s scheduled. And, even once it’s scheduled, there are many obstacles and issues to resolve that require team collaboration and problem-solving techniques. In particular, Justin Rebelo’s case study on Room for Rent allowed me to solidify what I had learned about producing throughout the week. How he built the team, how they created a plan, casting, and how they executed both production and marketing on the film was so informative.

It’s hard to fully explain the amount of knowledge and information I’ve accumulated in such a short time. This boot camp has been one of the most educational film experiences I’ve had the opportunity to participate in.

As we all move forward in our projects I feel more confident I have a base knowledge and language around producing that will better position me to execute this project with my producer for years to come.

This would not have been possible without the experts and the support of Al Magee, Shelly Quade, and the board and team at NSI. I can’t wait to see what everyone creates. And I am so happy to be part of this cohort of talented filmmakers.

Kulbinder Saran Caldwell | Producer, Black Gold Muslimah

Kulbinder Saran Caldwell

Budget, budget, budget. It was a common theme during boot camp.

We started the week with a full day of budgeting led by the incomparable Paul Scherzer. I’d never met him before but he was a familiar name to some of the other teams. Paul gave us practical advice on what to consider as we work through our budget. He also shared interesting anecdotes from the Bruce LaBruce production he just wrapped, and insight on how to manage the budget. Paul also gave helpful notes which we could refer to as we made sure we had everything covered. Now it’s time to give it another shot as part of our NSI homework. Wish us luck!

Budget popped up over and over again during the days that followed regarding discussions about working with ACTRA, insurance, casting, clearances, development funding, contracts, business affairs, and not to mention case studies galore with Damon D’Oliveira (who literally had us on our feet) and Justin Rebelo with his passion project Room for Rent.

All the numbers talk was overwhelming but I loved every minute of it, especially chatting with National Bank. Who would have thought banking and film financing could be so fascinating? But it was! It helped that the National Bank team came from a production background and knew what it meant to have to plan for a reshoot, drawing down on funds, etc. We could actually have spent the entire boot camp doing a deep dive into the budget … maybe next time!

Another successful NSI boot camp is done. There was lots to learn, lovely relationships to build and many more steps towards the successful completion of our film. Looking forward to the journey ahead and thanks again NSI for choosing us.

Andrew Dryden Mortimer | Writer, The Undertow

Andrew Dryden Mortimer

Attending the producer boot camp as a writer taught me so much that, at first, I didn’t necessarily think I needed, but by the end of the week I can’t imagine moving forward without.

It gave me a new-found respect for how hard my producer works, and how much responsibility is on him to get this thing made. It’s not easy, in any way, and even in sessions where I was just a fly on the wall, I took away so much.

This week brought me closer to my producer and helped me understand his department more thoroughly.

I also now understand the weight of the words on the page. My latest draft was jam-packed with action sequences and I now know how much each explosion will cost. It was a cold, hard wakening and I can now go home with a rewrite plan that’s going to make it an easier project to finance, without compromising the integrity of the story. I am so thankful the writers were invited to attend.

Gharrett Patrick Paon | Producer, The Undertow

Gharrett Patrick Paon

Boot camp was, once again, a fantastic week spent with my new NSI fam. It was great to reconnect with the other teams (minus James – we missed you) and see how everyone’s films are developing.

This is one of the nicest and most supportive groups of film people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Ultimately that stems from how well NSI picked the teams and projects. All our films are clearly on their own paths and, because those paths are so different from one another, we’re never in competition or come with any ego. Everyone just wants to help and be supportive. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the best part of this entire experience has been getting to know the other students and Al and Shelly.

Having already gone through the CFC Producers’ Lab, there were aspects of programming that overlapped. Regardless, I came away from every session having learned something new. It was also a great opportunity for me to reconnect with people I haven’t seen since CFC, like Paul Scherzer, who gave us great feedback on our budget, and Alan Bacchus at the Harold Greenberg Fund. I felt a certain amount of validation after the first few days, reflecting on how much I’ve learned over the last few years just being on the grind.

The week finished off in classic NSI fashion: pitching our project to key decision-makers. I’d say 50% of our pitches were good and 50% were awful. A note to anyone who pitches: when you get the “I just have to reply to this email. One second,” from the person sitting across the table, do not start covertly mouthing something to your partner. IT WILL BE MISINTERPRETED AND YOU WILL FAIL. SO. HARD. Another hot tip: John Bain loves the film Mud. If your film is like it in any shape or form, use it. 😉

• • •

NSI is extremely grateful for Gusto‘s generous donation which allowed the writers to attend this boot camp.

NSI Features First provides development training for writer/producer teams looking to produce their first or second feature film with strong commercial appeal. Over 20 feature films developed through the program have been produced since 1997.

NSI Features First is funded by Presenting Sponsor Telefilm Canada; Supporting Sponsors CBC Gem, Super Channel, Corus Entertainment and Breakthrough Entertainment; Provincial Sponsor Creative BC through the Daryl Duke and William Vince Scholarship Fund; and Industry Supporters William F. White and Deluxe. NSI Core Funders are Manitoba Sport, Culture & Heritage and the City of Winnipeg through the Winnipeg Arts Council.

Leave a comment