NSI Totally Television class of 2020 tell us about boot camp training

Mark Ratzlaff Nimisha Mukerji Eva Thomas Darren Anthony Rachel Cairns Brandon Laraby Eva Colmers Gordie Lucius

Top row: Mark Ratzlaff, Nimisha Mukerji, Eva Thomas, Darren Anthony; bottom row: Rachel Cairns, Brandon Laraby, Eva Colmers, Gordie Lucius

NSI Totally Television is presented in association with Bell Media. Phase 1 boot camp took place in Toronto at the beginning of March and below participants share their thoughts on the experience.

During boot camp, teams worked with story editors to fine-tune their script and concept, met pitch and audience engagement consultants, execs from major broadcast networks, and production and distribution companies to deepen their market intelligence to best identify where their project fits.

Teams advancing to phase two attend Content London in December 2020.

Thanks to program advisor Julie Di Cresce and program manager Liz Janzen for their incredible work.

NSI strives to deliver the best possible experience for participants. We learn from each participant and each experience. Honest feedback is important to us and the quality of our training programs. Here’s what our participants had to say.

Mark Ratzlaff | Producer, Reign of Durga

Mark Ratzlaff

The time we spent with our mentor and story consultant Alison Lea Bingeman was such a creatively rewarding experience – and a game changer for our series pilot. We came away with a more focused understanding of our characters and their goals, and left the program with a clear blueprint of how to elevate our project to the next level.

I made a point to come into NSI Totally Television with an open mind when it came to feedback and embracing changes because I know that being too precious only hinders your ability to explore new possibilities within the worlds you’re creating. The workshops and advice that we received over the week at NSI forced us to answer those difficult questions about our series, and while the answers didn’t come easy, they came.

We now feel even more confident about our show, why it’s relevant and, most importantly, why we’re the right people to tell this story.

Throughout the week we had the privilege to learn from and pitch to some of the very best in our industry which created such a motivating environment. Every evening I left with invaluable nuggets about story, financing and pitching.

Most surprising of all, my partner and I left with not just a better sense of how to pitch our project, but also how to pitch ourselves as creators with something to say.

I feel grateful to count myself among NSI’s alumni and would encourage content creators at any level of their career to apply to this program. It offers writers and producers a rare chance to test out where and how their project fits into the current marketplace, and get first-hand reactions from broadcasters and key players in our industry. There really isn’t a better launchpad for your series.

Nimisha Mukerji | Writer, Reign of Durga

Nimisha Mukerji

Which parts of the training made an impact on you and your project?

Working with our story editor Alison Lea Bingeman, who is a veteran writer and producer, was invaluable.

The session was a deep dive into the world of our characters. We spent two days breaking down each scene to ensure that our character motivations, plot and structure were all aligned and pushing the story forward. Through this process we also came to understand what elements were holding back our script and how to rework key beats to create greater impact.

We always knew what we wanted to say with our pilot but this experience gave us a real sense of clarity in terms of how to communicate our vision to our readers and a television/streaming audience.

As a result of our story session we also had a strong sense of how to pitch our project and, as a result, had some great meetings with broadcasters and production companies that were facilitated by NSI. As creators, it was an incredibly rewarding experience.

How did you feel about making changes to your project?

I went in knowing we would make significant changes, so I was open to the process.

Having really experienced industry professionals weigh in on your project – especially at this stage – only helped push the project forward. For us this often meant changing the order of scenes, or adjusting key beats or lines so the intentions were clearer.

The most important thing was to stay true to our characters while finding new and better ways to tell our story. This meant letting go of ideas but, in the end, it gave us more clarity in terms of our themes, the wants of our characters and our overall arcs for the episode and series.

Was the training beneficial in moving your story forward?

Absolutely. Working with our story editor was all about figuring out which elements were working in the story and which parts still needed work. [Now] the pilot is tighter and more dramatic while still retaining the comedic beats we wanted.

Did you resist change at first but then see how much stronger your project became?

We didn’t resist change, but we had a lot of honest discussions about our story and which elements were important to keep.

Our story editor was our sounding board and encouraged us to hold onto the parts of our characters that reflected our own personal experiences. But she also asked us really insightful, important questions to consider in order to make the characters motivations clearer, more focused and more high impact.

We also looked at our set ups and payoffs and reworked them so now it feels like everything that happens in the pilot has an important role to play in building our story.

Did you develop a clearer vision for your TV series?

Yes we absolutely did. That was my biggest takeaway: that we now have a greater sense of clarity about our characters and storylines.

Why is NSI Totally Television beneficial to content creators and to the industry in general? Why should someone apply?

If you’re developing a series NSI Totally Television is where you want to be. [Phase 1 of training is] an intense week but worth it. It’s rare outside a writer’s room to get this kind of time with a story editor, and if we had tried to plan all these individual meetings with showrunners and networks ourselves it could have taken months (or years) to happen.

This is really an accelerator program for your projects, designed to make them ready for the market. We now have a clear sense of what our show is, where we want it to go and, most importantly, how to get there.

Eva Thomas | Producer, Dwayne Has Issues

Eva Thomas
During the first week of March, we spent six days in NSI Totally Television boot camp training. The training focused on story analysis, pitching and marketability from the distributor, producer and broadcaster perspectives. We were also provided with one-on-one story editing consultation and coaching from pitching experts.

By far, the most impactful experience of the week was working with our mentor Ken Cuperus. We spent two days with Ken re-breaking the pilot, reviewing the series bible, discussing the engine of the comedy and doing in-depth character work. We were keen to make the changes to take the project to the next level.

After working with Ken, Darren [Anthony, writer] and I could see the format changes that needed to be made while still maintaining the writer’s voice. There was no resistance from Darren to make the recommended changes. Though there was a brief moment of panic when we realized the changes meant almost a total rewrite of the pilot!

The boot camp was also helpful for understanding how to talk about ourselves and our connection to the project as well as how to pitch the project so other people can envision the show.

We must have introduced ourselves and pitched the concept over 20 times and practiced the pitch just as many. By the end of the week, we were very comfortable talking about ourselves and the project. This really helped Darren to become comfortable in his ownership of the story.

Before entering the training program, Darren had a very clear vision for Dwayne Has Issues so this week really helped us improve the pilot outline, bible and pitch. And we developed a clearer understanding for where the project fits into the global marketplace.

During the week, we met with writers, producers, showrunners, broadcasters, funders, production companies, pitching experts, bankers, folks from international sales and distribution and audience development specialists. After the week, I felt really empowered with knowledge. The guests were incredibly giving and I learned so much – I even ‘geeked out’ on the producer stuff like financing plans and tax credits. This week helped me understand that I am expanding in my knowledge and skill-set as a producer and that is super exciting.

[Phase 1 of training] was very balanced with the creative guidance and business essentials. Thank you NSI!

Darren Anthony | Writer, Dwayne Has Issues

Darren Anthony

NSI Totally Television boot camp training has so far been monumental in its impact on our project.

The most meaningful part for me was the time we were given to work with our creative mentor, Ken Cuperus. He inspected and broke down our series to the bare bones, and helped us build it back up, both critically and constructively. Though this process forced us to really examine every intimate aspect of the show, it really gave me a clearer perspective and deeper love for and connection to the story I’m trying to tell. This exercise really reminded me why I started telling this story in the first place and I am thankful for it.

Another really exciting piece of the week was hearing from showrunners from some of Canada’s top shows. They each presented a case study, describing what it took to bring their projects from paper to television screen. They were beyond inspiring and motivating because they helped to make me see that dreams and hard work could really pay off. We were also provided with tangible tips for how I can end up in their position someday. I was very grateful for that experience.

Additionally, my storytelling capabilities have been pushed forward tremendously and I owe that to the great mentors and storytellers we’ve been granted access to. I don’t know how I could have been exposed to such talent in one room if it weren’t for this program. Each contributor leaned in with support and guidance to help transform our show into a winning formula that broadcasters can relate to and appreciate.

I did know that once we started this program, it would be challenging, a boot camp of sorts. But I didn’t realize I would come out of the [first phase of training] re-imagining bigger and broader possibilities for what the show can potentially do for its audience.

We were given a lot of suggestions from various directions, ones that forced me to think critically about the direction of the show. I actually enjoyed making many of the suggested changes to the project but the challenging part remains in determining how to figure out which changes should be made, and which things should remain the same, as core features of the show I originally envisioned.

NSI Totally Television is a very valuable program to new content creators in the industry because, in most cases, a lot of creators wouldn’t get the chance to rub shoulders with the industry’s best. For anyone looking to take their series to the next level, I would highly recommend they apply to NSI Totally Television. I am thankful every day I did.

Rachel Cairns | Producer, The Trafficked

The week-long boot camp provided a lot of information, valuable tools and insight. I enjoyed connecting with the other participants and seeing how they were developing their projects and the different developments of their careers.

In particular, the two days we spent with our senior story editor was the highlight of the training. Working one-on-one with a seasoned writer who helped us investigate, re-imagine, tear apart and reconstruct our pilot was the most rewarding and hands-on part of the process. This was the type of tailored focus that I craved in many other aspects of [boot camp].

Personally I felt that the tuition was high for the value delivered. I’m very glad I was a part of the process working with our story editor, but I didn’t feel the producers received the same kind of intensive feedback and coaching that was provided to writers.

The first day, for instance, we had three creative sessions about writing and pitching. Again, the information, while a useful refresher was nothing that I hadn’t already read in a book, learned in a class (assuming most people in this program have some kind of film school training) or is general knowledge one acquires through working in the industry. What I wanted, for $2,000, was a more hands-on approach that helped us apply that knowledge to the projects we brought with us and the next steps to take them forward.

Lastly, I would say it’s a good refresher, provides current insights, connects you with various perspectives and artists in the industry, and the story editing sessions are an incredible experience. But I left boot camp feeling that the experience was more meaningful for writers than producers.

Brandon Laraby | Writer, The Trafficked

Brandon Laraby

There was a moment, as I was sitting there, listening as my pilot was disassembled – the pilot that had taken me six months of research and five drafts to finally crack; that had gotten me here – that I had to remind myself: “This is what I asked for.”

It was a new sensation, to be sure, this frothing pit of fear and euphoria and awe that was forming in my stomach as my series pilot was atomized before me.

The senior writer whom Julie and Liz had paired us with was Susan Coyne and she was, frankly, amazing. Over the course of two days she helped me to look, really look, at the plethora of choices I had made and asked me – as an equal (!!) – if they were truly the strongest possible ones. She challenged me to take the heart of what I had built and see it from a different perspective, to tell the same story in a stronger way. And then, together – Rachel (my producing partner), Susan and I – we took those atoms and began to rebuild.

By the end of the second day we had created the beats of something new and yet the same. Compelling in a different way. For The Trafficked, well, it’s a story about human trafficking in Canada. Not an easy subject matter to sell to your average broadcaster; it’s necessary and important but the reality is that it’s hard enough to open a dialogue about it let alone inspire someone to give eight hours of their time to watch that story unfold.

So where my original pilot was gritty and urgent and dark – certainly strong stuff – we decided to start things a bit earlier; try something more along the lines of a psychological thriller, something that would draw a viewer in deep, keep them guessing, earn their trust … until we slammed that door shut behind them. It’s an intriguing proposition nonetheless and that new script is now in progress. Certainly one benefit of this program is that neither script goes away. Soon I’m going to have two really strong pilots with two very intriguing perspectives … not bad for a week’s work.

Speaking to the larger picture, it’s funny, NSI calls their Totally Television program a boot camp but, in reality, it’s more of a whirlwind.

Pretty much the entire time I was there, I was off-centre, head spinning, sometimes flailing and, luckily, I wasn’t alone. I got to watch the other three teams, all amazing people with compelling stories of their own, be challenged just as I was. And it was in those moments, moments where all of our heads were spinning, that we built a camaraderie. Bound together by our common goal, pushing through pulses of self-doubt, trying to squeeze every last drop from this incredible opportunity, we openly celebrated each other’s victories.

And, in my opinion, that’s what you’re really signing up for: the relationships you can build.

Speaking as a writer, you’ll get in because you can write, that’s the cost of entry (fees aside). But the beating heart of this program, at least for me, was the opportunity to meet my peers and sit down, face-to-face with the people in our industry who are actively making the TV we’re watching today and tomorrow. Having the chance to ask questions like: Where is the strongest possible home for our show? Is there an international hunger for our series? What are the questions we don’t yet know to ask? Not only were our questions answered but our curiosity was constantly rewarded with personal insights and valuable tips from people who clearly want to see our projects succeed, even if they might not be in their company’s wheelhouse.

In the end I have to say that my experience with NSI Totally Television opened my eyes and sharpened my vision. I left that week changed in ways that I hadn’t considered, considering options and possibilities that would have never entered my sphere of thought otherwise (apparently Scandinavia is a big fan of exactly our kind of show!?)

What more could I have asked for?

Eva Colmers | Producer, Lupita

So many aspects to get your project ready: reflections on phase 1 boot camp

What a whirlwind of a week it was!

Writer Gordie (Lucius) and I arrived from Edmonton super excited to have the opportunity to learn from experienced industry mentors, to meet the other teams, and to work on our script and pitch package for our half-hour series proposal Lupita.

The well-organized, passionate and calm Julie Di Cresce and Liz Janzen made it easy for everyone to feel relaxed and created a professional, unrivaled atmosphere. Of course, starting off with an industry reception to celebrate Bell Media, a long-time supporter of the NSI Totally Television program, was a perfect ice-breaker. I exchanged business cards and thoughts and was particularly happy to speak with some NSI alumni who generously shared advice and tips.

The next day, it was time to work with our assigned writing consultant, Michael Mabbott.

For two full days, Michael generously gave Gordie and me his undivided attention and feedback on our script. With care and great instincts, he went through our story, section by section, beat by beat. It became clear to me that our script was developed very differently than the others which had ONE strong spokesperson writing their own story.

Based on my award-winning, and well-received short film, Happy Birthday Mango!, the Lupita series was written with the essential Filipino perspective, heart and passion by Gordie Lucius, Joleen Ballendine and Joey Lucius – several parents, so to speak – which can be a gift or a bit of a challenge.

Last fall, I had set up a writers room with all three writers and myself and, because of this thorough script experience, our plot structure and characters seemed pretty solid.

During our writing consultation with Michael we could then focus more on tone and efficiency of scenes: tweaking dialogue here and there, cutting or combining scenes to strengthen the flow and, most importantly, rethinking/reworking the ending to make it ‘irresistible’ to the viewer to come back for more.

For me, an unexpected challenge was how to pitch Lupita as a team of two without standing in the way. Or to be more precise: to encourage and support my writer to fully, proudly and confidently hold Lupita in his hands.

Fortunately, we had just the perfect workshops with Carole Kirschner. Calmly and clearly, Carole talked about the steps for a good pitch but also about the importance of how to best present yourself at a meeting. Gordie and I were thrilled to notice the improvement in our pitch and, by the end of the program, almost had fun pitching.

And just when my head started to burst with all the information, I had this lovely, late-night drink and talk with two other program participants in the empty lounge. It grounded me and reminded me that, ultimately, it’s all about how to connect with others. Well, I now do feel more connected to our series and to my writers and realize that it truly takes a village to give light and birth to our Lupita project.

There are many things to consider when you go on a long journey with your series project; it’s a constant, exciting up-and-down. Our project is not there yet BUT equipped with new insights and skills and connected with media experts and professional allies like NSI, I do feel we’re totally moving in the right direction to put our Lupita series onto the screen … soon.

Gordie Lucius | Writer, Lupita

Gordie Lucius

As I sit here going over all the little blips, scribbles, tasty little joke nuggets and pages upon pages of notes I took during this boot camp, I was struck with an awesome feeling. This awesome feeling was assurance.

NSI Totally Television, unlike any other program I have been in similar to this, made me realize I am completely on the right track and I am where I want to be for a reason. Let me tell you, being a cute’n’chubby little 29-year-old dreamer can be tough these days, but the great thing about [phase 1] boot camp was that it gave us some awesome tools and amazing connections to bring these wild dreams to reality.

Everything from workshops strictly on how you present yourself during a pitch, (which let me tell yah I feel like we creators don’t give ourselves enough credit) funding talks, round table meetings with accomplished producers, fascinating/touching case studies of shows being produced and, to top it all off, two full days working with a writer to hone our scripts. Shout out to the lovely Michael Mabbott for tearing into our script with us and helping us tweak it into something we love and appreciate even more! [Phase 1 boot camp] had it all and I haven’t even talked about the amazing people in my cohort yet.

I was so flattered and honoured to be part of this group. Every project was so impressive and genuine. These projects have affirmed for me that the future of Canadian TV is in great, firm, girthy well-worked hands.

I’m glad to have met all the other members of NSI Totally Television 2020 and can’t wait to see where these projects go. But before I go talking about how awesome everyone is I have to bring it back to the other half of Lupita’s creative team, Eva Colmers.

This [phase of training] brought us together tighter than ever. The way it helped us appreciate each other’s work even more. It helped us shape and envision our plans for our show realistically and, most importantly, how we pitch the show.

NSI Totally Television brought our brains together in a way that I would have never thought and for all of these things, it was priceless. I am completely proud and excited about the work we did and know it would not have been possible without coming to this amazing [boot camp training week].

Thank you to NSI for having us; I feel truly honoured to be an alumnus of this program. Thank you to everyone who made this possible; it truly was a game changer and we have a lot to work on.

For now, I will bask in this feeling of assurance as I sift through my jumbled blotches of notes and chicken scratch.

NSI Totally Television is made possible by Presenting Sponsor Bell Media; Program Partner Telefilm Canada; and Supporting Sponsors Super Channel, Corus Entertainment and CBC Gem; Provincial Sponsor Creative BC through the Daryl Duke and William Vince Scholarship Fund. NSI Core Funders are Manitoba Sport, Culture & Heritage and the City of Winnipeg through the Winnipeg Arts Council.

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