How to Get Started in Film (in St. John's)

How to get started in film (in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador)

How to get started in film (in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador)

By Candice Walsh

Not that long ago, a friend came to me asking about how she could get some help with a script she was writing. She had never been involved in the film industry, but she had a really terrific story idea and she wanted to put it out there. Where to begin?

One of the great things about working in the arts (especially in St. John's) is that there's so much overlap between industries. You'll find writers directing films, and musicians writing books. But for anyone just getting started, the scene can be daunting.

It'd be impossible to cover all the resources, but here are some ways to get started in film (in St. John's).

Learn, Learn, Learn

When it comes to formal training College of the North Atlantic offers a two-year Digital Filmmaking diploma on the west coast of the province and Memorial University offers a diploma in Performance and Communications here in St. John's -- both of which offer hands on, technical training and opportunities to connect with industry leaders. Memorial also offers a Certificate in Film Studies.

If you are emerging or established, workshops and panels are so important to further your training and are shockingly affordable around here -- some are even free. You can become a member of the Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Co-operative (NIFCO) and sign up for their mailing list- they offer special classes and their PICTURE START program is perfect for emerging directors, producers, and writers. These courses also prove valuable on a resume or application, especially when you start applying for funding. 

Throughout the year, the St. John's International Women's Film Festival also hosts workshops and masterclasses. Our Scene and Heard film industry conference usually occurs around May/June, and is open to everyone (stay tuned for this year's schedule). We also offer FRAMED film camps, including an annual week-long camp in Corner Brook each spring.

The culmination is our [Interactive] Film Industry Forum during the Festival, where experts from across Canada or international guests come to share their knowledge and discuss all things film with festival-goers. If you work in film, television, web series or interactive projects (or if you want to), the Forum is a key opportunity to develop, network and hopefully find funding for your project. It also features the Face 2 Face pitch session-- one of the only opportunities to pitch your projects to so many large funders, distributors and producers from across Canada at once, including VICE, Bell Media, Telefilm, and more. No matter what your experience is, everyone is welcome to attend. All Forum panels are open to anyone (not only women).

We also have our [Interactive] Incubator Project (open to women only) which is a mentorship program designed to help emerging cross-platform and digital creators develop, focus and network projects, ranging from webdocs, interactive documentaries to video games. 

 The Nickel Film Festival, another local festival, tends to host workshops and development programs as well, in addition to tons of fun film challenges which are fantastic. Stay tuned for their 2017 line-up.

If you want to work in film, you must attend film festivals, watch movies, and meet other filmmakers. Along with developing the business side of filmmaking, Festivals are also incredibly inspiring, and the more films you watch, the more you learn. Attending film festivals allows you to connect with other people making work similar to yours, or work that you aspire to make. Films are meant to be shared, so make sure that you submit your work as well! Screen time for your first or tenth film is just as important.

Local filmmaker Ruth Lawrence says NIFCO was her training ground. "I did the film courses and screenwriting classes, and as soon as I started making films, the SJIWFF became 'film school in a week' with their workshops and forums. I also have done several longer online writing courses that were very affordable."

Lawrence also relied on the feedback from her peers. "I joined a small screenwriting group with Michelle Jackson, Deanne Foley, and a few others, and we sought feedback from each other."

Just remember: it's vital to stay open to feedback and criticism. Find an honest mentor, and don't take any critique too personally. Improve your craft without letting your emotions get in the way. And once you've worked with someone for awhile, always get a reference letter!

Get Informed

Start signing up for every industry newsletter you can get your hands, especially local. The Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation has a massive list of resources to point you in the right direction.

Often these newsletters will include training opportunities, professional development workshops, and masterclasses. 

Don't just subscribe locally, either. Industry magazines and newsletters like Playback and Telefilm will keep you on your toes when it comes to trends, latest news, and exciting developments in all things film.

SJIWFF FRAMED camps for young filmmakers are an excellent introduction for those looking to break into film.

SJIWFF FRAMED camps for young filmmakers are an excellent introduction for those looking to break into film.

Start Reaching Out to the Community

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Facebook is one of the best ways to reach out to the filmmaking and arts communities. There are plenty of private groups set up online for discussions, news postings, and more. 

NIFCO has a group and you can contact them to meet in person, and there's a NL Filmmakers and Actors group. Since we really are a strong multidisciplinary arts community, check out We Heart the Arts and of course, follow all of your favourite film festivals on their various social media channels. They often share upcoming opportunities and events.

Plus, a little bit of networking can go a long way. Even if you're not sure what you're doing with film, showing up to events and creative mixers will put your face out there. 

Take the Entry Level Jobs

It's a rare occasion when a filmmaker breaks into the scene without having built their way to the top. (It does happen, sometimes.)

Volunteer to be a background actor on a low-budget film set, or help with an indie film shoot. Ask people if they're looking for Production Assistants (PA's) and apply for any of these roles. Films need solid Set, Location and Office PA's, and it's a great way to meet people and get your foot in the door. Interested in a particular department? Inquire about being on call as a daily crew member to give extra help when needed and to build your skills and networks.

Show up and do your job really well, and get to know the higher-ups and other crew members. This is a great way to build your reputation and help you find other people to make films with. Be really kind and respectful to everyone you work with. Ask questions, understand your role in the whole structure of the team, and try to get some sleep when you can! Attitude has a big impact on film sets.

Ruth Lawrence recommends reaching out to filmmakers and volunteering on someone else's shoot. "For one, it gives you an instant network of people -- a community.  You need to have one if you want to make films. As well, you’re going to be looking for people to help you and the best start is to help them first in a meaningful way while you’re gaining so much opportunity from being there. That real experience is invaluable."

Latonia Hartery, another local filmmaker, started out with acting before jumping into producing and directing. "While I was in grad school, I was also acting and appeared in several plays and independent films in the Calgary area. I took a masterclass in acting at The Company of Rogues studio, where I met many other actors and filmmakers. That led to connections which eventually landed me behind the camera for a few projects, in Calgary, as well as a grant from Canada Council for the Arts that provided me with $20K to write/direct/produce my first short film in 2009." 

Make your presence a valuable one, and you will slowly make your way into the kind of roles and positions you want. 

Apply For Funding

Once you've got a little bit of experience under your belt, it's time to start applying for funding. This is the kind of thing you'll learn more about as you go along -- it's hard to know where to start. Once again, the NFLDC is a great resource. You can also talk to NIFCO about their great programs, such as their First Time Filmmaker Program

ArtsNL also has a professional project grant program, with offerings for new and established artists. Telefilm Canada and the Canada Media Fund are other great sources. Web series creators will want to learn more about the Independent Production Fund and the Bell Fund supports Canadian digital/TV multi-platform projects.

Look for funding that matches your project. There are tons of challenges, specific calls for submissions and unique grants out there. For example, the SJWIFF offers the annual RBC Michelle Jackson Emerging Filmmaker Award, handed out to first-time women filmmakers. It comes with some hefty support, totalling $25,000+ and has launched so many careers. 

Be positive. Be confident. Ask questions. Make connections. Work hard and put your stories out there.


Candice Walsh