Film Talk with Renee Robinson: The Role of the Jamaican Film Commission
by Carolyn Lee Jul 1, 2019
Some of us may have heard about the Film Commission of Jamaica. Our general orientation of the film industry largely focuses on glamorous red carpets, famous actors and fun after parties.
While these are at the forefront of the film industry, they are merely the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger mechanism that deals with the business of the film industry.
Yello spoke with the Film Commissioner, Renee Robinson and she provides some insight on the role of the Commission, the business of filmmaking and the available programmes.
What led to your interest in becoming the Film Commissioner of Jamaica?
I’ve been in this role for the past four years. I actually wanted to be the Film Commissioner of Jamaica when I was 19. This was because of meetings that I had had at the time with the former Film Commissioner, Del Crooks.
That was when I first understood that there was, in fact, a job that was the “Film Commissioner of Jamaica.” At the time, I didn’t know that film commissioner was a job title that existed – that was 20 years ago.
Share a bit about your background and expertise.
I’ve worked in media in various roles for the past 20 years. I started in front of the camera as talent. After that, I went into producing. I’ve produced film and TV productions overseas. Like many others, I started out as a production assistant (PA) on sets, making coffee and running errands. I worked my way up from that.
I worked at the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) as the head of their programming. I looked at all the different creative industries across the island and the path to development and economic growth through the creative industries.
I decided to focus on further studies. I received a scholarship to enrol in law school overseas with the intent of focusing on entertainment law. I later switched to the MBA programme and did an MA in communications and culture with a specialisation in Telecom Innovation Policy, with the MBA component in Arts Management.
While I was in grad school in Toronto, I worked with the Women in Film and Television (WIFT) as head of programming. This allowed me to delve deeply into the industry side of the screen-based economy.
This is where you look at the “business” behind these industries.
I developed strong relationships with persons who are working in the business of the industry in LA, New York, London and through the WIFT network internationally in the Far East. I have relationships with people in these hubs where there is growth in the screen-based industry.
After that, I was head-hunted for the role as lead industry programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival.
In this role, I spent half of the year in Europe (based in Rome) handling international industry clients and the other half in Toronto running the programming for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on the industry side.
I find that my expertise is in the business of these industries.
It took me many years of working in the industry, understanding the business of it, the economy, policy and legislation behind it in jurisdictions that are mature and robust. This helped me to come full circle to lead the Film Commission for Jamaica.
What is a common misperception about the screen-based industry?
A lot of people tend to look at the screen-based industry and assume that it’s only fun, glitz and glamour. There are movies and red carpets, and yes, those exist.
However, there are very specific structures for financing, distribution and an economy that allows that to happen. There are processes and policies in place, as well as global best practices. There are infrastructures that different film jurisdictions put in place to incentivise their regimes.
All of this is show business, and at times the “business” gets lost because the focus is on the glitz and glamour. There is a lot that happens behind the scenes that allow that to be at the forefront of the film industry.
What are some of the responsibilities of the film commission?
The Film Commission sits within JAMPRO, which is the investment, export, and trade promotion agency for the country. It is aligned because it identifies and recognises screen-based activities as an industry. It is connected to culture, heritage, education, and tourism; but this is first and foremost – a business-focused industry of its own.
There are film commissions in other countries that are aligned to culture, education or tourism. There is a noticeable difference in the way that those film commissions function; what they measure, the types of programmes they deliver, and how they interface with their practitioners based on what the alignment is.
The positioning at JAMPRO aligns it to industry.
Tell us a bit about your role and the alignment of the film commission with industry.
What this has meant for my role is that on the one hand there is a film production facilitation requirement. This ties into what other film commissions around the world do.
If there are international or local films that are shooting on the island, we function in terms of the facilitation of those productions. We handle the permits, ensure that the police are notified if there are streets that need to be closed, etc. This is standard procedure for all film commissions, and they do these things in different ways.
On the other hand, there is a policy and an advocacy role. Our industry is emerging and developing. A lot of work is being done to develop the ecosystem. This is to make sure that the building blocks are in place to ensure that our industry matures and becomes robust.
There is also an investment and export progression role. For example, if there is an international studio that wants to come to Jamaica and build here, or set up a subsidiary here, they come through my office. JAMPRO facilitates their building permits, visas, site selection, etc. We take them to look at sites where they might be interested in investing. This is one area that most persons are not aware of.
When we have local content that is investment ready and commercially viable, we also help to advance the trade progressions for those clients. This is done to ensure that Jamaica can maximise global business opportunities. If clients are trying to export their content or services globally, we help them to advance through routes to market.
We do research and business opportunities. We’ve published the guide to filming in Jamaica, which is a comprehensive document that outlines all the different policies and processes in place to facilitate this. It covers the policies and processes from all the different institutions that affect and impact the process of filming in the country.
Are there any programmes that are offered through your office that could upskill persons who are interested in working in the film industry?
We also do sector development. We run three talent programmes throughout the year, with our partners. These programmes are designed and executed based on the existing professional development needs of the industry.
Film Lab is a talent programme offered in partnership with the British Council and the Jamaica Film and TV Association (JAFTA). This talent programme focuses on feature films and the relationship between producers, script-editors, and screenwriters. They go through the process of understanding how to develop a feature. It also includes access to financing, packaging talent and pitching.
There is also a talent programme for the creation of short films. This is the JAFTA Propella programme that identifies five filmmakers to watch each year. The programme is done in partnership with the Jamaica Film and TV Association (JAFTA) and the CHASE Fund. They do a script development programme, production and directing. They also receive funding to produce the film and then they’re taken to market. We take them to two film festivals for the year, so they start to understand what the international circuit is like.
The third programme relates to business sustainability and focuses on production companies. We look at their CEOs and production executives, and whether their business is ready to grow or not. Do they know how to scale up and scale down? Are they aware of international treaties and negotiation processes? Are they negotiating their contracts properly? Are they managing their accounts and finances?
Those are the three avenues that our market intelligence has shown us that have some gaps presently. This is what we are focusing on in this planning cycle.
Are there internships available for students?
Each year, we try to get interns, particularly through the arts management programme at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. This is usually unpaid and for the summer.
We hope this first instalment of Film Talk with Renee Robinson has given you some insight on the role of the film commission.
Join us for part two, where she shares more about the local film industry and the strides that our locally produced films have been making in the global film industry.