Alumni return to share Careers after Cinema Studies

July 20, 2022 by Denise Ing

A panel of Cinema Studies Institute alumni returned virtually for the second year in a row to speak with current students about their careers and how their Cinema Studies degrees helped get them there. Tom Cardoso is an investigative journalist with The Globe and Mail. Last year, his reporting on systemic racism in prisons was recognized with awards from the National Newspaper Awards and Canadian Association of Journalists. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 2012 with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Cinema Studies from Innis College. Stacey Feero is a product management professional. She is currently a Product Lead at Loblaw Digital working on Loblaw's only digital-first business, Loblaw Marketplace. Stacey graduated with a BA Specialist in Cinema Studies (2009) and MA in Cinema Studies (2010). Solla Park is currently the Scripted Programming Executive Assistant at the premium TV network, Showtime. She works in both development and production, and most recently worked on shows like Dexter: New Blood, Yellowjackets, and Your Honor. Solla has an MA in Cinema Studies and a BA in Sociology and Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. Prof. Scott Richmond moderated the panel. Edited and condensed excerpts from the panel discussion follow.

It was good to know that I didn't like that job because it helped me refocus what I was going to do next.

Prof. Scott Richmond: What are you doing now and how did you get there from the Cinema Studies Institute?

Solla Park: I'm currently based in Los Angeles and work at Showtime in the descriptive programming department, which is development and production. In development, it's working with scripts right before we go into production. Every day, I'm reading a lot of scripts, meeting with directors, writers, producers and talent, and making sure that part of the package is ready to go for production. And then, for any of our shows that are on the air, we receive episodes and watch cuts, and we give creative notes, whether it's more blood here or more character structure.

How did I get here from CSI? Well, I graduated from U of T undergrad in 2017 with a double Major in Geology and Cinema Studies, and then I immediately did my Masters. Doing my Masters at CSI really help because there's an internship option. In Canada, there are very few paid internships, so legally, you have to do an unpaid internship for academic credit. For my first internship, I landed at Vanguard Artists, which is a Canada-wide literary agency for film and TV, which means they represent writers, directors, producers, sometimes cinematographers, and that internship eventually evolved into a full-time role where I was the executive assistant to the president who was the executive producer of CBC show, Working Moms. In the industry, it’s very good to start with an agency, because it gives you the lay of the land on what kind of productions are working, and what projects are out there.

After having done that, I wanted to work at a bigger studio in Canada. The big fish is Entertainment One. They make shows like The Rookie and Private Eyes. I worked in TV business affairs there, which is working with the scripted development team and production to make sure all deals for 'above the line talent,' which are directors and writers, are negotiated and closed. So I did that for two years, and I loved it. But then, I felt the ceiling of the Toronto industry.

I'm doing my second Master’s in film and TV producing at University of Southern California (USC) film school. It's an MFA, and it's all night classes. I'm currently finishing up my second year now, and all throughout the Master’s program, I kept working at Entertainment One. COVID hit, and then I was virtually working with eOne, Nickelodeon, and HBO Max, all while in USC. Now, I'm here at Showtime.

Stacey Feero: Do the students know what a product manager is?  A product manager is someone who helps build software. I use the analogy of saying I'm kind of like a film director. I sit at the centre of a ton of creative people who actually can make beautiful things like a cinematographer, an actor - all the people that work behind the scenes to make a movie happen. I just have the vision to guide them. So, that means I get to bullshit a lot, and not do a lot of actual work. It's a pretty great career, I can't lie, I hope I'm selling it.

How did I get here? When I did my undergrad, I needed a part time job. I found a job on Craigslist at a random startup company looking for a research assistant. The person who founded this company used to be a producer for Bruce McDonald. In my interview, I mentioned that I watched The Tracey Fragments recently and was totally enamored with this film, and he went, “That's my buddy.” I totally believe that's the reason I got hired.

So I got hired as a research assistant and I worked at this very small Internet start-up with six people. I did that part time while I was doing my undergrad, and then I decided I wanted to do my MA. So I did my Master’s degree and then spectacularly realized academia was not for me. So when I finished it, I had no idea what I was going to do next. So I met up for coffee with that software startup founder who had employed me before. He became a mentor for me. He said, "Why don't you come be my office assistant? We can put you on the payroll while you figure out what you want to do next." So I got the coffee and stocked office supplies, but then he started to pull me into the actual work—helped the engineers build product, make sure the software shipped on time, worked with the user experience designer on how we design features, run user testing to make sure the software was usable, started going to client meetings, helped create decks for our investors to say here's how we're doing at the start up. I crossed over and got more involved, and got to wear all the hats at a very early stage company.

Not surprisingly, that startup went nowhere and it failed spectacularly, went bankrupt. Then I decided to stay in the tech industry. So I got into project management at first because product management wasn't really a thing in Toronto at the time, but eventually I transitioned from project management into product management, and now I'm a leader myself. So I manage other product people, I show them how to get the job done. I help other women, women of colour get into product management because it's a lucrative career as you can tell. 

Tom Cardoso: I'm an investigative reporter at The Globe and Mail. How did I get here? So, in university, like most students, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I fell into my Cinema Studies degree in second or third year as I realized that that was the only thing that I really enjoyed. At the same time, I was also participating in the student newspaper at U of T, The Varsity, and fell in love with that as well. And so, half the time I was going to film classes, writing terrible essays and watching a lot of movies, and the other half of the time. I was pulling all nighters at the student newspaper office.

By the time I graduated, I knew that I did not want to work in film, but I also didn't think that I wanted to go into journalism. It didn't seem like a way to earn enough money to make a living, and I just didn't see a way in. So, I was doing a lot of design work and photography, and I freelanced for some ad agencies for a while doing photo and video work. And from there, I ended up working as an art director at an agency for a couple years, and I was miserable. It was good to know that I didn't like that job because it helped me refocus what I was going to do next. So, I quit my job and I managed to snag a summer internship at The Globe and Mail, which was three and a half months. And, I had an amazing time. By the end of that summer, I was very lucky: someone had just quit. I managed to get hired into a full time position. I'm coming up on eight years at The Globe and Mail. As the years progressed, I tackled increasingly complicated stories and landed in a job that I absolutely love. Every day, I get to talk to people and ask interesting or difficult questions on a daily basis. I get to learn about something that I had no understanding of. 

The best thing I learned (at CSI) was how to speak up, find my voice, and convey my thoughts verbally in a constructive manner.

SR: What were the most important things that you learned in your time at CSI?

SF: The best thing I learned was how to speak up, find my voice, and convey my thoughts verbally in a constructive manner. During my MA, our professors made everyone who was going to a conference practice reading their papers. Thank God they did that because I stood in this practice room with my five peers and my professors for 45 minutes sounding like I was gonna cry while I read my paper. I did not know how to do public speaking. For me, that was the best thing I learned, and it's been invaluable for my corporate career.

TC: Stacey, I think you were my TA at one point. I'll be forthright here and admit that I was not the best student when I was in Cinema Studies. I don't know if Stacey remembers my grades, but I'm sure they were not that great.

SF: I remember you but I don't remember your grades.

SR: Tom, I nearly failed out of my own undergrad, so you can be a bad student and still figure out how to get a life.

TC: Other people wanted to become film scholars. I didn't have that same level of engagement. Instead, all of my engagement was being poured into working on stories. I would say that the film program taught me a lot about the structure and theory of storytelling. I try to explain Cinema Studies to people as English with film. There's a lot of critical theory. I end up going back to some of that stuff when I'm writing, structuring the story, especially something longer, or even structuring a conversation with someone. I find that I end up using those skills or techniques or experience a lot. The other thing that I would say came up a lot was similar to what Stacey was talking about, this dialectical approach, like verbal sparring that happened in the upper-level classes. I find that I'm constantly in the newsroom doing that with my colleagues, and we all enjoy a battle of words. That's something that I really owe to Cinema Studies.

SP: The most important thing I learned was that the film and TV industry is a business of taste. Anybody can read scripts, anybody can watch material, anybody can have a gut instinct reaction and say this is good or this is bad. What gives you value is how you specifically read material. You'll never watch as many films as you do in Cinema Studies classes, and I think the more you learn, the more you start to build a very well curated, very selective taste. And then, when you go into the industry, that taste is your superpower. It's what makes you stand out.

You gotta be able to articulate your taste, and then support why that taste overrules someone else’s taste. And I think that's the most important thing I learned at CSI: how to support my thesis. You do that every single day in the industry especially working development, like script development, you have to go into the room and pitch your ideas all the time: why this is important, why this feels relevant, why is it topical. I think it was Charlie Keil who said that Cinema Studies is about positioning a text within the history, in that cultural moment and why that is important. And I think that always stuck with me: anything I encounter now, I always think about what it means in the bigger picture. You don't learn that in film production with the cameras. You learn that in Cinema Studies where you learn critical thinking skills and theory.

For example, I took a class about the James Bond cannon. I learned that James is a figure of the British Empire and he’s an agent of cultural colonization. Now, whenever I come across the spy action thriller genre, I make sure we avoid those mistakes that were made with the Bond franchise. Other people wouldn't be able to describe that in a development meeting. I think in Cinema Studies, you're taught how to be eloquent in terms of being able to translate your thoughts and feelings into clear concise words.

There are so many ways to get involved, and I wish I was aware of that while I was in school so that I felt some sort of reassurance that I had a landing pad to land on after graduation.

SR: What do you wish you had done differently at Cinema Studies knowing what you know now?

TC: I was very worried about how Cinema Studies was going to apply to my career, but I didn't know what my career was going to be, so it was silly worry about that. I wish I had done a deep dive into my first and second year in Cinema Studies rather than approach it cautiously. 

The other thing I wish I had done differentlly was apply myself more in my classes. I think my interest in academia kind of waned at the same time as my interest in journalism and extracurriculars increased in my last year or two of university. I did struggle with that for a while before realizing it means that I'm figuring out what I want. This is not a bad thing. I definitely failed two courses in my last year of university because I forgot to go to the exams, because I was working so hard at the student paper. First and second year, I would have been mortified by that. But, by the time that happened, I said, "Oh well, I'll take a couple summer courses, it'll be fine. I'm not going to become a doctor or become a professor, so I'm OK. I don't need to worry about that."

SP: I wish I didn't panic so much. My entire academic career was just panic, and that was because I really didn't know what was waiting after graduation, especially in Cinema Studies. I felt so unfocused because I was acting and running to auditions between classes, and I was working at a law firm to pay the bills. In hindsight, that's the time to not specialize in anything.

Attend all the CSI guest speaker events because I have met so many mentors doing that. I wish I'd gone out more and tried working on a film set - it's all about networking, There are so many organisations in Toronto where you can get started in the industry. There's BIPOC Film & TV, Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT), Women in Film & TVReelworld, Canadian Film Centre. There are so many ways to get involved, and I wish I was aware of that while I was in school so that I felt some sort of reassurance that I had a landing pad to land on after graduation. Panic actually hindered a lot of my ambition, and it hindered a lot of my inspiration. Find that reassurance and focus on finding your voice during school. Don't be so impatient to have a niche or have a specialization just yet. It takes time.

SF: I really identify with what Solla said about feeling anxious about having it all figured out. All that heads-down time didn't let me look at all the options and opportunities. I am very introverted, and I wish I took advantage of the community. Like Tom got involved in the newspaper. I didn't do any of that. I was terrified to, like Solla said, connect with others, like filmmaking communities, or to be open to meet other people. What I've come to learn later in life is community is everything to your success. You don't know what you don't know yet, and you should go out and be open to seeking different kinds of opportunities, particularly when you have no idea what you want to do. That's the only way you can figure out what you want to do. I wish I was a little bit more open minded back then.

If there's any take away out of everything we said today, spend time building relationships even if there's not an immediate gratification out of that relationship.

SR: Anything that you feel like you want to say that you haven't had a chance to say?

SP: Just wanna emphasize that it takes time. Because when you send out 100 emails, and it might take an entire year or two years, someone's going to write back. You just have to play the statistical game of putting it all the way out there, and then hoping for one little catch to come back. The film industry is not like other industries where you're sending resumes through a portal, and you hear back and you get an interview. It's not like that at all. I once talked to a recruiter at Nickelodeon and she told me that every summer, they receive 20,000 resumes for the internships, and then during the fall and spring, it's 5000 because people are going to school, so it's less competition. There's just no way to cut through all that other than having someone you know flag you, and that's why networking is so important. And networking takes years. So don't feel like you need to have a job lined up if you want to work in film and TV. You don't have to have anything lined up after graduation. Just be patient, and just find other ways to find reassurance, whether it's writing your own things or working with other students in the meantime. But don't be discouraged when it doesn't happen right away.

SF: Yeah, I totally agree with that. To add to that, push yourself outside your comfort zone. You feel anxiety about creating. Create. You feel anxiety about networking. Oh, networking was the scariest word to me during my university time. So what I did was build a community to come to me and help me in my career. I volunteered my time. I started something. I found a niche that no one was serving, and I just worked to serve it, and then, that built my network. But to Solla’s point, that takes time. Meet people, and you never know when one connection might turn into something. I'll tell a personal story. My husband is trying to build a business for the first time. And my advice to him was like, "Who in your network can solve this problem?" You don't think about how to solve it. You think about who you know can help you solve it because I'm ignorant right now. He's now made all this progress because he consults with other people. If there's any take away out of everything we said today, spend time building relationships even if there's not an immediate gratification out of that relationship. Foster it over time. Because a year from now, two years from now, three years, four years from now, that relationship could turn into something that helps propel you to next level of whatever you want to achieve.

SP: Sorry, Tom, one last thing I just wanted to add about film and TV was: don't ever think that creative jobs are the only jobs out there. You can work in the industry in so many different capacities, and they don't teach you this in school. There's marketing. There’s business affairs. There’s research. There's PR. There is literally anything you can do in the industry because there are jobs for that. You can go from casting to public relations where you work with actors and celebrities. There are so many jobs in the film industry that are not creative, but those jobs are still creative because you're working with creative projects.

Also one little practical point: the Hollywood entertainment industry does not pay very well. Keep that in mind when you're starting out. Maybe have another job. 

TC: Especially for the people who are not dead set on cinema or film, just try as many different things as you can. While you're still in university especially, join clubs, attend events, go talk to people. Because you never know what you might find that will spark something or interest you. Journalism was a total accident for me. I got into it through photography. So, you never know what will happen. Keep your mind open, and try to expose yourself to as much as you can.