CSI Alumni Diana Sanchez, Karam Masri and JP Larocque return for panel discussion

March 5, 2020 by Denise Ing

A panel of Cinema Studies Institute alumni returned to speak with current students about their careers in the film industry and how their Cinema Studies degrees helped get them there. JP Larocque is a writer whose work includes the Netflix Originals series, "Slasher" and "Another Life," and the OUTtv digital series, "Gay Nerds." Their short films Neutered (2015) and Where We Were (2017) screened at the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. JP graduated as a Cinema Studies Major in 2006. Karam Masri is Consultant of Industry Initiatives (Film & TV) at Ontario Creates, a provincial agency that is the central catalyst in Ontario for cultural media including film and television. She completed the Cinema Studies Specialist program in 2012. Diana Sanchez is Senior Director of Film at the Toronto International Film Festival. She was the Spanish language film selector for TIFF and is the former Artistic Director of the Panama Film Festival, which she helped launch in 2011. Diana completed a Master of Arts in Cinema Studies in 2014. Prof. Angelica Fenner moderated the panel. Edited and condensed excerpts from the panel discussion follow. 

Prof. Angelica Fenner: What does a typical day look like for you?

Diana Sanchez: It's a lot more boring than when I was a programmer. I used to wake up, make my coffee, then sit in front of the TV and watch movies. That was the beginning of my career. Now, my career has turned into a lot of meetings, but I'm finding ways to make them more productive and work well with the teams. I'm doing a course at Rotman across the street called GettingItDone; it's a management system course, What we're doing right now is implementing a lot of systems like Monday morning action lists, and finding ways to prioritize time, getting a lot of buy in. My job is not just programming, it's getting everyone else on board so they support your programming decisions. So, I spend a lot of time in meetings. It's fun in a different way, but it's very administrative. But, once March hits, a lot of my day is spent watching films. 

A lot of my time is also making sure that the next generation of film programmers has a lot of support. I met one of them while I was doing my Masters here: Kiva Reardon. With the programming team, people will cry at meetings, because they're watching movies that are very impactful. It is my job to help the programmers process that; it's an emotionally engaging job. I have about 16 programmers; a few are my colleagues and it's more of a mutually supportive role, and then, with the younger programmers, I get to be mama duck. 

I just got to the job (of Senior Director) nine months ago. We have totally restructured. This is the hard part. Anything that you start is going to be tiring; there's a steep learning curve. As I get my team in place and trained, it's a lot more smooth. I'm looking forward to a year from now. 

Karam Masri: Ontario Creates is a provincial agency that funds the cultural sectors of Ontario. So that would be film and television, which is my domain, but also music, interactive digital media, and book and magazine publishing. Some examples include films like Room and The Shape of Water, and artists like Drake. My role as the Film and TV Program Consultant is to manage the film fund production and development programs that we have in addition to industry development like funding the industry components of major film fesitvals like TIFF and Hot Docs. 

It's a government job: a mix of meetings and client facing tasks like taking phone calls or meeting with potential applicants. If there's a major film festival that we fund happening, then we would be attending the event. You're meeting with multiple stakeholders, clients and organizations. So, it's not a typical government job in that it's not 9 to 5. It extends into evenings and weekends. 

JP Larocque: I long for that structure to be imposed upon me. My work right now is primarily in TV writing and journalism. Both require self-structured time. If I'm working on a show, generally there's a development room where a group of writers will come together for a couple of weeks or so. We work together to conceptualize a show, break, decisions are made by higher-ups, then we come back together in a formal room for a couple of weeks or even months depending on how much money is invested in the show. After that, each writer is sent off to work on an outline and a script. When a show ends, it's a bit of a hustle. You're either working on your own samples or pilots, or self-producing your own content. Or, you're setting up meetings with broadcasters or production companies, and you're either pitching ideas that you have, or you're getting a sense of what they're working on and see if you're a good fit for it. And then, there are other development rooms for shows that don't go to air. I supplement all of that with journalism, because I love to write. 

Screenwriting is writing a blueprint; you are creating something that a lot of other wonderful creators are going to shape in their own way. There is no guarantee that it will look exactly like how you conceived it. What that means though is that the process between your writing and its eventual onscreen appearance is usually quite staggered. With journalism, what I love about it is that it's storytelling, and it's just you, the medium and the audience. I'll pitch to newspapers and magazines about different ideas and concepts that pertain to pop culture, or film and television. A lot of it is informed by my experiences and critical understanding that I gained from Cinema Studies. It is applying a lens, whether it be a feminist lens or a queer lens, to some pop culture artifact, and there really is a market for that right now. 

DS: How did you get that first start in a writer's room?

JPL: Coming out of Cinema Studies, I was very excited about engaging creatively with the industry. I made my way in by taking all sorts of odd jobs. I was in casting and development in reality television. All the while, I was writing, screenwriting, building and self-producing. I self-produced a webseries called "Gay Nerds," which came out in 2012. I used that as a calling card for myself. For anyone who's having trouble getting their foot in the door or making connections with industry people, the best thing that you can do is self-produced content whether that's a short or a webseries. That lead to screenwriting workshops and industry events. OUTtv picked up "Gay Nerds." Then some writers wanted to see my work and I got into a room. 

A lot of my friends who I came up with in Cinema Studies had similar passions. So, when I was making my webseries, and I was working with a specific budget, a lot of friends stepped up and were able to offer their skills. That also allowed them to gain credits. So, it was a mutually uplifting experience. 

DS: Karam, do you have funds at Ontario Creates for webseries?

KM: That would fall into the Interactive Digital Media side, and I believe we have a fund called Production and Concept Definition. Because the mandate of Ontario Creates is economic impact, a lot of our funds are shaped towards mid-level producers. I would say for someone starting off doing a webseries, a fund that would be more applicable would be Independent Production Fund. It helps to go first to the smaller independent funds first, then come to us once you have a couple of things under your belt. 

AF: Could you share your transition time between graduation and your dream job, and how you navigated that? 

DS: It is not a straight line. I moved to Barcelona, because I wanted to learn Spanish for a year. Somehow, that turned into 14 years. I came back to Toronto, and a friend was working at the TIFF Guest Office, and he asked me to come help out; they had some problems with some Argentine filmmakers. So, I helped these guys out, and didn't think anything of it. The next year, I was hanging out in my Barcelona apartment, and the phone rang. They asked me if I would be interested in coming to work for the summer in the TIFF Guest Office. I started in the Guest Office for three years, and in my first year, I got invited to work at the Rotterdam Film Festival. From there, I started getting job offers at different film festivals until in 2001, I was offered to be the Associate Programmer for Spain, Latin America and Caribbean Cinema. When my mentor passed away, Piers Handling asked me if I wanted the job of International Programmer for TIFF. 

I did live out of a suitcase for many years. I would stay in a city for a month, build a program, or build their guest office, or whatever they needed building, and I would do the festival then head back to Barcelona or Toronto. 

After the kids, I did settle down for a few years. After having my first child, I really wanted some time to reflect, because I was watching so many films and I wasn't taking any time to write about them. That's when I did my Master's here. It has been extremely helpful to my career, because when you're hiring someone to oversee a film festival, you want some gravitas to their CV. For me, because I did write a Master's paper about how film festivals have been transforming filmmakers' aesthetic choices especially in Latin American film, which was my niche, that was very helpful to have a new way of looking at the films I was programming rather than just slap them on the screen for 10 days and then it's over. I had a chance to go back and look at the past 10 years of what I've been doing, which I'm very grateful for. It's really informed my work and enriched it a lot. 

KM: I was definitely spun into an existential crisis after graduating in 2012. That was the year of unpaid internships. Honestly, the dream was to be a film director. I went to Jordan to shoot my first short film, because I'm Middle Eastern and that's what I wanted to have in my portfolio. I came back to Toronto, and while doing the unpaid internships, I applied to film production grad schools in the US and Canada, and got into a few. I went to Prof. James Cahill for advice, and he advised me to let the schools know that I had been accepted into multiple schools. It lead to York University offering me a full scholarship for the MFA in Film program.

I chose to go with the York MFA in Film Production two year program. In my first semester, I realized that there was this element of managing people and a production that was not being taught. Purely by luck, Schulich MBA came to our MFA cohort and offered a unique dual Master's three year program. Schulich School of Business has an Arts, Media and Entertainment Management specialist, which is exactly what I wanted. In my first year at the MFA, I studied for my GMAT, then I applied to Schulich, and got in. In the span of three years, my projects were a short film and a dissertation for the MFA portion, and for the MBA portion, it was an eight month consultation project with a Toronto-based animation company. It was so incredible in terms of helping me understand how organizations and people function in the production and corporate realms. 

I started working for the Bell Fund, which is a funder for interactive digital media projects and web series and television shows. What helped me get there was obviously the joint degrees, but also networking, which I found very necessary even as somebody who is highly anxious. You need to take advantage of networking opportunities. Just have one-on-one conversations with people if you're not comfortable wtih group situations. Take some time to research and see what you want to do. Find out who are the key people working in the field, find them on LinkedIn, send that person an email to request an information session. I would say the approach is not to say, "Hi, can I pick your brain?" Some people are afraid that you want things from them. It's more like, "Hi, I would love to take you out for coffee and just ask you a couple of questions about what you do in your company."

You need to immerse yourself in the film community and know the people there. It really is based on your hard work, but also, who you know. Get to know your peers. 

JPL: After I finished Cinema Studies, I just wanted to go out into the world and live. It was a couple of years of odds jobs that eventually lead into the film industry. I was working as an assistant for a producer. Simultaneous to working in the industry, I kept in touch with my education and it was informing my creative work. I went to Second City and did comedy writing courses. I went to George Brown and did screenwriting courses. I did Continuing Education courses at U of T. I got into casting in reality television, which was wild ride. I was on a reality television show, "1 Girl 5 Gays". I was one of the gays, obviously. 

After that, I felt I had invested enough time into my creative journey and I should just make something. I self-produced my webseries and that kickstarted my entry into scripted. I started going to networking events and connecting with different people, was called into a few different development rooms, and built relationships from there. Those people invited me into their rooms when they had shows that were greenlit. 

With journalism, I had been doing various forms of journalism right out of school. I wanted to synthesize and talk about things that I had watched and interacted with. I would tailor my writing to the needs of whichever platform would have me.

Who you know really helps you, which I know sounds really daunting and weird from the outside. People who I worked with as a producer's assistant 12 years ago are people who set up meetings for me now. People who are comedy writers who I worked with at Second City 10 years ago are people who I interact and collaborate with now. 

We like to formulate a clear narrative path for ourselves in life. I did not do this and I found life to be messier. Each step along the way still took me towards the thing that I wanted to do. 

KM: It just shows that being in the creative field in Toronto is a much smaller world than you think it is. It's always a community effort so always treat people with respect and work with integrity. Some people come to the idea that they have a vision and they will do it by themselves, but a film is made with a team. 

AF: Were there particular skill sets from your time at Cinema Studies that you see very clearly feeding into the work that you do now?

DS: Writing! I have to write film notes, program notes, introductions. You need writing endurance to write something more thoughtful. Some people are afraid of writing. I try to get them to ignore that inner critic that is telling you that everything you write is terrible. Research! Those research skills are integral to my current job. Of course, time management skills. 

It is also important when you're working in film to be able to talk about film, which we do a lot in class. When filmmakers are speaking with you, and they notice that you understand why their film is good or can articulate that, that really helps your relationship. 

KM: What I found also valuable to me were the extracurriculars. I was very heavily involved with CINSSU, which was helpful, because you're interacting with numerous organizations outside of U of T. We were communicating with eOne and other film distributors, so you get used to getting your name out there and knowing the contacts. You also work out through extracurriculars whether they are the right fit or not. You get to know where your strengths are and where your weaknesses are. 

JPL: For me, deadlines are a huge thing. My entire life is deadlines whether it is journalism or working on a script. Cinema Studies definitely laid the groundwork for me of moving through anxieties. The other thing I found incredibly valuable at Cinema Studies was being able to contextualize and analyze, to have a critical lens. To add context in a writer's room is a skill that not a lot of writers have if they've only learned the practical. 

DS: One of the things that really helped me was public speaking. We did a small conference here at Innis and that really helped. That was really outside of my comfort zone. The only way to do it is by getting up there and doing it. 

Student question: Did you ever encounter any difficulties from family and friends about what you want to do in Cinema Studies?

DS: My parents, because they are immigrants, were not happy. They have no idea what I do and it drives me a little bit nuts. It's very difficult to communicate what I do with my parents. The only time they're happy is during the film festival when (my mother) goes to all the films. 

KM: My parents are immigrants as well. We're Palestinian - a conservative Muslim family - and we grew up in Saudia Arabia. We moved here to start undergrad, and I'm a triplet so we all started undergrad at the same time. My sister started in Commerce. My brother started in software engineering. I did Cinema Studies. It was hard for (my parents) to get. I tried to appeal to their sense of logic by making a PowerPoint presentation with budget information to get their permission for the MFA. I definitely had to convince them, because their understanding of film was everyone snorting cocaine in between sets. I was like, "No, mother, it's a business. Time is money." They calmed down once I did the MBA. 

Once I showed them that I was passionate about what I was doing, and took them to things that remind them of home, like the Toronto Palestinian Film Festival, and clearly, it's a lucrative career, they eventually accepted it. They worked so hard to get you here so they want to make sure that you're happy, but also financially stable. 

JPL: Really just building off of that answer; I'm gay on top of it. I made no sense to (my parents), and I still don't. Growing up in an environment where you feel that an arts career is not a viable path, can make you think that it is not. It is (a viable career path), but it is a challenging path that requires resilience and a lot of hustle. When it pays off, the rewards often far exceed the traditional careers that our parents want us to have. Yes, I wrote a graphic murder sequence for a horror show that (my parents) don't understand, but I made really good money and I'm really happy. 

With my mother being an immigrant, it's an uphill battle to explain (my career) to someone who put their entire life in a suitcase to move to another country to build a life. When you show the hard work and you show the results, they understand. Sometimes they don't understand, but you have to do what makes you happy. 

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