CSI Alumni reveal how they got from here to there

March 20, 2019 by Denise Ing

On February 14, Cinema Studies Institute alumni spoke to a packed room of students about their careers in the film industry and how their CSI degrees helped get them there. Radheyan Simonpillai, Film and Culture Critic for Now Magazine, "Your Morning" on CTV, and CBC Radio, was a member of the first CSI Master of Arts cohort in 2007. Erin Ray, Associate and Creative Producer at Z Films, graduated as a Cinema Studies Specialist in 2017. Magali Simard, Film Sector Development Officer for the City of Toronto, was the former senior manager of theatrical programming at TIFF, and graduated as a Cinema Studies Specialist in 2006. Prof. James Cahill moderated the panel of "hotshots and go-getters". Edited and condensed excerpts from the panel discussion follow.

Prof. James Cahill: Tell us a little about what your day at work looks like.

Radheyan Simonpillai: I have no typical day. The most typical day is watching a movie in the morning, go home and write about that or some other assignment, probably another movie to see in the evening, and booking different interviews and stories. Come Friday, which is 'TV Day', I do movie reviews with Ben Mulroney on "Your Morning", come home to do some more writing; 12 hours later, another bit on CTV News. Maybe I'll have some radio in between the day. There's no one typical day.

Erin Ray: There's no typical day with my job either. Z Films is not actually a company; it's a single director. What's amazing about my job is that I get to start my day with having a coffee with my director. We take that time to plan out the week, look at the schedule of tasks and decipher what is a priority, who do we need to reach out to, to make sure everything is getting done on time. Our documentary is about the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and how it affected four women's lives. There are so many important people you're dealing with to make a film that is very politically charged, so you have to be very cautious in terms of relationships and the wording in contracts. I handle every detail from the budget to talking with the International Olympic Committee, which is really intense and scary, to talking with our cinematographer.

Magali Simard: Film development for a jurisdiction like Toronto means attracting production to the city. Toronto is immensely popular as a film location. Half of the $2 billion investment in Toronto is foreign, typically American. How do we make that even bigger? One of the issues that Toronto has is that we are full; "Star Trek: Discovery", Shazam!, "The Handmaid's Tale" and other major productions have taken up so much space. So, when we go to LA in April with the Mayor, I am pitching half a milliion square feet of studio space that will be built in the next three years. Parallel to that, I'm working with the unions to see how many more workers will be needed in those spaces. The flip side of that is to keep Toronto happy. There's a lot of work to be done with elected officials on messaging to the public to show the benefits of the film industry and instill a sense of pride that The Shape of Water was made here. I would say you are the middle man for city council, the film industry, and residents.

JC: If we can go back in time to when you were just finishing school, how did you make the transition to getting a first job and angle it into your current profession?

ER: I knew that I loved film, and that it's an extremely hard industry to get into. In my first year of university, I started working for a digital production agency for free, for six months. I wanted to learn and see what was out there. From there, I continued on in the Cinema Studies Specialist degree, and I had the opportunity to work with the amazing Prof. Kass Banning as her assistant. That really gave me an opportunity to look deeper into what the school can offer, such as an event like this, and the importance of being a part of that community. In my third year of university, I was offered a job as a production coordinator at Jam3. I brought the time management and writing skills to the job. I have been fortunate enough to keep working since graduating in my fifth year. Don't be scared to work during university.

MS: I graduated in 2006, and I was extremely lucky: two weeks later, I got an internship at TIFF. I have to admit, I did not really have a plan. I would not advise anyone to do what I did.

JC: What was your internship at TIFF?

MS: I rolled posters. We shipped film posters across the country for screenings on the film circuit. I did other stuff, but that's how I remember it. After the two months internship, I got a paid contract that ended up leading to my career.

One thing I wish I did better in the year and a half before graduating was to start going to industry events, not just academia events. Look into the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, Women in Film & Television, Directors Guild of Canada, TIFF Industry, Hot Docs Industry, and Canadian Media Producers Association. They have very cheap memberships, and suddenly, you're on these invite lists for a lot events. You get involved with a different group, and you see how much larger the industry is, and how many more options and types of jobs there are. I was lucky to get what I got very fast after graduation, but networking is the part that I think you can start with.

RS: When I was doing my undergrad, I was also the film critic for The Varsity for two or three years for free. By being The Varsity's film critic, the studios were giving me interviews with celebrities so it was a lot of exposure. While I was doing the MA program, the film critic for Now Magazine, John Harkness died, and there was an opening. I became a contributing film critic after sending them my list of Top Ten Films of 2007. I was also writing for AskMen.com when CBC came along, and then CTV. I only got my staff position at Now Magazine last Fall. Last year, I was peddling fish off the back of a truck while I was being a film critic on TV.

It's really hard to be a film critic. There's not a lot of openings and a lot of people want you to write for free, forever. I can't just say I'm a film critic; I'm also a culture writer. I can't just say I review movies, I also write more industry related and bigger picture articles.

MS: It's an industry that has morphed a lot through the years. Certain jobs that people could make a career out of have been reduced to contract work. I don't envy the lifestyle of people who go from festival to festival, catching up to six contracts a year. Becoming a full-time film critic or film programmer might still happen, but there are just not a lot of opportunities.

RS: The idea of a full-time film critic will not exist after me. The Toronto Film Critics Association has 40 members; five of them are making a living as a film critic. When they retire, those newspapers are not going to hire a full-time film critic. They're going to piece off different articles to different people. As a film critic, I am on TV, I am doing this event, I'm going to host a film screening at TIFF after this - I'm doing a bunch of different things. The job of the film critic is not going to exist the way we have known it to exist, and it's up to you guys to figure out how it will exist.

JC: What are some of the things you learned in class that you were able to translate into your work?

MS: U of T and Cinema Studies totally changed my life. English is my second language and writing essays was tougher than I expected. Being able to absorb a lot of information and push it out succinctly and cohesively became the most important asset to me. As a programmer at TIFF, I had to explain in the fewest amount of paragraphs why an audience should pay money for this film. Now in my current job, I am constantly briefing people. A small example is explaining why we are stopping the traffic at Yonge and Dundas during rush hour. It is because this production is that important to the city. On a larger scale, why should we rezone a part of the city for film employment and not a condo? All this comes from being good at analysis, and that is 100% what the University did for me.

RS: My film education is part of my everyday life. I can't write anything about film without the confidence that I got from everything I learned here. Starting with the undergrad program, in terms of the history of film and all the styles, that is what gave me the language to be able to write about movies.The MA program was a life changing experience for me. The type of seminars we had, the conversations that we had, that really pushed my ability to think critically and to take the argument further. Those are the skills that I apply when I'm looking at the industry, and writing articles outside of my field. Everything I learned here is something I use on a day-to-day basis.

ER: Completely agree. Writing an email to a client and knowing that your grammar is perfect, the sentences are concise, getting your point across in a clear way is so crucial. CIN301Y1 - Film Cultures II can be really intense and film theory is ridiculous, but it was one of the most amazing things about this degree. I value Film Cultures II so much as a creative producer. I still have all my readings from CIN301Y1, because I think it is such an important way to understand how viewers watch film. Another thing is learning about different nations. In Canada, we do so many co-productions. Understanding what other countries are doing, and how their film system works, is so crucial. Currently, we're in development with a filmmaker from Tehran and she is not allowed to make the film in Iran, because of the subject matter. She is getting funding from Dutch and Canadian producers.

JC: Knowing now what you know, any opportunities you wish you had taken or things you wish you had learned in university?

RS: The setback that I had was that I had no exposure to journalism, website building, or speaking publicly. Those are the things I wish I had learned earlier: the practical stuff. I said film criticism is not going to be the way it existed in the past; look at the way it is existing now: those people who are cutting YouTube videos, deep diving on films and animating it for regular audiences to understand - that could be the future. Have the practical skills that you'll need when you apply for a job.

ER: In my last year, I was so excited about having a job in the industry that I didn't spend enough time enjoying school. I'm ready to come back and do my Masters just because I want to be here. I really wish I spent more time in my last year here.

MS: A film program does not owe it to you to show you all the jobs that exist. It is your job to think, "Why am I accumulating this knowledge of film history and film analysis? In what ways will I utilize this?" Academia or film production or arts management will all be served by the fact that you're here. It's good to start thinking about what those avenues might be, and to meet people in those fields. I guess you've done the right thing by coming to this event on a day like today.