Mentorship for Talents from Underrepresented Groups

Formal and informal mentorship has existed within film and television for years but the need for tailored mentorship has become more pressing as the industry is recognizing the need to develop storytellers and crafts people from underrepresented communities (i.e. Black, People of Colour, LGBTQ2+ and Persons with Disabilities).  

Recently Canadian funders have created  programs to spark the production of a greater diversity of content, like Telefilm’s Development stream for Racialized Persons and the CMF’s Black and People of Colour Sector Development Support. Bell Media, Corus and Rogers now require the use of as a condition of greenlight.

Is there a large enough talent pool with the skills and experience necessary to be able to successfully take advantage of the new interest in stories and talent from underrepresented communities or is the industry pushing people to leapfrog over training and experience and risk failure? How can mentorship help tackle those issues?

What is Mentorship?

Mentorship is distinct from skills training or education, though it can contribute to both. Joan Jenkinson, Executive Director of the Black Screen Office, defines a mentor as “an individual who takes a personal interest in your career, gives advice and helps you make connections.”  Warren Sonoda, National President of the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC), sees mentorship as one of the five pillars necessary to “help young voices become old voices”, namely: “data collection, outreach into communities to build trust, reducing barriers to access, mentorship and training and levelling up”.

Mentorship can be a formal, structured program or an informal arrangement between two people. As an example of a formal program, the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA) has been running mentorship programs for 25 years, with the goal to “provide training opportunities in the screen-content industry to ensure continuous workplace skills development and the injection of new talent into the workforce” according to an email response from Sarolta Csete, Director of Development and Corporate Affairs, who runs the CMPA’s mentorship programs.

Since 2003 they have offered a number of mentorship programs that target members of BIPOC communities as well as programs for Persons with Disabilities (e.g. CMPA Diversity Mentorship Program and the NFB Mediamakers Mentorship Program for producers living with disabilities) and they intend to continue to run them on their own or in partnership with organizations that work on behalf of individuals from underrepresented communities. The CMPA programs place mentees in paid placements that are tailored to the agreed upon work plan of the mentor company and mentee. The mentor company receives a wage subsidy that reduces the risk of working with emerging talent. Their programs are successful with 85% of mentees still working in the industry and many are now CMPA members, award winners and CMPA Board members. 

Kulbinder Saran Caldwell runs REALLIFE Pictures, a literary agency representing diverse, neurodiverse and LGBTQ screenwriters. She prefers coaching to mentorship as coaching is on demand and can be tailored to the needs of the individual. She ran a coaching business for female filmmakers of colour before pivoting to the talent agency. This year the talent agency developed an inhouse career development program that helped screenwriters work on their IP and connect them with more experienced screenwriters. The participants became “more confident in their writing, knew how to present themselves and their POV and ended up with a pilot script that they could take to market” said Saran Caldwell. It has been a successful program that has resulted in 23 jobs to date though at levels that do not yet recoup the agency’s investment in their talent. However, as Saran Caldwell says, “as a woman of colour I am looking at this as for the betterment of my community and not just myself. I want to set the next generation up for success” though she is hoping that the business becomes self-sustaining. 

Mentorship, a tool to boost inclusiveness

Jackie Batsudinka, Executive Assistant to Nathalie Younglai at BIPOC TV and Film, has experience with formal and informal mentorship. She participated in the Black Women Film! Leadership Program and valued it because “I was part of a group of Black women from various experience levels who learned together and from each other.” That sense of community was important. She also valued her experience shadowing Production Manager Moe Rai on the second season of “Tall Boyz”. In that instance, Rai found money in the budget for a paid mentorship and received approval from the producers. Batsudinka felt that as a POC himself, Rai knew the position she was in and was able to create an inclusive environment. 

For the mentorships in question, does a mentor have to be from the same identity as the mentee or at least also underrepresented? For Jenkinson, “there aren’t enough senior Black talent for that to be practical”. The Black Women Film! Leadership Program used Black mentors but also those with “a track record of allyship”. For Sonoda, while it is up to individuals to show initiative and take advantage of opportunities, it is up to the industry as a whole, regardless of identity “to reduce barriers to access. If you are experienced you need to take it upon yourself to help others, connect with others.”  In his experience, there is no shortage of DGC members of various identities willing to do that. 

Batsudinka cautions though that “with the growing push for more diversity on set, more white producers and filmmakers are making room for mentorship in the last few months but they need to know what they are getting into.” For example, a person with a different experience or world view might not have gone to film school. They may also have family responsibilities that prevent them from participating in unpaid programs. Batsudinka and others interviewed strongly encouraged the industry to get to know the communities so that they understand needs and barriers before undertaking mentorship or creating a program. 

Limits and potential solutions

There are a lot of mentorship programs available, but there also appear to be gaps. One in particular is on the business side of production, where there is a real lack of BIPOC representation. According to Jenkinson “There has been no pipeline for Black talent to make it to senior executive positions in the industry. Broadcasters now want Black senior executives but there are few on that path. We need to accelerate that pipeline.” On the other hand, Batsudinka thinks “If we can’t find people in the sector, go outside.”

Without knowledge of how business works (e.g. incorporation, chain of title, finding a producer or executive producer) it is challenging to take advantage of the funding programs that are appearing. For Shonna Foster, who oversees the Youth and Emerging Talent Initiatives at BIPOC TV and Film, the challenge right now is that emerging creatives are experiencing barriers to access these programs and these barriers can be as simple as Internet access, money to pay for incorporation and understanding the vocabulary of the business of film and television. “People need help with soft skills like how to navigate the system.”

Finally, Jenkinson says the mentorship needs to “go further than advice and provide real world experience. We need to help them get their foot through the door.” Then, when they have made the right connections, “it is massively important that Black creatives own their IP, that when they work with senior producers it isn’t taken away”. She would prefer to see experienced producers take a minority ownership position on a project rather than full ownership as they mentor a less experienced Black studio.

While organizations learn more about the needs of the communities being addressed and adjust their programs, experienced individuals can take steps to reach out, open doors and provide paid experience, advice and relationship building. As Saran Caldwell says “we need to be seen, to belong and to receive fair compensation for our work.” “As an industry we are stronger and better when all participate” says Sonoda. 

Kelly Lynne Ashton
Trained as an entertainment lawyer, Kelly Lynne Ashton has been working in the Canadian film, television and digital media industries for over twenty-five years. She has worked as a business affairs executive in several Toronto television production and distribution companies, including Atlantis Films Limited and the Owl Group of Companies. Kelly Lynne then entered the world of digital media to act as Senior Producer at children’s web studio Big Orbit Inc. While at Big Orbit she also developed, managed and marketed the online youth research company Reactorz. She has also worked in government relations and media policy as Director of Policy at the Writers Guild of Canada. Kelly Lynne is currently bringing together the different strands of her career in the Canadian media industries - legal, business, marketing and research - and providing consulting services to clients in all areas of the industry including evaluation services for various funds, authoring research reports and programming industry conferences. Kelly Lynne obtained a Certificate in Leadership and Inclusion from Centennial College and now provides clients with diversity and inclusion consulting services.
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