Renee Robinson: “There was a longing to be useful” | Own words

Renee Robinson on her work in the international film industry and as Jamaica’s film commissioner, and the great opportunities she sees for Caribbean film — as told to Caroline Taylor

  • A light moment at Kingston Creative Hub’s podcast studio in Jamaica. Photo courtesy Renee Robinson
  • Robinson with members of the Caribbean delegation at the Berlin International Film Festival and European Film Market in February. Photo courtesy Renee Robinson
  • Robinson on stage at a UNESCO convention on small island developing states, where she spoke about using the creative sectors as a driver for growth and development. Photo courtesy Renee Robinson
  • Robinson shares a laugh with actor/director Idris Elba, who directed his first feature film — Yardie — in Jamaica in 2018. Photo by Hugh Wright Photography, courtesy Renee Robinson

I’ve been in the film industry for almost 20 years now. My first degree is art history and art studio, and I did film and architecture at the time.

My real foray into film was when I left New York after Williams [College] and moved to Toronto. I was new in the country, and someone told me there was a diversity in media conference, supported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

I was a volunteer [assigned to Kit Redmond]. I decided I was gonna be the best volunteer she’d ever had. And at the end of the conference, she said to me, “You were such an amazing volunteer that if I ever have a job, I will make sure to call you.”

Six months passed. Then I get this phone call — it’s Kit. I didn’t know this at the time, but she happened to be one of the most acclaimed, awarded and renowned executive producers in Canada. So I started working for her in a very junior assistant role. But she took me under her wing, and said come fly with me.

I started out answering the phone and getting coffee. And by the time I left a few years later, I was developing pitch bibles and pitching new shows to the network. I’d been coming with her to all her important meetings, and she introduced me to all the key players. She created a space for me to be able to grow. And that was how I got my feet wet in the film industry.

So I’ve been on set, done producing, development work (creating financing and attaching talent); and worked with film festivals — particularly the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where I was their lead programmer for industry.

I did a joint MA/MBA (MA in communications and cultural policy, with a specialisation in telecom regulation; and MBA in arts management), and am currently an International Women’s Forum Global Leaders Fellow.

When the [Jamaica Film Commissioner] job became available, I was living in Italy … because Cameron Bailey, who’s from Barbados and is the CEO at TIFF — a total mastermind — had said to me, “Renee, I know you could get your job done from anywhere in the world. So go live wherever you want and just get your job done.”

Because I was getting cold! And I was just done. I’d been living in Canada for a while and feeling my spirit wasn’t being nourished. So I was living in Italy, working for TIFF, basically doing spring in Europe, summer and fall in Canada, and winter in Jamaica.

My mum sent me the job ad. I knew I couldn’t have seen myself returning home if not for a job like this. I came home because I wanted to be a part of building my country. There was a longing to be useful.

Culture and creativity are our competitive advantage — yet we’re treating them like they’re not our most valuable assets.

I’ve seen so many amazing projects shot in Jamaica that I feel so proud about. Obviously, the return of James Bond to Jamaica for its 25th edition — that was a highlight of my career.

I remember too we had Beyonce and Jay-Z here during their On the Run tour — the artwork was, like, a Texas longhorn cow …

It was a Sunday night and I get a phone call. The person says, “You is de flim commissioner?” They’re calling from the airport. And the guy says to me, “I have a dead cow here and we’re about to incinerate it.” And I was like, “Do not incinerate Jay-Z’s dead cow!”

Because apparently when it had arrived, it didn’t have its health permits from the Chief Veterinary Office. It’s a real threat, right? So here’s a skull used for set decoration, but needed its permits in order to leave the airport. And it was Sunday, everywhere was closed, and they were gonna throw Jay-Z’s dead cow into the incinerator.

So it took a bit of processing because they’re not necessarily accustomed to having to release things for film productions. And it’s a sensitisation process with some of the sister agencies so they can start to see — even though the film industry is not their core function — they also have a role to play to ensure this ecosystem is functioning, and that we’re grateful for their support.

That was really important to me from the beginning, because I looked at the lay of the land and was like, where’s our people, our training programmes, national support? Our screen fund? Our guild, our industry bodies? Where are our building blocks, which I’ve seen in countless iterations in every other mature and robust film economies?

So it started with JAFTA Propella, which I think many people across the region are familiar with now — a script-to-screen programme. But we’d never had anything like that before.

And there’s always a question about budget, right? But if this year we support five people and next year we support five people, and the year after we support five people, eventually we’re gonna have 50 films. And that was the philosophy. It’s intended for sustainability — not as a pilot programme run for two years or three years then gets defunded, which is what happens all over the region.

So the training is one component — and script development, producing, production financing. They get mentorship, and there’s marketing festival strategy, sales and distribution, market attendance. So it takes you through the full cycle. Propella is only one of several talent discovery programs I was running.

What we’ve done is used that as a feeder program. Propella [alumni] are now more eligible and qualified to be advanced to a different type of programme afterwards. So there’s a path. And I think that was what was transformative in developing the local ecosystem.

I also worked on the Jamaica Screen Fund for five years — the Ministry of Finance announced [its establishment in March, just before my tenure ended] … It’s now part of my legacy. It was designed to identify public sources of funding for local and co-produced content, structured in what’s called a trigger fund.

It’s literally there to pump some stimulant into the economy through the creative economy, which we know has a much larger spillover effect than most other industries. It’s like a five per cent economic multiplier. And that’s when it’s under-reported, because we don’t have proper data in the region. Culture and creativity are our competitive advantage — yet we’re treating them like they’re not our most valuable assets.

When you look at movie credits, that’s all the jobs created. And not just in production. There’s skilled labour, technical labour, and creative labour in the production process. But there’s also carpenters, construction workers, hairdressers, and persons not necessarily dedicated to the film industry, but when there is a film, they’re all scooped up and need to be on set. So I think the economic linkages are becoming a little bit clearer.

We’re at this point now where I think some of the things that need to happen are institutional shifts in the private sector. It requires individuals who understand both creative and business, and being able to implement those types of structural changes within institutions that are auxiliary to the film industry — whether it’s the banking sector, private wealth management, a fund, insurance …

Even when a project wants to come and pitch to an investor, they often don’t have a proper deck outlining financials, comparatives with other projects of a similar size and scope … So there’s a gap there.

I think we’re also not aware of all the avenues to find funding. So there’s work to be done there — even just creating the toolkit so people know this is how you apply for this money.

There’s a gap too in terms of sales — there’s not a single sales agent in the Caribbean. And again, these are private sector opportunities — not government. These are business and entrepreneurial opportunities. And they are the gaps that are not allowing us to advance.

This whole relationship with Netflix and Africa … They’ve designed development programmes, talent discovery programmes, partnerships with individual companies that now have first-look deals … Everything that they produce is through Netflix.

And it’s not just Netflix. There are multiple studios, platforms, wealth management entities internationally that are keen to tap into the Caribbean region. But they need structure of access.

If we’re not creating film-friendly institutions and skilled below-the-line technical teams so productions don’t have to fly in all their electricians or set designers; and not making sure that there is in fact an ecosystem for the development of local content, then those projects are not gonna come here. They’re gonna go somewhere else. With or without the incentives.

The film industry is two things. It is attraction of big projects, and it is the development of local ecosystems, which then results in visibility, cultural branding, and cultural capital.

I’ve been the film commissioner for Jamaica, and the chair of the Caribbean association of film commissioners, and on the board for the Association of Film Commissioners International.

And what I’ve observed is you have just Jamaica, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic with enough infrastructure, people, equipment, institutions — though we’re still all growing — that can actually generate revenue from the industry.

We’re a region of 45 million people; just the anglophone Caribbean is [six million]. And people say we need eyeballs, right? If we coalesce, can operate as a region, and move with force — then we’ll actually be able to move the needle.


Editor’s note: This article has been updated since its publication to correct the spelling of Kit Redmond’s name.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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