4 Ways to Get Started in Calgary’s Film Industry

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Last week, Matt and I got the opportunity to be Guest Lecturers for SAIT’s Film & Video Production program’s 1st year students. It turned into a 2-hour Q&A, and we were surprised to find it didn’t stray far from “how to get started in Calgary’s film industry” (specifically what to do after graduation).

Luckily for SAIT students, they have a bit of direction ahead of them. However we know many people in Calgary are interested in making movies, but have no idea where to start — this industry can seem extremely inaccessible. The good news is, while it will take some work, it’s actually not that hard to get started!

Here are four routes that Matt and I have taken on our paths from High School to where we are now. Of course there are many more options and these routes aren’t mutually exclusive — your path can (and should) involve a blend of many.

Route 1 – Just Make Something!

This is good advice for anybody starting out. In an industry of big talkers, all it takes to call yourself a director (or screenwriter, or producer) is a business card or a keyboard…or just a beret. Actually having a finished project under your belt will instantly set you apart from the not-so-serious.

The best part about this route is how accessible it is these days — you can make a movie on your smartphone! Don’t know where to start? Google “How to (insert role) a movie”. Write a script, ask your friends to act for a few hours, shoot it, edit it, post it on YouTube. There, you’re a filmmaker! Naysayers will call me a liar, “it’s not that easy!”. Yes it is.

A young Scott making his first no-budget feature.

If you want to focus on something specific, like screenwriting, then write a script! You’d be shocked at how many screenwriters haven’t written screenplays. Don’t know how? Let me Google that for you.

Some great resources for route 1 are the CSIF (Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers), Quickdraw Animation Society and EMMEDIA. These folks have mandates to help independent and new artists (you!), so give them a call and find out how you can get involved.

  • Our Experience
    I made an epic fantasy feature right out of High School. My friends were saints, giving up their weekends for a whole summer, my girlfriend was cool enough to play the “princess love interest” with a bunch of nerds, and we shot it on a handycam in the forests around Cochrane. It wasn’t great, but it was still a movie. And that’s what counts.

    Matt and I also followed this route right out of SAIT, making short films and web series in our spare time. We continue to do so, and eventually, as Producers, Writers and Directors, this route will ideally become a full time job!

Route 1 Strengths

– Incomparable learning opportunities
– Ability to demonstrate a finished project
– Effective in gauging how much you actually like this stuff

Route 1 Weaknesses

– Can be expensive
– Generally requires calling in a lot of favours
– Not necessarily effective in getting your name out there


 

Route 2 – Go to Film School

The University of Calgary offers a Film Studies program, but we highly recommend SAIT Polytechnic’s Film & Video Production program. SAIT and its instructors are largely responsible for a majority of Calgary’s industry professionals working today. The hands-on, small-classroom format is focused less on film theory and more on the practical craft of filmmaking —far more helpful when looking for a job out of school.

Matt Scott SAIT Set

Matt and Scott at SAIT

SAIT’s FVP program isn’t easy to get into (they accept 30 students from about 400+ applicants), so it’s probably best to get an edge by starting with Route 1. You can also take advantage of the “2+2 Program” and apply your 2-year SAIT diploma towards a degree in Communications at the UofC.

Regardless of which institution you choose, you’ll get several things out of going to film school (Spoiler alert: the formal education isn’t at the top of the list):

  • In the film industry, as in most, it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know. After film school, you’ll graduate with a group of great friends and contacts who will progress in the industry with you. Suddenly you’ve got 30+ contacts to tap into right as you’re getting started. That’s a powerful advantage, and a great reason to make friends at school.
  • At SAIT, you’ll also have access to the program’s equipment, removing a huge barrier for new filmmakers.
  • You’ll have an (invaluable) opportunity to experiment and make mistakes that could be disastrous in a professional context. It’s a chance to play and learn without the pressures of a “real” production environment.
  • Our Experience
    Matt and I met at SAIT, and became friends when we specialized in the Producer/Director stream in our 2nd year. Full Swing wouldn’t exist without the relationships we built with each other and our fellow classmates who were willing to help on our first projects out of school.

Route 2 Strengths

– Great opportunity to practice and diversify your skillset
– You’ll graduate with work you can show
– You’ll have a great contacts right out of school

Route 2 Weaknesses

– Can be expensive
– You’ll graduate thinking you know everything
– 2 years spent in school could be spent working in the industry


 

Route 3 – Get on a Film Set

Some will argue this should be at the top of the list. The best way to get started in the industry? Get started in the industry!

You don’t need to have a formal education to contact a production in town and apply for a job. But you do need a few certificates.

Set Etiquette and Protocol

Mount Royal offers this one-day course for $100. The next one is March 15, 2014. You’ll learn the basics of what happens on a film set, how you should behave, and the major do’s and don’ts that must be followed. This certificate is mandatory with pretty much every production, and even if it wasn’t, the course is a great place to start.

Film Production Assistant

Once you have your Set Etiquette and Protocol certificate, take the Film Production Assistant (PA) workshop, another one-day course from MRU. Chances are you’ll start out as a PA, either in the Locations department on set (setting up tents, directing traffic, garbage collection) or in the Production Office (answering phones, making copies, getting coffee).

Flag Trained

If you’re looking to get on set as a Locations PA, you’ll also need to be Flag Trained certified so you can safely direct traffic as required. You can get this certificate through the Alberta Construction Safety Association.

Ok, I’ve got my certificates, now what?

If you want to work on the big TV Shows and Movies, chances are you’ll need to go through the unions. The Directors Guild of Canada (DGC) lists all major union productions happening in Alberta, as does IATSE (the craft/technical union). Give the unions a call and ask them about signing up as a Permittee (DGC) (IATSE).

If you want to start smaller, check with the local organizations (CSIF, Quickdraw or EMMEDIA) to pick their brains, or try Calgary filmmaking message boards, craigslist, kijiji etc. Chances are you’ll find a small production looking for help.

Scott on Set

Scott Westby: Cable Wrangler

A majority of non-union creative shoots will be unpaid or low-paid productions. These can be great if you’re just starting and have the flexibility to volunteer your time for some working knowledge and making new friends.

Note that you might not get paid for your work on a low-budget shoot. Filmmakers and Money are usually at odds, and sometimes things go over budget or financing doesn’t come through or the producer maxes his credit card and simply can’t afford to pay every expense. These scenarios aren’t rampant, but they do happen.

  • Our Experience
    Matt and I have worked in Production Offices and on sets of all shapes and sizes, from 3-person web video crews to small 15-person indie short films to the giant 100+ person union film sets. It’s not always glamorous, the days are often very long, and you have to work hard. You also have to get used to the “hurry up and wait” lifestyle (you’re suddenly under serious pressure to work quickly, then you’ve got nothing to do for 30 minutes). But you can’t beat the sense of accomplishment afterwards. If it doesn’t sound worth it, you might want to consider a different route…or industry!

Route 3 Strengths

– Great learning experiences
– You’ll get paid to make movies!
– Great way to meet people who are working in the industry
– Lots of opportunities to advance in the professional film world

Route 3 Weaknesses

– Long days (12+ hours) can be draining!
– Low-budget shoots generally don’t pay well
– Not as many opportunities to practice a variety of skills
– Little exposure to the job you’re likely working towards


 

Route 4 – Take a Side Path

While some people have laser focus in their climb up the Film Industry ladder, I can’t argue passionately enough for getting exposure to other industries in your career.

Consider exploring and developing skills that would serve you well in your film career. Take some time to break down the key skills your dream job requires, and look for ways to hone those skills in other industries. Want to be a Director? Try managing a team in a different creative industry. Producer? Try an Account Management role where you’re responsible for budgets and schedules. Screenwriter? Look for online, print or technical writing positions.

Matt attends a Social Media breakfast

Matt attends a Social Media breakfast

When you make your return (or initial entry) into the film industry, you’ll be far more well-rounded, with a complementary skillset that could give you unique insights on set and an edge in getting/producing work in the industry.

If you’re not fresh out of High School, chances are you’ve already taken this route. Consider your career to date and the skills you’ve acquired. Are any of them translatable to a set environment? If so, promote those skills on your resume.

  • Our Experience
    Shortly after SAIT, I began a career as a writer for a travel website. From there I entered the world of Strategic Marketing, where I spent years working with a great creative team; creating and managing budgets, schedules and clients; writing comprehensive marketing strategies; pitching to potential clients, the list goes on.

    While Matt worked in the offices of Seven24 Films, he also delved deeply into the Social Media and online video world, where he managed the Social Media presence of several brands and got more familiar with YouTube than anyone else I know.

    Now, coming back into the industry, we can lend these skills to our creative and corporate productions to create more comprehensive, powerful products. We can write effective marketing and Social Media strategies to support our video productions. We can consult on projects in ways not many filmmakers can. This wouldn’t be possible if we got married to the film industry right away.

Route 4 Strengths

– Getting a chance to develop essential skills for your dream position in the industry.
– Exposure to other industries will allow you to gain different perspectives, learn great stories and make unique contacts.
– If the film thing doesn’t work out, you’ve got diverse experience on your resume.

Route 4 Weaknesses

– Though you’re gaining relevant experience, you aren’t gaining “industry experience”.
– Your contacts may not be relevant to your film career when you make the shift.
– As mentioned before, it’s about who you know, and you likely won’t be making industry contacts during this phase.


We hope this provides a basic road map for those interested in the Calgary film industry. Matt and I are both dedicated to helping grow this community, so we invite you — nay, implore you! — to explore these routes and join us!

Did you take a different route and want to share? Please do so in the comments.


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About the Author:

Scott Westby is a Writer, Director and Producer in Calgary's film industry. He's a 2008 graduate of SAIT's Film & VIdeo Production Program, and has years of experience in strategic marketing and content creation for traditional and new media. A Taco/Slurpee enthusiast and a hater of mushrooms.
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Comments

  1. Jacquie  September 15, 2016

    As a parent of a 16 year old who is passionate about entering the industry – I cannot thank you enough for this honest, realistic and intelligent article. You may have saved me $20,000!

    reply
  2. Ben  June 13, 2015

    Awesome article, super helpful!!! Thank you!

    reply
  3. Yasmine  March 27, 2015

    You just have a bunch of good ideas there! 🙂 School is not my current option for now, cuz I’d like to build my film and set resume for that. Thank you for giving us all these good tips!

    reply
  4. Flavia  March 8, 2015

    Hello! I got your points and that was very clear. I graduated in set design and costume design in theaters but I’m trully interested in work with art direction in films. What’s your advices through that? Which is my way to start in Calgary?
    Thank you in advance. I loved the page.

    reply
  5. Irene Hamilton  April 1, 2014

    Okay! I could list twenty or thirty accolades to Scott and Matt … but I will keep it short and simple. You FULL SWING guys are more than professionals, you are comfortable to hang out with.

    Trust me, I do not say that to everyone I meet (or plan to meet). Your advice is consistently clear, concise and fun!

    The Fly on the wall.

    reply

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