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Wednesday 16 October 2019
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TTT lives for local films

Wickham: We must produce to develop our content

A scene from the documentary Unfinished Sentences.
A scene from the documentary Unfinished Sentences.

IN two days' time, the spotlight falls on the annual TT Film Festival (TTFF), which has been one the few places filmmakers could have their content viewed.

But through the efforts of the second incarnation of TTT and a partnership with Filmmakers Collaborative of TT (Filmco), local content creators are having their material broadcast on a weekly basis.

Business Day discussed the push for local content, encapsulated in the station's tagline Live for Local, with TTT chairman Lisa Agard, interim CEO Lisa Wickham and head of TV programming Diane Robertson at TTT's offices at Maraval Road, Port of Spain.

Agard said the board, after an analysis of the local market, took a strategic decision not to compete with local cable operators or free-to-air producers, who source foreign content, which requires foreign exchange.

"It made strategic sense to focus on local content."

She also said as the state broadcaster it is important to give a platform to local producers who may not necessarily have the opportunity to air their programming where many viewers could see it, and be paid for it.

In February, TTT signed an historic local-content deal with Filmco, a non-profit organisation established in January 2017 and dedicated to creating a sustainable ecosystem for film and television producers and directors in TT and the wider region.

TTT interim CEO Lisa Wickham.

Wickham explained Filmco provides content through producers to satisfy three strands: shorts for Lil Flix, which airs on Wednesdays; documentaries for Our Stories, on Thursdays; and feature films and the recently-added local soap opera Westwood Park (1997-2004) for Is Real Drama, which airs on Sundays.

"Westwood Park is more than iconic, and it launched the careers of so many talented people that we see now. A whole generation would have missed it, and now they have the opportunity to see it for the first time."

So much content

Content from Filmco began airing on TTT on May 12 and Robertson said about 59 titles of various genres have since been aired. She explained TTT works hand in hand with Filmco.

"There is a pot (of content), so to speak, and we go through the process of screening together, choosing together and scheduling and all of that. The architecture of the entire process was done together."

She said Filmco may approach TTT with content,or sometimes producers would approach the station directly, and this was the process for content such as cooking, sports, game shows, children's programming and exercise shows.

Asked what type of content TTT is looking for, Wickham said it is based on quality, commercial viability and also relevance to the national landscape and cultural significance. She described the overall quality of the submissions as mixed.

"I think more significant than what we get now is where it would end up. Because when you look at the Nigerian model (Nollywood), when it started it was like, 'What are we looking at here?' But because they had an avenue, whether it was through their own TV stations, through the stations across the African continent, through piracy on this side of the world – which I am not condoning – the industry (in Nigeria) has grown so much now that you have seen the growth in the quality of the productions.

"The most important thing is for people to produce, because when they make a mistake, then they learn and realise (how to fix the errors), and then that would help them to develop. But if nobody is producing, then we would remain at one level."

She said training is also very important and when local cast and crew work on international productions this allows the local industry to learn fast.

"You could come out of a film school with a piece of paper, but if you don't have a strong show reel and a lot of practice in the market, then you are not able to implement what you have learned."

A scene from the film Moving Parts.

She continued: "Providing a platform for local content is important because it will augur well to the development of the quality of the entire industry."

Wickham said in the past, people would show films at TTFF and have nowhere else to show them unless they were "bigger" films that went outside the country.

"Some people did student films and they never saw it anywhere. So now (with TTT) they get that opportunity to screen it. So it gives a second life or a third life to some of the films that were just sitting on people's desktop or on their shelves."

Acting is a strength

For quality films you need quality acting, and Wickham said TT has strong actors. She recalled for the 2017 drama Home Again, a Canadian film for which she served as local producer, of the 200 cast and crew there were eight foreign actors, 67 foreign crew and the rest were local. She said the 2014 comedy Girlfriends' Getaway, shot in Trinidad, also had a predominantly local crew.

"The feedback from the international team was that our actors held their own. And I think that is one of our strong areas."

She said one thing that has to be managed is local actors understanding the transition from stage to screen, and she praised the work of theatre icon Penelope Spencer and her work with Necessary Arts School, and veteran actor Michael Cherrie and his work with the University of Trinidad and Tobago's (UTT) acting programme.

Wickham said there are arrangements with producers outside of Filmco and through this films such as Green Days by the River, PAN! Our Music Odyssey and Buck: The Man Spirit have been made. She said people are excited about the local content and have been stopping TTT staff in the streets and giving positive feedback online. There has also been positive feedback from corporate TT, and the local content is receiving a lot of traction.

Agard also said there have been arrangements where regional content has been acquired. She explained TTT has a mandate to become sustainable, and the board has urged management to go out to the private sector and seek partnerships to support some local productions.

"Obviously we have to pay for content. What we would really like to do is to have the local private sector partner with us, so that we can earn some revenue from broadcasting this content, so we can put this whole thing on a sustainable basis."

Wickham stressed TTT is not looking for handouts, but to build partnerships.

"We see TTT as adding value to their brand."

She said the tagline "history starts here" was about the intergenerational opportunity to have current content like the shorts Doubles with Slight Pepper, Salty Dog, Short Drop, and features like Trafficked, Moving Parts and Unfinished Sentences, together with nostalgic programming like the soap opera No Boundaries, Westwood Park and Indian variety show Mastana Bahar.

"So we are the only station poised to be able to deliver that type of content."

The original TTT also doubled as a production house, but Wickham said TTT does not have the budget to finance movies.

In terms of animation, Wickham said TTT used to have an arrangement with Animae Caribe and UTT, which has thousands of hours of animation, to air animation shorts. Robertson said they were in discussions with UTT programme co-ordinator for animation studies Camille Selvon Abrahams about animation content for children and adults.

Agard said the board and TTT are committed to the advancement and dissemination of quality local content.

"For too long local producers have been crying out for a platform to showcase their talents and capabilities and we think with the partnership with Filmco, and even outside of Filmco, the arrangements that we have put in place in relation to the roll-out of that content are going to redound to the benefit of the local industry, to strengthening TTT's position in the local market and actually place us in a very unique place in the industry (where) other local broadcasters are not operating. And with that you can expect to see a variety of programming within the branded strands, and we really look forward to bringing the public of TT and the private sector on board in terms of realising the dreams of these local content producers."

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