‘Everyone deserves to have their voice out there.’ How the Reel Start youth program is working to diversify the film industry

·5 min read

Plotting on how to sneak a doughnut off the craft service table while a movie filmed at his high school in Vancouver was one for Evan Goldberg’s first encounters with the film industry.

Goldberg remembers being able to see productions up close and having the seed planted early on that it could be something to do for a living.

“One of the reasons why I got far in film, and quickly, is because I started writing the movie when I was 12,” Goldberg says about his and Seth Rogen’s first collaboration, “Superbad.”

Now with more than a decade of screenwriting experience under his belt, the Canadian filmmaker behind comedies “This Is the End” and “Pineapple Express” is trying to expose youth from under-represented communities to the industry through Reel Start.

Goldberg said he’s noticed for a long time that he and his peers were privileged to have some sort of exposure to the film industry when they were young.

At Reel Start, everyone involved is keen to give the youth participants the opportunity to tell their stories and diversify the industry. “You’re not getting the full story if you don’t get everyone’s story,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg and co-founder Adrienne Slover met while attending McGill University. Slover went on to be an elementary teacher in the Toronto District School Board and in 2016, they started Reel Start as an extracurricular school program.

Reel Start operates in L.A., where Goldberg is usually based, and Toronto, at George S. Henry Academy, a secondary school near the elementary school where Slover teaches.

Each cohort is about 10 students who work together to come up with an idea for a short film, workshop the idea, and write a script, which at the end of the program, volunteer actors and industry professionals shoot. In a whirlwind 12-hour shoot day, the students get full access to the set to shadow whoever they like.

Goldberg and Slover have relied on industry friends and teachers volunteering their time, whether it’s giving a workshop on directing or screenwriting in class, acting for a few hours to bring the short to life, or spending the full 12 hours handling costumes and makeup when they film.

The flicks have familiar faces: Dan Levy playing a robotic student from the future, Rogen hanging out in a dumpster for a short that’s really a comment on gang violence, Jacob Tremblay as a new kid in school looking for a group to join and Jay Baruchel with a checklist helping to put Tremblay in one.

“You’re getting interesting stories coming out of our program, I think, that aren’t always being told in mainstream media,” Slover said.

Gabriel Charles-Rogers was in Reel Start last year. He was interested in theatre and performing, so a teacher of his suggested he apply for the program. Charles-Rogers remembers shadowing the director the day of the shoot and watching his peers discover their creativity during writing sessions.

It has inspired him to continue working on his own film that he hopes will reflect the people he’s grown up around. “I feel it’s my duty … to make this show happen, because of these people that I’ve encountered. This story is my story,” he said.

“I feel like everyone deserves to have their voice out there,” said Tattiana Narulamda, who is part of Reel Start’s most recent cohort, which was underway when the COVID-19 pandemic took school — and in this case, its extracurriculars — online.

Students were able to continue to meet and workshop ideas virtually. And instead of writing a live-action short like in past years, they made an animated film.

Narulamda aspires to pursue broadcasting, which she is studying now at Humber College, while still working to finish her class’s Reel Start film.

Even with the pandemic creating a challenge to get into film in the short-term, Goldberg expects the industry will rebound, especially with the demand for entertainment as an escape. For Reel Start, the pandemic has also opened up new avenues like animation that the founders hadn’t considered.

One of the things that excites Slover the most about running the program is “sparking passion” for the students. “I think as an educator, one of the fears I have is children and students falling out of love with education,” Slover said, adding that being able to introduce students to an industry that has thrived In Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver can offer them a career path they may not have considered.

Recently, Reel Start started a fundraising campaign with hopes to expand the program to other schools in L.A. and Toronto, and eventually other cities like Vancouver, where the film industry is also prominent. It worked with FUSE Create to make a few videos with the program’s alumni to hopefully reach people outside of Goldberg and Slover’s networks, who have been their main donor base thus far.

As Reel Start grows, its founders hope to inspire as many students as they can.

“Even if they don’t go into film … to carry that feeling that they can do it through life is a real accomplishment,” Slover said.

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering inequity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star