A new generation of diverse filmmakers and storytellers is on the horizon and the passionate team behind Reel Works based in Brooklyn, New York are carefully fostering those creative visionaries. John C. Williams is the co-founder alongside his wife Stephanie Walter at Reel Works, where he also serves as the Executive Director. In the 90s and early 2000s, the couple had the opportunity to partner with a local YMCA in Brooklyn to teach a filmmaking class, while John was steadily working TV jobs and Stephanie was doing long-form documentaries for CBS News and Lifetime. They were looking for a way to give back and this was just like the stars perfectly aligning.
The first class they taught was a documentary film course for teenagers and in their second class, they asked their students to share their personal stories about their lives and communities. With the success of that project, they sold two films to HBO Family – back when HBO was broadcasting student work. On September 11, 2001, tragedy fell upon the United States and funding fell for the YMCA. As they were about to close their doors and go back to their bread-and-butter jobs working in TV, HBO called and asked to sponsor. That call has since then forged a long-lasting partnership for Reel Works, and their programs and passion for giving back to the community have grown tremendously.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with John about the initiatives and programs at Reel Works, his passion to foster these young voices, and the importance of preparing these young creatives for the creative industry workforce.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: How did this program and initiative all fall into place?
John C. Williams: I think one of the things that as a filmmaker and as a creative, you do want to listen to what the world tells you. We were having perfectly fine careers making TV. But we started working with these teenagers and suddenly we're on HBO and suddenly we're winning the National Student Emmy and suddenly we were in film festivals all over the country. We felt like the universe was telling us this is what you should be doing. You're good at this - teaching kids filmmaking. And since then, we've been honored twice by recent White Houses: the Obama White House and the Bush White House as the leading organizations in the country, our films have been seen by 10s of millions of people worldwide, and it's always been so thrilling, because instead of me as a filmmaker trying to get attention for me and my work, it's always been about supporting young people telling their stories and having their stories reach wider audiences. It's really been thrilling. These are stories that really weren't being heard when we started. They're still not heard enough - their stories, their lives, their histories.
Running a non-profit is not easy and it does get tough but then you remember why we do this - the impact of their work is beautiful, and their stories are amazing. And the kids who come here are extraordinarily talented, and you get to be their champion.
Sadie: That's so incredible. There's something about giving back to the community, especially young storytellers, it’s just so fulfilling. Tell us about the career access program and what you do in fostering those filmmakers and young voices.
John: Our program has grown organically over the years. We're teaching high school students to make films and then over time, those high school students start graduating from high school, right? Or they’re not graduating from high school, not going to college or getting their first jobs and struggling. So we kept developing programs that were focused on that. And that program is a partnership with the major media companies and smaller companies to create pathways to jobs in the industry that underrepresented, young people, can access. We partnered with the city of New York to place 200 young people in paid internships every year. And that could be from Jigsaw Productions with Alex Gibney or it could be with JAX media, it could be at HBO. And one thing that we do that's unique in the program is we provide soft skills training, job readiness training, helping people navigate these spaces where they might be the only person that looks like them and can compete, and how to interview and how to communicate in this professional realm. And they get paid.
One of the barriers that keeps the industry not so inclusive is when I started working as a PA I could work for free and meet people and start building my career. Our young people can't work for free. So, we make sure that everything they do, every internship is paid, whether they're in college or not. And they do multiple internships from high school through young adulthood. And when they're done with the program, they have a resume, they have a network, they have credentials, they're employable. In fact, our young people are starting to get jobs. In that first graduating class, a majority have booked jobs before they completed a program, which is pretty thrilling.
We are also partnering with Netflix and the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees to train grips and electrics in New York and soon outside of New York. We're training young New Yorkers for union careers in lighting and grip departments and we are partnering with Warner Media to train rising young professionals for post-production management careers, so post-production supervisors and post-production coordinators on series television. We do that as a bi-coastal program with HBO and Warner Media. We're starting to expand and we've created a brand new program that was just announced by Viacom CBS called “Content for Change”, which is an apprentice program for young New Yorkers who are not in college and not in school to get production assistant training program in television. We're creating all these exciting partnerships with companies to address the challenges that can confront young people.
We teach them the job readiness skills that they might be lacking so they can compete. And then once they can compete on a level playing field, then they're the most talented diverse generation that we've ever seen, right? And the thing that motivates me and this is what I learned from teaching filmmaking dedicated people that we got to through training is that of course, talent knows no zip code. Opportunity does, unfortunately, and when we just started to figure out how we can intermediate and help these talented kids get these opportunities to show what they can do then there's no stopping, right? New York never lets you down in talent, whether you're looking for grips and electrics or other crafts, or postproduction. There are people ready for this job. And on the other side of the equation, often within the companies, they don't know how to find diverse talent. And we're able to help them with that because we've built the networks within our community beyond our community to find the talent, which is always there. The talent is always there. We get to help companies recruit very talented people from all backgrounds.
Sadie: I love that you're a trusted resource in the industry for these companies. And you are proactively giving these kids actual careers in fields like post-production, where you can actually make a living. I’m curious about how you vet your instructors.
John: In order to teach a class, you have to be a professional filmmaker. We work with extraordinary teachers who have incredible careers. One thing that makes our actual programs unique as well is that every student in our after-school programs is paired, one on one with a professional filmmaker mentor. So again, in order to mentor students, you have to be a professional filmmaker, video maker, producer, editor, director, screenwriter, but New York never lets you down in that way. We have plenty of people who want to give back and so we recruit working people. The people teaching post-production supervisors are supervisors who work for HBO and are helping using the training programs the union training programs that are taught by union members – we have veterans teaching their craft. So, we're not messing around - always the real thing.
Sadie: Amazing and how can these young creatives apply and get their foot in the door?
John: Our filmmaking programs are through New York City public schools, which students can apply online. We do have a summer program that is all remote and that information is on our website. And then for MediaMKRS, that is where we post our job training programs. I think we will be recruiting soon for grips and electrics in New York City, for people that want to do training in the new year. Going to reelworks.org is the best way to find more about our programs.
Sadie: Are there any future projects in the works with you and your students?
John: Yeah, we have a production company called The Studio, and we're currently producing a feature documentary about the Brooklyn dance company and how their dancers adapted through the pandemic and we're mid-production on that. We have a couple of things brewing but we do work for major clients like American Express, Bank of America, Hasbro toys, we do a lot of projects for them. And we are developing a few things. So, we have worked with original content and work for hire projects that we do through the studio, and that's produced by young people. And then we have the original work that they're doing and we have two nights at the Museum of Modern Art, we're preparing about 14 new short narrative films.
Reel Works will also be hosting premiere events at the Museum of Modern Art on 11/17 & 11/22 for a series of original short films completed by their student filmmakers as part of the organization's 2020 Narrative Lab workshop. Reel Works' Narrative Lab is an advanced filmmaking workshop that pairs young BIPOC storytellers with professional mentors to write, produce and direct original short fiction films.