Interview with Tony Merzetti, Executive Director NB Filmmakers Co-operative
Can you tell me a little bit about how and why your organization began?
In 1979, several independent filmmakers in the province, using the Co-operative model, created an organization that would help build a community of like-minded artists with a shared equipment pool, training programs and film exhibition initiatives. At the time, celluloid film gear was expensive and having a shared resource seemed a practical solution.
Has the organization grown significantly since it began?
The Co-op has grown in leaps and bounds over its 40+ years. From a dozen members at its outset, it now has over 200+ members from across the province. Production activity consisted of 2-3 shorts films per year in the early years and has grown to 60 or more films per year when factoring in the various film competitions that we partner on. Today members are producing feature films and TV series for Bell Fibe on a regular basis. Exhibition has grown significantly as well. In the early years we screened films to handful of people in our old office above Tony’s Music Box. Today we have a thriving Silver Wave Film Festival that screens the best NB made films and more every November, and a weekly film series at UNB that has over 300+ members.
What is your role in the organization and what is the structure?
I am the Executive Director. Our fulltime staff includes Cat LeBlanc, Membership Services Director and Matt Carr, Technical Director. The Co-op is governed by an 8 person Board of Directors with Jillian Acreman as President. The members assist on numerous Co-op activities but their biggest contribution is volunteering on each other’s films. It is this equity labour that makes possible the high number of productions created each year.
What types of services does your organization offer and who are the people who use or take advantage of your services?
Our primary purpose is to create a supportive community for filmmakers in the province. We provide networking opportunities to bring people together, host a cast/crew database on our website, assist members finding funding and crews for their projects. The Co-op offers an extensive film training program to prepare members for roles on developing and working on projects. The Co-op is open to anyone with an interest in film regardless of experience. Our Monday Night Film Series showcases films that don’t typically play at the Cineplex. The audience skews to a mature demographic and the one word to describe the atmosphere at these film screenings is community.
As a not-for-profit, what are your major fundraisers?
Our Monday Night Film Series is a fundraiser as well as the Silver Wave Film Festival. With Silver Wave, we get a quarter of our revenues from corporate sponsors, many in the community.
What are the best ways to help your organization?
We are always open to exploring ways to works together with corporate sponsors. Given that we have 500+ members between our production and exhibition activities, we are well connected in the community and most people probably know someone who volunteers on films, makes them or has acted in one. At Silver Wave, we screen films that showcase local talent and attending some of the screening would be a huge support to the filmmakers and all involved. And it’s pretty cool to see your community presented on the big screen. There is an exciting, festive atmosphere around the in-person screenings. People can also attend screenings of the Monday Night Film Series. We have members who started out as attendees at Silver Wave and now are working on member’s films on a regular basis.
Can you tell me about one of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had while working for this organization?
Since I’ve worked at the Co-op since the mid 80s, its hard to just think of one rewarding experience so I’ll summarize a few briefly. At a Co-op training program in 2008, Paul LeBlanc brought his Oscar from Amadeus for all to hold. He was an NB hairdresser who worked in Hollywood. Because of Co-op training, I had the opportunity to work on Children of a Lesser God in Saint John and met Marlee Matlin and William Hurt and worked with Oscar winning editor Lisa Fruchtman. Through the Co-op I also worked on a documentary on Willie O’Ree in the 1990s and became friends with him through the film. A few years ago, the Co-op partnered with artsnb on a film workshop with Indigenous filmmakers from across NB and it was so deeply rewarding to see them work on creating their own films with us playing a support role. One of the goals of the Co-op is to empower filmmakers to tell their stories and to support underrepresented groups.
What kind of challenges has your organization encountered and how did you adapt to overcome them?
COVID has been the biggest challenge that the Co-op has ever faced. When we realized that in-person was impossible for the foreseeable future, we determined that as we were a film organization we should be able to adapt to an online model. We began offering free film workshops through zoom and attracted over 25 people/session with people from outside who were excited to be able to participate. We offered Silver Wave Film Festival online and extended our audience to across Canada, into 15 US states and 15 countries around the world. We even had Matthew Modine, Hollywood actor on a zoom session with Greg Hemmings. We said that this was the silver lining of COVID and realized that we should retain some of the benefits of online after COVID subsided. The Fredericton Community Foundation through the NB Foundation for the Arts recognized our perseverance with an NBFA award presented in 2021.
If I were thinking about volunteering for a not-for-profit organization, what would you say to sway my decision to join your organization? What kind of impact can volunteers have within your organization?
Most of the volunteering at the Co-op happens on film projects and is done by members. One of the requirements of co-op membership is to volunteer 30 hours/year to the organization. When adding up the volunteer hours invested in productions by crew and cast, in non-COVID years it usually exceeds 12,000 hours. If you are interested in being involved as a volunteer on a film shoot, there is always an open door here. Film encompasses so many art forms: visual arts (sets and related design elements), music (film scores), writing (scripts), acting and many more. When a production was shooting at King’s Landing in the mid 80s, they visited the Co-op to find crew. As I had an MBA, I mentioned that I thought film was 50% art and 50% business, and the director replied that it was actually 10% art and 90% business.
Has your organization won any awards?
Yes, some of our awards include:
2002 Foundation Prize from The New Brunswick Foundation for the Arts – Arts Organization of the Year New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative
2005 Arts NB Excellence in Community Cultural Development– Tony Merzetti
2010 CBC Pioneer Award– Cathie LeBlanc & Tony Merzetti
2011 NB Foundation for the Arts Caisses populaires acadiennes Arts and Cultural Management Award – Tony Merzetti
2021 NB Foundation for the Arts (Fredericton Community Foundation) Award – New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative
What are you most proud of about your organization?
The Co-op provides a safe space for people to explore their artistic side and work on films, and filmmaking is a lot of fun. Many friendships have been formed. I have attended numerous weddings of couples who met at the Co-op through film. I have seen Co-op members go out and start their own film companies successfully. There is sometimes a perception that the arts are not important as they do not contribute economically in the same way as a for-profit does. Co-ops do contribute in quiet but meaningful ways, and with my business education I have witnessed first-hand how they have made a difference in so many people’s lives and have added to the vibrancy of the community.