Trinidad and Tobago sharpens its focus on film

 

With interest in the country as a location on the rise, plans to reinforce human resources and hard infrastructure capacity, along with the development of a medium-term strategy and the strengthening of a competitive incentive regime, could help to position T&T’s vibrant film sector at the centre of the region’s audio-visual industry.

Over the past decade T&T has hosted more than 320 separate international productions, including feature films, one-off programmes and episodes of television series. In January and February of 2017 alone, more than 14 overseas film crews came to shoot in the twin-island Caribbean nation, with teams travelling from the UK, Canada, Germany, France, Barbados and the US.

T&T’s culture itself is also gaining traction as a subject worthy of film, with nine international crews filming during this year’s Carnival in late February 2017, according to data issued in March by the T&T Film Company (FilmTT), the state agency responsible for developing the local film and audio-visual industry. FilmTT also actively promotes the country as a film location via the film commission.

Capacity Building 

Proposals to strengthen production infrastructure and further raise the international profile of the industry are currently in the pipeline. In consultation with FilmTT, the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and the state investment promotion agency, InvestTT, are studying the feasibility of developing a production facility with between three and eight sound stages ranging in size from 185 sq metres to 1858 sq metres.

Along with workshops, backlot areas, equipment repositories, storage units and offices, the proposal comprises post-production and animation facilities capable of supporting the development of up to four feature films at the same time. The centre would be also able to provide production support for medium-scale projects, classified as having budgets of between $3m and $15m, representing a significant boost to T&T’s filmmaking infrastructure and capacity.

FilmTT estimates that T&T currently has the facilities and professional skills pool to support the production of movies with budgets of up to $5m, as well as the ability to sustain three major features and five smaller documentary productions per year.

Soft Infrastructure & Incentives

At the time of publishing, the domestic film and audiovisual industry boasted only a limited number of skilled professionals able to complete the pre-, post-and production phases necessary to develop a film or television programme – a shortfall that officials have been keen to address.

On-the-job experience has largely been the main route in acquiring industry knowledge, according to Nneka Luke, the general manager of FilmTT and the country’s film commissioner. Facilitating this route has been behind the offer of a 20% rebate on certain labour costs, incentivising international productions to hire locals.

“In the longer term, the vision is to develop standard certification programmes for people working in the film industry,” Luke told OBG. “This would help those who have excellent practical experience and ability, but lack formal training. This would also serve to give assurances to incoming producers that our crews are up to international standards. It is part of the strengthening of the sector that we also move to strategically increase the professional development of our people,” she added.

As well as refunding 20% of qualifying local labour costs, T&T offers international producers a cash rebate of up to 35% on qualifying local expenditures, making it one of the most competitive incentive schemes in the region, after only Colombia. Productions with a total budget of between $100,000 and $8m are eligible for refunds. Filmmakers are also granted duty-free concessions on machinery and equipment required for production.

Ongoing Plans

While these incentives have helped attract foreign film and audio-visual producers, earlier this year FilmTT invited proposals for the provision of consultancy services to develop a strategic plan for the development of the industry over the next five to 10 years. With a submission deadline of April 4, 2017, bidders were asked to provide a plan to shape the local industry into a viable, profitable and sustainable sector by 2022.

While no announcement on the winning company was made by the time of writing, the official document accompanying the request for proposals set out specific targets, including developing a skilled and certified labour force to meet the requirements of the industry; building capacity to maintain consistent annual production for both domestic and international markets; and making the sector a significant contributor to GDP.

Regarding the final aim, FilmTT expects a stronger film and audio-visual industry to have the knock-on effect of encouraging growth in ancillary and support services, such as hospitality, catering, transport and logistics, and financial services.

Cannes Salutes T&T

The success of the Trinbagonian film industry was shown in late May 2017, when the most recent Cannes Film Festival took place. Two films represented the twin-island country at Le Marché du Film, the non-competitive marketing arm of Cannes. The Cutlass, directed by Trinbagonian debut filmmaker Darisha Beresford and written by Teneille Newallo, is a tale of paradise lost, based on true events. The story centres around a young woman named Joanna, played by German-born and Tobago-raised Lisa-Bel Hirschman, who is kidnapped and brought into the tropical rainforest of Trinidad by a sociopath named Al, played by Arnold Goindhan. Al charts the rainforest leading Joanna, his victim, with a gun in one hand and a cutlass machete in the other. The psychological thriller tells the story of how Joanna must find the courage to challenge the unstable mind of her abductor and escape.

The Cutlass was widely popular and played to soldout audiences at the T&T Film Festival in September 2016, winning two awards: a People’s Choice Award and the award for Best Feature Film. It was also chosen by FilmTT to receive both a grant and investment from the T&T government. The Cutlass was signed to Leomark Studios – a Los Angeles-based film production and distribution company.

The second film to come out of T&T and be screened at Cannes was Tomb, a science fiction film written and directed by Nicholas Attin. The film follows Commander Nelson Obtala, played by Kearn Samuel, and is set one of the first two T&T space shuttles in a near-future Caribbean space programme. Attin compared the movie to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, due to it being a more cerebral experience than a sensorial one.

While speaking in Cannes, Bahamian filmmaker Travolta Cooper said T&T was taking the lead in the Caribbean film industry for two reasons. “First, the best and most imaginative films have come from T&T over the last five years. Two, as a nation, they have done more to unite the region under one Caribbean film banner.” Indeed, following in the footsteps of Nollywood of Nigeria and Bollywood in India, the region has adopted its own moniker, Cariwood, to promote the Caribbean as a place to develop and produce film. “If the race to Cariwood is on, it is looking like T&T will cross the finish line...first,” Cooper told media. “The government of T&T has played an active lead role in developing a local industry,” said Cooper, mentioning the role of FilmTT in films like Cannes favourite The Cutlass and the rising status of the T&T Film Festival.

A Growing Festival

The 12th T&T Film Festival will take place in mid-September 2017. Filmmakers were invited to submit material for screening through to May 15, 2017, with a particular emphasis on films showcasing the lives of Caribbeans living abroad and the T&T diaspora.

The festival’s programme director, Annabelle Alcazar, emphasised the importance of sharing stories about the Caribbean. “The importance of screening films from the Caribbean diaspora, during the T&T film festival, cannot be overstated. They contribute to the multi-layered notions of what it means to be Caribbean, as well as provide a focal point for Caribbean connectivity between those of us at home and those of us abroad. It helps foster a sense of Caribbean community that stretches way beyond national borders,” Alcazar told media in May 2017.

Nonetheless, the festival accepts submissions from international filmmakers outside the Caribbean. Besides films from T&T, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and other Caribbean countries, the 2016 festival accepted French, US and Indian participants, among others.

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