Five 20-foot containers, several vehicles accompanied by police escort were seen rolling into Dinsley Avenue, Trincity, early last week Wednesday morning drawing a lot of attention from residents and passersby. Fourth Street West, which was cordoned off by police, was the place to be for the following two days. Lights, grips, cameras were being offloaded from the containers and lined the streets. Tents, trucks and cars filled the rest of spaces. In a very organised and timely fashion, the street and the first three houses on it were transformed. The scene was set. “Quiet, please!” was the voice of Avrel Fisher, producer of several Lifetime movies. The anxious onlookers were briefed about what was required of them. Trincity was about to make history. Its first international production was about to be filmed in their backyard. The movie Home Again, featuring internationally-acclaimed Fresh Prince of Bel Air actress Tatyana Ali.
Residents, who took a ring side view, attentively watched Ali in action. The voice rings out again: “Quiet, please!” followed by the director Sudz Sutherland, “Action!” Ali, who played Marva in the movie, walked up to the gate of her friend, Fefe Dobson, a Canadian actress. While trying to get inside, Canadian actor Stephan James, acting as another Jamaican deportee, ran up, pleading for them to let him in. Quickly running after him was Che Rodriquez, one of 80 local actors, played the angry Jamaican taxi-driver who came to jostle James for his taxi fare. Unknowning to all of them, Jamaican native Kadeem Wilson, acting as Jim “The Don” Gilbert, driven in a black Hilux SUV, turns round the corner. In a stunt-like fashion, Gilbert jumps out of the moving vehicle with a real gun in his hand and fire shots behind Rodriquez. This is just a sample of what the movie has to offer and what T&T had the opportunity of hosting.
More than 80 local actors, 50 crew members, 1,000 extras—people acting as airport passengers checking in, patrons at a mall food court, food vendors—experienced the filming of a major production. These 1,200 nationals had the opportunity of acting and working alongside award-winning Canadian media company, Hungry Eyes Film and Television. Hungry Eyes, known for its compelling quality productions in film television and digital media, chose Trincity as one of 30 locations in T&T. Excited, anxious residents flocked to the streets to get a close-up of Ali. Local actor Che Rodriquez and media personality Terry Lee Bovell were among those who worked alongside Ali, producer Avrel Fisher and Don Carmody, Oscar-winning producer of Silent Hill and Resident Evil. This experience did not only gave the local film industry a boost, but also generated millions of dollars in revenue for businesses, created jobs and put T&T in the spotlight as a potential location for other films. Jennifer Holness and Sudz Sutherland, co-owners of Hungry Eyes and producers and writers of the movie Home Again, said T&T was an ideal location to film their Cdn$4 million production.
The husband and wife team said they were unable to shoot the film in Jamaica, even though the movie is set in Jamaica. Sutherland explained that the Jamaican government was not willing to co-operate on the project. After couple months of scouting, T&T was chosen. Approximately 30 locations, including Valsayn, Beetham, Morvant and Paramin, were used in T&T to film the dramatic feature. Sutherland, who was impressed with T&T, advised that the country should focus on marketing its locations to international filmmakers as a lucrative means to boost the economy. “Think about larger Hollywood-type productions like Matrix, where Cdn$1 million is just their catering budget. People only associate T&T with Carnival, but the country has so much more to offer.”
Co-producer Carmody is waiting to see the outcome of Home Again, as he realised that T&T has so many locations that could be used for so many different types of movies to give a backdrop of Mexico, the United States and Europe.
The Government of T&T has said it was focusing on the creative industries as one of the areas to diversify away from oil and gas. Sutherland said the local film industry has great potential. The 35 per cent production rebate given to filmmakers when they film their production in T&T is a great idea as it motivates film production companies to shoot on location in T&T. “The 35 per cent tax rebate not only helps independent filmmakers complete their budget, but would also bring more business into the country, as these films are not usually shot in T&T. Our budget was short of Cdn$1.5 million.” The rebate, he said, is nothing compared to the increased revenue that international filmmakers would generate for various businesses.
“The spin-off is seven times the 35 per cent tax rebate and whatever is the investment.” The experience, Sutherland said, brought reciprocal benefits because T&T had most of the resources to support this scale of production and a talented pool efficient to handle about 50 to 60 parts in the movie. The local actors, producers and directors, he said, could use this international experience, training and knowledge to further develop their craft. The movie, which is set in Jamaica, is based on real-life experiences by Caribbean deportees who are sent back home with little or no resources or support. The producers explained that a close friend who was deported to Jamaica was killed four years later. They wanted to show the reality of persons being deported from international countries like United States, Canada and United Kingdom. Deportation, they said, usually causes major disruptions in family life and deportees often times turn to a life of crime.
Lisa Wickham, chief executive officer of Imagine Media International Ltd, the local line producer for Home Again, said the businesses which benefited from this experience was phenomenal. She said the investments made by Hungry Eyes into the local services are approximately Cdn $102 million. Wickham, whose media career has spanned 30-plus years, said she, too, was challenged in expanding her knowledge base as a producer and director. The local television personality, who co-hosted the Rikki Tikki show in the 1980s, is also the producer, director and host of the Caribbean Entertainment TV Show E-Zone. Echoing similar sentiments, she said while some people think that the 35 per cent tax rebate may be high, the spin-off to the investments caused a multiplier effect.
From established private sector businesses to the small and medium entrepreneurs (SMEs), government services like the Police Service, to individuals who just started their business, were hired to provide services.
These services ranged from airlines, hotels, taxi services, catering, car and house rentals, drivers, trucks, camera equipment, dressmakers, hairdressers, local actors, producers, directors, telecommunication, power suppliers and supermarkets. Approximately 200 Canadian cast members flew on Caribbean Airlines Ltd, where 1,500 rooms have been reserved at the Hilton Trinidad hotel from December to the end of February, and more than 26 vehicles rented. Wickham contends that much more could be gained from an experience like this if companies develop a greater understanding about the services a thriving film industry needs.
Competing with Carnival
Wickham explained that one of their biggest challenge was competing with Carnival for some services. “We now realise how much money is made during this season as some businesses chose to devote their services entirely to Carnival. Mobile services was one such need. She said they were also challenged in acquiring particular services, including office space rentals, furniture rentals and make-up and dressing room trucks. Wickham furnished an entire office and built the make-up and dressing room trucks from scratch. She never thought she could have accomplished such a task just weeks before filming began. “We are sitting on a gold mine, but companies need to expand and improve on their service delivery, which are slowing us down.”
She advised businesses to orient themselves to needs and the understanding of a film industry. She said some businesses have not captured the full meaning of product value placement, that is, strategically placing a company’s product—be it soft drink, beer or a container line—in a movie scene. She said this advertising approach is negotiated through a barter system in most cases. Some companies approached turned down the offer, not realising the long-term marketing benefits and international exposure they were losing out on. Jennifer Holness, co-owner of Hungry Eyes, suspected that some companies were guilty of price gouging, and warned that such a practice could be a turn-off to other film companies wanting to come to T&T.