Lights, Camera, Accolades

New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative thriving in an era of change

(Published in The Atlantic Co-operator, July/August 2012, Vol. 78, No. 4)

This year’s winner of a major New Brunswick cultural award says there was a time not long ago when he feared his co-operative might not survive.

Tony Merzetti, executive director of the New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative, received the 2012 Arts and Cultural Management Award in April from the New Brunswick Foundation for the Arts. The honour recognizes excellence in professionalism, management, leadership, promotion and exceptional contribution to the arts and cultural sector in the province. It includes $5,000 for the co-op.

“When the switchover to digital video happened in 1999-2000, and everything was becoming more affordable for people, we thought, is the co-op going to outlive its usefulness?” Merzetti said.

When the organization was founded in 1979, the co-operative structure fit the needs of the film community. In those days, a good camera cost $30,000 and quality sound equipment cost up to $15,000, so it was not viable for individual filmmakers to have their own equipment. By organizing as a co-operative, members united to seek funding and share resources.

“The co-op was set up to basically allow the members to be able to have an organization that could get money from the Canada Council to purchase equipment,” Merzetti said.

When he joined the co-op in 1983, Merzetti had just earned a Masters in Business Administration at St. Mary’s University, but knew he wanted to be a filmmaker.

“I looked at my resume, but I didn’t have any experience working on films,” he said. “I hadn’t made any films before. I hadn’t gone to a film school, I went to business school. So how the heck to do I get into this industry?”

When Merzetti learned of the New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative in Fredericton, he began making frequent trips from his home Saint John to volunteer around the office and gain experience working on productions.

When the organization’s co-ordinator moved away three years later, Merzetti was asked to take the helm. At the time, the organization had about 20 members and undertook two or three productions per year, exclusively on 16 mm film.

But the advent of digital video would change both the nature of the co-op and the filmmaking industry.

“We got our first [digital] video camera and we also bought an iMac and Adobe Premiere software,” Merzetti said. “It was a very liberating experience for a lot of people because shooting a film became something that they could do quite inexpensively. And it was exciting because there was an opportunity for new people that came in.”

Members could now take a project from the idea stage to production within a few months instead of a year or more. Overnight, digital editing cut post-production time to a fraction of what it had been with film.

Organizers wondered: with more affordable equipment, would members still need the co-operative?

“But what we discovered was, it’s not just the equipment,” Merzetti said. “It’s really about the community.”

Not only did the members stay, the co-operative entered a decade of unprecedented growth. Today, there are 250 members working on 40 projects each year.

“That whole community aspect of like-minded individuals working to make your film better, that I think has been the glue that has held the co-op together all these years, and I think it will be the same in the future. Bringing a community of people together is going to be the most important thing that we do.”

Every November, that community comes together at the Silver Wave Film Festival. Now in its twelfth year, Silver Wave is both a showcase for New Brunswick filmmakers and an important revenue generator for the co-operative, through corporate sponsorship and box office sales.

Merzetti said it’s important for cultural organizations to be able to demonstrate to government their ability to generate revenue. The co-op also raises funds through membership dues and the popular Monday Night Film Series at UNB Fredericton, which screens Canadian and foreign films that otherwise wouldn’t be available in the city.

“Finding ways to get additional funds coming into your organization through projects you do is important so that you can justify that your organization is not just out there taking funds from public coffers,” Merzetti said.

The $5,000 prize that accompanies the Cultural Management Award will help the co-operative grow its membership throughout the province. Though most events are held in Fredericton, where the co-op is based, a successful screening was held in Saint John in December, and there are plans for a similar screening in Moncton.

“That’s how we see the growth of the co-op,” Merzetti said. “It’s happening in communities around the province.”

The award celebrates the organization’s ability to find innovative ways to combine artistic and business excellence and shows that for the New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative, the end credits are nowhere in sight.

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