By: Rashida Ashley
Toronto, On - Award-winning filmmaker and producer Frances-Anne Solomon discusses mentorship, entrepreneurship, and creativity as the recipient of the 2022 “WIFT Toronto Crystal Award for Mentorship” in recognition of her outstanding contribution in helping to motivate, guide, and support emerging and mid-career professionals in the Canadian screen-based media industry, often serving as a role model to younger entrepreneurs as they grow in their careers.
What does it mean to create space for yourself and others by doing what you are passionate about? Better yet, what does it take? What led Frances-Anne Solomon to receive the WIFT Toronto Crystal Award for Mentorship was a road that constantly needed to be tilled for others such as herself. Solomon could not stand by while she experienced, time after time, an artistic industry that put a wall between people of color with exceptional creative abilities and positions of leadership or pathways for project completion.
Frances-Anne Solomon embarked on her career at the BBC in England TV Drama Producer. She then went on to found CTMG in 2001. Her creative works include feature films such as HERO (2019), A Winter Tale (2018), and the sitcom Lord Have Mercy (2001). Solomon is also a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, New York University, and Duke University. She is also a member of The Directors’ Branch Executive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the recipient of many international awards.
Frances-Anne Solomon has received the WIFT Toronto Crystal Award for Mentorship due to her outstanding contributions in helping to motivate, guide, and support emerging and mid-career professionals in the Canadian screen-based media industry. Particularly acting as a role model for young entrepreneurs. In this interview, Solomon speaks on what it means to be a mentor in the film and media industry and offers her experiences as a creative entrepreneur.
When did you feel it was the right time to become a mentor?
At the beginning of my career, I was a producer at the BBC. I joined the organization in the 90s, long before diversity, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too. I was the only woman of color in the department. Right away, I felt the need to create access for people who look like me.
I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, where people who looked like me were in the government. Doctors, lawyers, all the leaders, and amazing people around me were black people. So, for me, being in a completely white environment was outrageous. I immediately wanted to create space for people who looked like me because it felt very unfair.
At the BBC, I created scenes for writers, directors, and actors to come in and strut their stuff. I never saw it as mentoring. I was just creating space and making things equal.
What aspects of your industry could be improved or developed that could be reflected in your work as a mentor?
In reality, every aspect of the screen-based industry is owned and controlled by white people. Whether it’s from production companies, broadcasters, distributors, newspapers, or reviewers, you name it. These structures in the West are owned and controlled by white people. We don’t own as people of color. We don’t own the means of production of any aspects of the industry. So you can develop a story, but then you can’t sell it because no one in the production and the broadcasters is interested in our stories, was at the time. Even if you get commissioned and make the show by any miracle, you can’t distribute it. You would have to distribute it yourself and pay for it yourself. Then the reviewers will come in and say, ‘I don’t know why this story is being told.’That was what I was seeing.
So working at the BBC, this was a fully vertically integrated organization that created, produced, marketed, and sold content for a UK audience. That was a model that I saw very early in my career. So when I left the BBC to set up my own business, the one thing they didn’t do, of course, was catered to people of color and Black people. So I wanted to set up a similar pipeline of services that would serve our audiences globally. Very ambitious, I know, because I didn’t have any money to do it.
We have a training arm to upskill our communities, a production arm to make content, a festival arm with three festivals to show content, and a distribution arm to distribute content. That’s how I felt we needed to operate so that nothing could stop. Of course, you need money to do it, but I’ve always seen that it’s necessary, as a content creator, to be able to do everything, and even that is frowned upon. People are always telling me if I do too many things, I can’t do anything well. I just disagree. I don’t see how you can do just one thing in an industry that is so interlinked. Everything is connected to everything else.
What are some of the roadblocks you’ve found that mid-career professionals in the Canadian screen-based industry often encounter? What have you found to be the most useful in helping to navigate your mentees through these challenges?
Well, things have changed a lot, and things are easier for women of color now. There are more opportunities in the industry now, for sure.
I think not enough has changed. For example, there was a study done in Canada, or two studies in Canada last year and also in the United States. The studies have said that the gap in the industry is still between black women and women of color. White women specifically have made gains. In Canada, there's gender equity. In the screen-based industries now, they're saying 50% or 60% of women here, there, and everywhere but they mean white women.
When you do the math for black women and women of color, we’re still falling off the bottom of the chart regarding employment opportunities and disability in the industry, especially in lead roles. So many producers, directors, photographers, designers, lead roles, women of color, and black women are not getting the job or getting the break. So that gap is still very much present. All you have to do is Google women of color or black women in screen-based industries. You’ll see the statistics. It'll say something like 1% of directors is women of color, blah, blah, blah, right?
So I see it as my responsibility to give them the tools I had, which is to believe that you can do anything, whether you can or not. Believe that you can do everything whether you can or not. Then know every aspect of the business. So our training programs, for example, take the participants through the entire production cycle. So from development to marketing, packaging, exhibition, and sales. So that you have a complete picture of everything next and a suite of skills necessary to operate effectively in the business, this is something we do easily because we are the CEOs of our own life. Nobody has ever propped us up.
In your initial exchanges with mentees who are thinking about or embarking on a career in media, what are their main concerns or misconceptions when entering this career path? What is something you often express to them so they can formulate a strong decision or explore their options?
This business is not for the faint-hearted. When we interview people, one of the things I'm looking for is if you’re serious. Do you want to do this? People need to be single-minded, to know why they want to be in this business and have a solid work ethic and the ability to persevere and keep going. To Keep learning all the time. If you're sitting on the fence or feel like it should be easier or whatever, maybe you should be doing something else.
How do you ensure that your work's creative and entrepreneurial aspects are balanced and aligned with your audiences and partners?
First of all, it's hard. Because I think the business sense is a separate part of your brain and being artistically creative, businesses are obviously creative but not insanely. Then thinking about audiences. Like understanding marketing is yet another skill and ability.
On the other hand, I deeply believe storytelling is an organic, primary human function. I think, from a mental health point of view, human beings need to articulate who they are, tell their story, and have a voice. We also need it for survival. We need to tell our children who they are and where they come from so that they can grow and build on the knowledge we have been acquiring for centuries and decades so that they can survive when we go.
The whole process of telling a story, having an audience, and passing on knowledge, that whole process is essential. Not just the doing of it but the How? too. That whole process is both instinctive and primarily human survival. So I think that's how it comes together. I know that sounds esoteric, but it isn't. Storytelling is instinctive. The whole process of coming up with a story, telling the story, sharing the story, and the payback from audiences. All of that is part of being human.
As you’ve built your projects and platforms throughout your career, what have you found to be the most important thing/part about being a role model?
I think people can be what they haven't seen. You need to be who you needed when you were young and who you thought to be. There were people in my surroundings who were role models for me, and there was also a lack of role models, you know, and I think we have a responsibility to be who we want and what we need as children. We have to be that. What else can we do in life?
I never thought I was a mentor, but it’s wonderful to be recognized as a mentor. I have to say, I’ve done a lot of different things, but being recognized as a mentor is wonderful for a couple of reasons. One is that I never saw myself wanting to be a mentor because I thought teachers were useless. I hated them. I just thought that whoever supports you to be yourself was my mentor. So I never sought to be anything to anybody. I just thought to create opportunities so other people could do things.
So being called a mentor is reassuring because it’s what I’ve done my whole life, and I haven’t necessarily been recognized or celebrated for that. It’s been a tough road, you know. The other thing is a primarily white organization recognizes me. I don’t know if it can be said, but let’s call it a mainstream organization. One of the things that have come out of the murder of George Floyd has been the allyship of white people for the first time. Them seeing us, unfortunately, and them acknowledging us, the work that we’ve done, and the value of the work that we’ve done is very powerful. Their allyship, their support, and continuing to do that are powerful.
I think white allyship is huge because they’re the ones who need to change the culture. We can only do a tiny step. So it’s significant for me. I would love to get something for creative excellence, distribution, and entrepreneurship, but it’s for supporting others, and I think that’s great. That’s a great thing to carry around inside of me that I was generous at the end of the day.
What are some of the things you look for in a mentee?
They have to be hungry. They have to have a very strong work ethic. They have to be able to hold themselves to a high standard and to be held to a high standard of excellence. They must also be able to listen, take criticism, and give honest feedback to grow and build community.
As the 2022 WIFT Toronto Crystal Award for Mentorship winner, what are some of your reflections as you prepared for the awards ceremony on Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022?
I grew up with black role models and amazing women. As I entered the industry, I was struck by the
Things that just felt wrong. That was why I began to mentor and bring people in with me.
Back in the day, there was a quote that we used to say by Alice Walker. She coined the term womanist. Which is a black woman or a woman of color, you should look up the definition because it pretty much defines us. There was one line in it where she goes…
“Womanist from womanish. Opposite of girlish, frivolous, irresponsible, not serious. A black feminist of feminists of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, your acting womanish ie like a woman, usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior, wanting to know more or in greater and greater depth than is considered good for one interested in grown up things acting grown up being grown up and interchangeable with another black folk expression. You're trying to be grown responsible in charge serious. A woman who loves other women, sexually or non sexually appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility, values tears as a natural counterbalance with laughter and women's strength. Sometimes love individual men sexually, or and or non sexually committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female, not a separatist, except periods for health. Traditionally a Universalist as an Mama, why are we pink, brown and yellow? Turned out cousins are white, beige and black. Well, you know, the covered race is just like a flower garden with every every color flower represented, traditionally capable. As an mama. I'm walking to Canada and I'm taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me. Reply it wouldn't be the first time loves music loves that loves them. Loves the spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Love struggle, loves the folk loves herself regardless womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”
I feel like we are from a strong tradition, a very specific and strong tradition of women supporting humanity. I think that's what I want to share. That's the thought I had come from somewhere, and I wanted to do it. I don't think it's that fashionable anymore to be of service in the same kind of way that I was when I grew up, you know. But I think there's something very beautiful about it.