Tonya McCornell created the series Rescue Moms. “The mentor-mentee relationship is beneficial when both parties are willing to give of themselves. The mentor must be willing to share their knowledge and insight, but the mentee must also be dedicated and willing to give consideration and respect for the time and information the mentor is providing.”

Jenna Ciralli is a writer, producer and actor. “I think true mentorship happens when circles rise together, based in a similar style, aesthetic and experience. The more specific you are, the better off your calling card is. And the more you know yourself and what you want to say, the better off you are.”

Teah Stranjord is a producer and actor, and adjunct faculty member at School of Visual Arts. “There’s no single person or group of people or entity that will have the answer—as a teacher in film school, this has been my main observation. Those who are eagerly making it happen for themselves, asking questions, trying new things in the lab after hours, are the ones who will find their way to a mentor. And as a mentor, you’re honored, not burdened, to help that person, because they’re headed there with or without you.”

School of Visual Arts faculty member Teah Strandjord (third from left) at a Q&A after her short “Three Weeks” played at Twin Cities Film Festival. Photograph by Catherine Curtis / Courtesy of Twin Cities Film Festival

Being a Mentor

Scott Storm, director of 2006 feature film Ten ’til Noon, found himself in a mentorship position. “Near the end of my tenure at a long-held job, I befriended a young woman who had a very rare fire to do the kind of work I was doing—trailer editing and movie advertising. Most of us do it to survive; it is not really what we came to Los Angeles to do. This girl wanted to do this work more than anything. She was being a bit mistreated and not allowed to even touch media, just answer phones and run errands. Promises had not been kept. She was cutting her own trailers on existing movies to hone her craft. I watched her cuts and gave my thoughts. She enthusiastically took my notes and ran with them. I knew a producer who had become senior vice president of creative at a company near where I lived. I reached out to him to see if they had the need for an entry-level assistant editor. Luckily my timing was good, and she got herself the job.”

Chester: “To be a mentor, your baseline must be generosity: to give of yourself and your time, which I now know is life’s most precious commodity. You must on some level know the value of mentorship itself.”

Mentorship Programs vs. Organic Relationships

Many organizations have mentorship programs. There are the guilds: the Directors, Producers and Writers Guilds of America; organizations such as Film Independent, the International Documentary Association and the Sundance Institute; female filmmaker-oriented programs by Women in Film and New York Women in Film and TV; even diversity programs at studios like CBS, HBO and Fox. If you’re accepted, these programs connect you with established professionals that will offer you advice and guidance. But how dedicated are the mentors, and do these mentorships translate to real opportunities to work in the industry when the program is over?

Kirsten Schaffer is the executive director of Women in Film, the long-running female filmmaking nonprofit that, amongst other programs, organizes what it calls mentorship circles for its members. A circle comprises eight mentees and two mentors, and they meet for at least 12 hours over the course of the program. WIF also has what Schaffer calls a “protégé program,” part of ReFrame, a project WIF partners on with the Sundance Institute. “That program will have only three to five protégés per year, but it is a highly focused program that will result in women getting hired for top jobs,” she says.

Jason Grote, a writer-producer on History Channel’s upcoming series Knightfall, points out that formal educational opportunities are always an avenue for mentorship. “If I could reboot my career,” he says, “I would probably consider choosing a graduate program wherein a master playwright shepherds their students’ careers—although this doesn’t necessarily happen with every single student in those programs.”

On the other hand, some moviemakers are skeptical of a structured program.

Kenneth Castillo has made seven feature films, including his latest, Marigold the Matador. “I find mentorship programs to be pretty useless in helping women and minority filmmakers. Every year the DGA puts out a report on how many women and minority directors were hired by studios, and every year the number is dismal, in spite of all the different programs they have in place with the studios and networks. That report is a subtle admission that their programs clearly aren’t working. They do provide access, but I don’t see much follow through once the program is over.”

Schaffer notes that for WIF’s mentee number (up to 75), “the downside is that it is not as personalized and customized as other programs. We do our best to match mentees with the right circles and mentors, but occasionally it isn’t the right fit. When I talk to disgruntled mentees, I find that they often have expectations of the program that exceed its capability.”

However you find your mentor, it’s clear that a good one is an invaluable asset for your career. So in the space between the opening of the envelope and the band playing “please wrap up” music, who will you thank, and who will thank you? If you don’t have an answer to either, you may have some work to do. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2017 issue. Top photograph of Anne Hamilton and crew by Katrina Meier.

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