Career Stories

What It’s Like to Work in the Film Industry: Jeanette Lee’s Story

Spotlight: Jeanette Lee, Certificate in Film Studies
February 29, 2024


According to the Canadian Radio-television and Communications Commission (CRTC), women still face barriers to career advancement despite making some progress towards gender parity in the Canadian film and television production industry. Ahead of International Women’s Day, we spoke with an award-winning Summer Film School graduate on her experience as a producer in the Canadian film industry.

Jeanette Lee worked in the film and TV industry for over a decade as legal counsel, during which time she released her first film as a producer, Paper Dove, which premiered at the imagineNATIVE film festival in October 2011. Despite switching industries in 2017, her calling towards film remained, and she registered in the Summer Film School, a 12-week intensive version of the Certificate in Film Studies at The Chang School. She won a Leaders in Learning award in November 2023 for “Best Short Film Award” as producer of her team's film, Frank and Ravi.

We spoke with Jeanette recently about her decision to choose the Summer Film School, winning the award, and what it’s really like to be a woman producer in the Canadian film industry, as well as advice she has for women or people who identify as women looking to break into the industry.

The Chang School: Why did you choose the Summer Film School intensive at The Chang School?
Jeanette Lee: I chose it for two reasons: I was already registered in the certificate program but the intensive is a great way to experience the film program differently – you're physically in a room with your peers working together on very collaborative projects. That was part of it and also because certain courses are primarily offered during the summer.

CS: What did it mean to you to win the Best Short Film Award for Frank and Ravi?
JL: It was such an honour. It really meant a lot because when you're branching out into a different place in your career, particularly in a creative field, there's a lot of vulnerability that goes with that. To work on something that’s both a skill and also a passion, with a group of people that you’ve never worked with in a short period of time, you just don't know how it's going to be taken and you're still learning.

You're not an expert yet and, in our case, with film production and writing, it was a learning process. I'm so proud of the people I worked with, and we didn't necessarily expect to win. It really meant a lot; it validated that our decision to keep working on learning the craft of film was the right one.

CS: Can you tell us a little bit about the film?
JL: It’s a dark comedy with murder elements where a man who has recently split with his fiancé catches a rideshare with unintended consequences.

CS: How do you use what you learned in the Summer Film School in your day-to-day work as a filmmaker?
JL: I use it from a creative perspective. It comes up every day because we're also consumers of creative work so it creates a different lens on what you see. When you go to a movie, you enjoy it as a viewer but you also are now noticing other things, like the craft of it. Or maybe it's something you decide to revisit to understand how something was done. It also teaches you to be open to everyday life and what you're taking away from it that you might use in your creative work or that might inspire you to create something new. For example, learning the craft of screenwriting with TMU Film School Professor Alex Stirling, and fiction film production with TMU School of Image Arts Faculty Member and Certificate in Film Academic Coordinator James Warrack, have given me skills, confidence and perspective and tools to find and express my own voice, and to collaborate creatively with others.

I'm currently taking the Business of Film course, and while I already have some knowledge, there are also many other things about the business of getting a film made that’s going to be very useful for me. You might have an idea for a film but you have to make it real in order for it to come to fruition. The instructors have been incredibly encouraging and have helped me understand how the film industry works and the realities of pitching to businesses, producers, and distributors to really understand what they are looking for.

CS: What did it mean to you to have your film, Paper Dove, premiere at the imagineNATIVE Film Festival?
JL: That was my first film I was involved with as a project. I worked and collaborated with the director, Cara Mumford, who is Métis and was a long-time friend as well as a creative partner. I was able to start it because I was a musician – the short film featured my music and was a video for my music.

For me, it meant a lot because it validated the idea of going to a new medium beyond music, but actually thinking about putting a film together and the steps involved as well as pitching it, which the director was more experienced at so I learned a lot.

The journey was both a learning experience and an inspiration, especially to be part of a film festival dedicated to promoting Indigenous creators. To be able to witness that sort of inclusivity for different points of view and to see what others are creating is extremely inspirational.

CS: Who is your favourite filmmaker and why?
JL: At the moment, Greta Gerwig. Her writing is incredible – it's so smart, it's so cool, and it's so relevant. She inspires me because she's a woman and she’s succeeding behind the camera in this current day and age. She has such strength and has an incredible ability to write for both blockbuster and very intimate, small scale independent films.

CS: What film are you working on at the moment?
I am promoting Frank and Ravi at the moment. I am working to complete some scripts of my own – one of which is a short film I wrote as part of the film program, and I'm now just revising it to submit to a few competitions. I’m also working to finish a feature script I began in the CDMP 700 Advanced Screenwriting course. I'm sure I'll have future projects, but I'm thinking about developing one of to option and adapt a novel written by an author who I know.

The other thing that I'm doing, which I guess you could say is a follow-up from Summer Film School, is maintaining the bonds that were built with some of the people that I worked with. Although we’re not formally working on films together, we do have a good amount of connection with each other. For example, if someone has written a script, we feel quite comfortable asking, ‘Hey, do you mind reading my script and just giving me some feedback?’ It’s a bit of an informal network.

CS: Where do you get inspiration for your films?
It could be scenarios that I've experienced or that I know other people have experienced. Also, the short film I’m currently working on came from a writing prompt exercise. That's actually a great way to write because you start with a particular fact and then you let your imagination build on it.

I'm still deciding whether there's a particular genre I want to focus on or if I'm more open to different kinds of productions. In the past, while working as entertainment counsel, I worked in a lot of different genres like scripted, unscripted and documentaries, and I really enjoy them all.

Ultimately, what I look for is the heart of a story or a character that I find intriguing. There's something about that story that inspires me to want to tell it, regardless of the genre.

CS: What more can be done to make the industry more inclusive to women and especially those who are producers and directors?
I think education is extremely important – whether it's formal education or on-the-job training. It's very easy in any field to experience ‘impostor syndrome’ and to feel inadequate. Sometimes education can play a big part in giving you the extra confidence to know that you're ready to face whatever challenges because you have the skills or because you know you can learn.

I also think networking is really important – by that I mean getting to know people in the community, putting yourself out there, and having the courage to do that. The film and television industry is a very close-knit group and sometimes it's hard to break in if people don't know who you are and what you're capable of – it's very easy for them to go to the people they know.

The industry also needs to invest in creating space for diverse stories and voices that are often overlooked to be heard. Hopefully, there is more openness and demand for a diversity of stories that give people a window into different places and perspectives.

As more women gain experience and advance in their careers, they also have the opportunity to affect change and make the film industry a more inclusive space. If you're in a position of influence, it’s important to use that privilege to create opportunities for others to shine.

CS: What advice do you have for women or people who identify as a woman looking to get into filmmaking, particularly as a producer?
Bring courage to your conversations – there is a certain amount of vulnerability you are exposing yourself to knowing that you might not be the right fit for everyone but there is somewhere that is right for you. Be open to those opportunities because like Nelson Mandela once said, ‘I never lose, I either win or learn.’ I think that's really important because when you're in a creative field, not everything is going to be 100 percent successful but the idea is to keep trying and learn everything you can from each opportunity to keep getting better.

Being a producer requires good business sense. While it’s important to have an understanding of the creative side, it’s also important to have the business acumen to delve into details of the production and to do some of the work that is not as glamorous as those of a director or writer.

It's important to get the education so that you are comfortable with tasks like doing tax credits, financing, and understanding the legal aspects behind the production.

TMU is One of the Top Film Schools in the World

At the Summer Film School, you can earn a Certificate in Film Studies in a 12-week intensive and launch your career. TMU’s Film School is recognized as one of the top 15 film schools in the world. Registration is open now and space is limited.