If there was a list of 21st Century Caribbean Film Pioneers, Lisa Wickham would be on it in the category for producer of film and television.
Wickham heads Imagine Media International, a role that has taken her into the same rooms as many Hollywood directors and stars. Not only is she a driving force in the push to attract foreign filmmakers to Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) but her goal is to ensure local creatives have the technical and strategic tools to export their work to the world.
Cash rebates, not tax credits, of up to 55 percent of film production costs makes her beloved island of T&T a frontrunner in the Caribbean. The sure-fire mechanism helped to wrestle Home Again, with Tatyana Ali, away from Jamaica despite the story and film director having a Jamaican background. At the same time it re-energized the local film community coupled with immense spin-offs. By merely hiring local talent the Government of Trinidad & Tobago awarded an extra 20 percent cash incentive, a recipe for serious film business, and to some extent explained why producers opted for T&T actors to play Jamaicans.
Fortress editor Nerissa Golden chatted with Lisa about her journey from television to film and where she thinks the West Indian film industry is headed:
What was the state of the industry in TT when you began. Where is it now?
LW: There was one television station, TTT, and very few production houses. I have heard that there was a time that film was thriving on the island with the production of seminal films like BIM, but that had changed by the time I started. However, a lot was happening on the local television station in terms of local production, as we had a few local dramas, soaps and television shows. With the influx of cheaper American shows, and heavy competition among stations, media houses find it more cost effective to buy these shows than to invest in local productions.
Now they face the ever-rapidly, changing social and digital media scene where anyone now can broadcast ‘live’ – it has given a new meaning to the word ‘live’. When I was growing up in the industry and we went ‘live’ it meant phenomenal costs, an OB (outside broadcast) truck, microwave link, physical and human resources and so on. Now live means…clicking a link on a BYOD (bring your own device) once you have Wi-Fi and boom you’re on!
Your skills have taken you beyond Trinidad & Tobago. Where have you been able to work and with whom?
LW: I have produced for Tyler Perry’s former executive vice-president, Roger Bobb, as well as Home Again for Jennifer Holness and Sudz Sutherland, an award winning Canadian team. There is also work done for Academy Award winning Don Carmody. I’m also a contributor to BBC Radio 5 Live with Ros Atkins and I’ve worked with Ras Kassa out of Jamaica on Tribe for MTV-UK.
I think I have worked with some of the best people right here in every single island or territory in the Caribbean for my own productions like E-Zone television series, a 50-minute documentary Forward Home – The Power of the Caribbean Diaspora.
Regional acts like WCK out of Dominica, Tizzy and El-A-Kru, Rupee, Kes (was now starting out), Bunji Garlin and others also received prominence through E-Zone.
Fun Fact: Lisa Wickham has interviewed Sir Richard Branson, shot commercials with Usain Bolt, and music videos for top soca and reggae singers. She has also worked with Al Green, Fantasia, Ciara and other US-based acts.
As it relates to feature film projects. How does the Caribbean treat this industry as compared to Hollywood?
LW: We are just getting out of the blocks especially when it comes to financing, entertainment law and crew. Yes, we have had some successes. One colleague told me he was about to exit the industry and the success of Home Again renewed his commitment to the industry and now his new company is ‘firing away’.
You also have people like Mitzi and Howard Allen (HAMAFilms) out of Antigua who have helped to shape the industry; Canada-based Trinidadian filmmaker Frances-Anne Solomon did the same with her film A Winter Tale. Mary Wells with Kingston Paradise. I recently saw a slate of short films out of Jamaica that were amazing, so things are happening in pockets. However collectively I think we (the Caribbean) still have some work to do to compete on the global stage.
A lot of business people in the traditional corporate sector still do not really understand the mechanics of the film industry and how it can truly be viable towards building economies. Many Commonwealth states, South Africa, Nigeria and, of course, India ‘get it’ and they are reaping the monetary rewards. I think in the Caribbean we are still tied to our (colonial) past, in some ways. The positive note is that as we have more and more successes, this too will change. We must be careful to protect our stories and our businesses as filmmakers because history has a way of being re-written to suit the writers.
Producers also need to experiment with creative ways to add value to financiers to get their productions funded and they must deliver in order to boost the confidence of the industry.
Is wanting to replicate how Hollywood works a possible reason why we haven’t grown more?
LW: I think in part. In all my travels, I keep hearing “be true to who you are and tell your own stories”. Nigeria did that so that even with a dodgy start in terms of quality they are now being recognised and their industry is booming. I believe that it is only when we can boast of a solid industry (the way Bollywood and Nollywood carved out a niche for themselves first among their people and their Diaspora) it is only then the international community will sit up and take serious notice. But I believe we have really made some strides in the right direction, we have to keep up the momentum.
How has the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival helped to foster filmmaking in T&T and the Caribbean?
LW: It has certainly grown in stature and attracted films from far and wide and it has provided an outlet for local filmmakers.
Which comes first the money or a great story? How can we finance more local stories?
LW: I will put it this way. There are many great stories, but without the money, they remain just great stories.
Why do you think Bazodee with Machel Montano works now versus ten years ago?
LW: They finally got the money! I truly believe that Home Again opened the opportunity for a new wave of filmmaking in Trinidad and Tobago. I had to literally design and build the star trailers, make up and wardrobe and gear trucks from 20 and 40-foot containers, which are critical to producing a serious film. Now we have at least 20 star trailers of different sizes on the island.
I remember kicking the door of the local cinema chains down to get the film into theatrical release locally. I backed that up with months of heavy marketing that had never been seen before – this boosted the confidence of the distributor and Home Again was a commercial success. Prior to this, outside of the film festival, I believe only the local film Santana had had a commercial release. Distributors were not inclined to take a chance on locally produced film.
Do we need to have foreign “stars” legitimise our stories? Think Nick Cannon and King of the Dancehall.
LW: …We must kickstart our stories otherwise others will. Why? Because we have excellent stories, rich stories here in the Caribbean. Foreigners have access to markets and cash. But I truly believe that while we can integrate foreign talent into our productions, we must own our productions just as they do theirs.
Two important lessons for aspiring filmmakers.
LW: Be true to yourself and always have integrity in whatever you do. Remain humble and focus on quality first not the money.
Connect with Lisa at: imaginemediatt.com.
More Fun Facts about Lisa
1. Lisa Wickham started in the media at the age of six on Rikki Tikki, Trinidad & Tobago’s only ‘live’ national television children’s show, a weekly show broadcast.
2. BET licensed her E-Zone television content for BET J and on the Omni 1 television channel over in Canada.
3. Non-creative industry career included managing Institute of Business at University of the West Indies (now the Arthur Lok Jack School of Business) in St. Augustine and as head of the Global Quality Exchange, a World Bank initiative.
4. She trained at the London Film Academy and has a MBA degree. The merging of both led to her having a popular, nighttime radio show on 95.1FM.
5. Most of the local crew that worked and trained alongside the international team on Home Again are now working on local films back-to-back. So now T&T can boast of having an A1 crew, an example of Lisa’s work in motion.
First published in Fortress Magazine 2017 Film Issue (Jamaica)