Interview: US producer Neal urges Rwandan filmmakers to network with experts

American television producer and owner of Burbank-based Park Hill Entertainment Shirley Neal advised local filmmakers, last Thursday, to network with film experts to acquire professional skills.Neal’s producer and writer credits include Travel Channel's "Suite Luxury", A&E's "Biography" series, Tone’s "Living With Soul", NBC Universal's "Remarkable Journey", TV Land's "Inside TV Land" and six seasons of The Los Angeles Emmy Awards, among others.
Shirley Neal during the interview. The New Times /  Timothy Kisambira.
Shirley Neal during the interview. The New Times / Timothy Kisambira.

American television producer and owner of Burbank-based Park Hill Entertainment Shirley Neal advised local filmmakers, last Thursday, to network with film experts to acquire professional skills.

Neal’s producer and writer credits include Travel Channel's "Suite Luxury", A&E's "Biography" series, Tone’s "Living With Soul", NBC Universal's "Remarkable Journey", TV Land's "Inside TV Land" and six seasons of The Los Angeles Emmy Awards, among others.

The star shared her experience in the film industry with The New Times’ Sarah Kwihangana. Below are the excerpts.

Q: What brings you to Rwanda?

A: I am in Rwanda for a number of reasons that include attending the Rwanda film festival and to write an article for the MovieMaker Magazine. It is an international magazine widely distributed in America.

The article I am working on is about the film community in Rwanda but I am mostly focusing on Eric Kabera and his film institute since they are celebrating their 10th anniversary next year.

And as a film maker I am co-producing with Kabera his next feature documentary that will be distributed internationally in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

This is a very uplifting story where we are looking at how the traditional dance and music celebrates the identity of Rwanda.

Q: How would you compare Rwanda’s film industry with that of America?

A: I think its Apples and Oranges because in America particularly where I come from it’s a big business and it’s not regarded as a business here yet. However, I think Rwanda’s film industry is growing and will soon emerge on the continent. And one of the reasons the MovieMaker Magazine was interested in covering it is because there is a lot going on here.

You can’t compare Rwanda’s film industry to that in America, but I can look at it and say it’s an exciting time for the industry.

There are a lot of U.S filmmakers and talent that are looking to come here in Rwanda and do something.

Q: With your vast experience in the film industry, what do you think is lacking in Rwanda and what should be done?

A: It’s something that has been brought up several times. Rwanda needs to surround itself with enough professionals who have launched whether film studios or TV networks and people with experience.

Since this is an emerging industry, it’s important to also work with those who are used to helping galvanise and get them started.

Its all about content, whether its newspaper, TV or film whatever it is, it’s about content. So you need someone who already has that experience and not only in it but someone who has their fingers on the post. People who constantly know what the trends are, what is happening in each of the areas and they know how to get it going.

I’m not very familiar with it  enough to be able to comment on what is really lacking.

Q: You are a filmmaker back at home; tell us about your works

A: I produce for cable television in the US. We have over 500 different channels there, so I produce a variety of programming in sports, music, travel and documentaries. I also helped launch a cable network back in the US called the African channel which is how I became familiar with Rwanda. Through that I produced a few documentaries of what was happening here that encouraged tourism, one of them was about Hillywood, I am a big supporter of what is going on here.

Q: But what are some of the projects you have worked on?

A: I have worked on (gasps). I have produced biographies on notable people. I produced a show called “Prince behind the symbol.” I also have a TV series called “Living with soul”, that is still airing on TV 1 which is a big cable network in the US.

“Passport to Sierra Leone” is another project that I am pretty proud of. I have over 60 shows to my credit.

Q: When did you venture into this industry and where do you derive your passion from?

A: My passion started many years ago when I was still very young. I always wanted to write and also wanted to produce movies. I studied film production in college and just decided after college I was going to do whatever I needed to do to venture into the film industry.

People who want be in television need to watch TV and those who want be filmmakers should watch films and read scripts. So I did a lot of that and started developing my own ideas, then I would pitch them to different networks and it paid off.

Q: What are some of your achievements?

A: I have been able to do everything that I set out to do. I have always wanted to act, I wanted to write and I have done that. I have my own film production company. I think the last thing I want to do now is to write books. That’s something I have not done yet, so I am looking forward to do that.

I have won an Emmy award which is our highest achievement in television and several other awards and recognitions.

I won the Los Angeles Emmy award which is regional and the Image award.  Those are some of the biggest that you would know, but there are also some other smaller ones.

Q: What is the secret to your success?

A: I am very hard-working and multi-task person. I am a producer, writer and editor. I do a lot of stuff and that keeps me upfront.

I am always out there trying to promote myself. I know there are a lot of people out there, who’re good probably even better than me. But if they sit and wait for someone to hire them, they’ll have to wait a little longer. So I am constantly out there pushing as we say, “hustling” and I do everything.

Q: What challenges do you face in your line of work?

A: The biggest challenge is competition. In Hollywood, the competition is stiff because there’re very many talented and experienced people in this industry.

It’s really hard sometimes to get into the networks. With my production company, I may have an idea and I want to get it sold which is hard because there are other 50 companies like mine that are trying to get in there.

So your products must be really unique. And, in the US it’s about ‘whom you know’. You still have to have a good product but you must have a person who’ll help you get into this market.

So the biggest challenge would be trying to get around the competition.

Q: What is your message to the Rwandan filmmakers?

A: Learn as much as you can. If you are interested in writing, don’t just learn writing, you need to understand the other ‘behind the scenes’.

The same thing with acting, you need to study it and really understand the market. Because as a filmmaker you need to know what the market is looking for, you don’t want to waste your time producing a Cowboy movie when you have no market for it.

Get to the internet, subscribe to a lot of these free industry magazines that constantly show the films that are coming up, figure out what is at the film festivals and what people are interested in.

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