ACCESS REELWORLD Database Is Literally Changing the Face of the Canadian Entertainment Industry

Chances are, unless you’ve actually met Tonya Williams, you’ve never met anyone quite like Tonya Williams. Most widely known for her Daytime Emmy-nominated role on The Young and the Restless, this truly global citizen is presently celebrating the 20th anniversary of Canada’s Reelworld Film Festival, which she founded. The virtual 2020 festival launched on 14 October, and carries on until the 19th.

Tonya Williams

Meanwhile, already wheels-up at full velocity is Williams’ corresponding website Access Reelworld: Canada’s largest national database dedicated to helping diverse professionals in screen-based industries get hired for diverse projects. Both above and below the line, Canadian talent and tradespeople from Black, Indigenous, Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latinx backgrounds are already finding work through Access Reelworld, with support from the CBC, Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Media Fund, both the Directors and Writers Guilds of Canada, and many more big firms and guilds. Also benefiting are productions aiming to meet the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ new diversity guidelines. It’s win all over the place.

In addition to the new database and 20-years-strong film festival, Ms. Williams has also created the charity foundation Reelworld Screen Institute, which fosters professional development for diverse Canadian professionals via year-round initiatives, programs, and events. Busy lady! She works hard. It’s a pleasure and privilege to speak with her, even as she leads with a Sisyphus reference — though futile struggles aren’t part of this picture.

“I was just thinking today that none of my life has actually been easy,” she chuckles. “I’m so used to that: it’s just never been easy. So when I started Reelworld, it really has been pushing a very large boulder up a very steep hill for 20 years. And everything that happened with George Floyd is what awakened the world to anti-black racism, and the importance of diversity and inclusion. So I feel like I’ve waited 20 years for this awakening to happen, and we’ve been positioned right at the right place at the right time.”

Industry Panel at 2019’s Reelworld Film Festival

We turn to the design and creation of Access Reelworld, which is exceptionally useful, and user-friendly.

“Oh, it was wonderful,” Ms. Williams notes. “Ever since I started Reelworld in 2001 with our inaugural, I’ve wanted to do a database. But you can only imagine 20 years ago, the technology was hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we couldn’t afford it. So every year I’m always checking and checking and checking, but last year I found a developer out of Montreal — he’d never done an actual database, but he’d built other things, like a dating site. The entertainment industry is the only thing I know, and I’m on a lot of databases, so I sent him a lot that he could look at, and I wanted to be as user-friendly as possible.”

Their success is readily observed online, serving Canadians across the country, and across the spectrum noted above.

Actor Lyric Bent with Tonya Williams

“And then you get into the finer details,” she adds, “like what union are you with, or are you non-union, and how many years of experience do you have? Right now we have 98 job categories, so everything, not just writer, director, actor; we’ve got medic, on-set tutor, assistant — everything that you can think of, from construction, to the driver, to the locations manager, because we want everyone to work.

“We have a lot of productions that happen in Canada. A lot of them come up not only from the U.S., but we get them from Australia, the U.K. — Vikings shot some of their stuff in Canada — so with all that production going on, we just want to make sure that Canadians who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour get an opportunity to be hired for those jobs. That was really the key behind the entire database.

“What’s really great about this database is it’s: 1) encouraging people to sign up who are Canadian and who are racially diverse; 2) encouraging the industry in Canada to hire them. You’ve heard for years: ‘Oh, I would hire, but I don’t know where that person is,’ or, ‘I can’t find that person to fill this job’ — they don’t have that excuse anymore. This is a tool that they can use. But we also want to engage racially diverse creators to hire other people who are racially diverse.”

Actor Emmanuel Kabongo receives the 2019 Reelworld Trailblazer Award

I ask Ms. Williams what she recommends for new users to get the most benefit out of the site, and to be of most benefit to those searching for them.

“I love that you asked that,” she enthuses, gratifying the journalist. “It’s that people do not complete their profile! (laughs) They go on, and they put up their photo, and they fill out a few things, and maybe they go, ‘I’ll get back to this later.’ But it’s like half-filling out a résumé: if you don’t fill out every piece of it — and it’s pretty intense, if you go through with it; we want to know what languages you speak, because we get a lot of production even from India, those Bollywood movies, some are shot in Canada — so people might want to know what languages you speak, what skill-sets you have. We also ask: Can you work outside of Canada? I’m Canadian, but I’m also a U.S. citizen. I’m also a U.K. citizen. These are boxes that you can check.

“Last week, Disney was in town, and they actually reached out to me, and said, ‘We want to get on Access Reelworld’ — so I kind of did the little tutorial for them, because one of the key producers was looking for an assistant, and because she was black, she would like to give the opportunity to someone else black, and she said, ‘This is so easy.’ She found four people that she liked the look of, what they had written down, their experience, and reached out to them. That’s really what we want.

“And we want people to go on — just fill out the questions. There’s even a section where you can put up your own demo reel, from your Vimeo link to your IMDb to your Twitter to your Instagram. Put all the information you can, because someone is looking on there, and they’re trying to get a sense of who you are.”

Ava DuVernay at Reelworld in 2008

As for how Reelworld initiatives can help people prosper, a couple of cases in point: Alison Duke, a former journalist turned filmmaker whose Raisin’ Kane: A Rapumentary launched at Reelworld, paving the way for a fruitful career to this day; and Simu Liu, a Canadian actor who got started through Reelworld’s Incubator program and associated networking, leading to his being cast as Shang-Chi in a new movie by some company called “Marvel” or something? You can Google it.

As for how Reelworld first began, and how it — and Ms. Williams — have overcome various obstacles en route to continuing successes, the story is inspirational, instructive, and relatable:

“I was going to the Toronto International Film Festival when I was 17, but I didn’t even know I was at a film festival — because I’ve always loved foreign films, and I would just take off [“eh?” -Ed.] and go, and I’d buy a ticket, and watch a foreign film. And because I’m also a hoarder, years later I have found those tickets, that say ‘Festival of Festivals,’ which was what the TIFF was called. We’re talking, this is in the late ’70s that I was going there.”

Critic and TIFF Programmer Cameron Bailey receives the 2007 Reelworld Visionary Award

“I’ve always been someone who went to festivals,” she reflects, “from Sundance to Toronto, the American Black Film Festival, Urban World Film Festival, the Pan-African — there is no better ground. If you’re in the entertainment industry, where else can you go? You can meet the really experienced people, people who are just emerging, people who are just even thinking about it. You meet people on all levels. You are making these connections, building these relationships.

“So when I thought of: ‘What initiative can I do in Canada? Because I was in L.A., in a very great job, Y&R, and I’d been there almost 20 years (laughs), loved it, but I wanted to do something else. Every time I would travel to Toronto because I was invited to speak at events, I would get all these young people coming up to me, and they weren’t asking me, ‘How do I get in the industry?’ — which was disturbing. They were asking me, ‘How do I get to the U.S.A.?’”

Practice, man, practice… (Heh. Pardon.)

“These are really talented Black, Indigenous, People of Colour in Canada, asking me, ‘How do I get to the U.S.,” so we were having a serious brain-drain problem, and I thought, if I had to create one initiative that could do the most good, I just thought a film festival would be it. And it worked out that it was right.

“But it’s so funny that the first year that I did it, I got a lot of blowback from people in emails going, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re segregating people.’ They really didn’t get it, at all. The industry as a whole was very supportive. But you’ve always got those people that are emailing you, saying that you’re a racist because you’re trying to help a specific ethnic group — which I always find hilarious. Just two days ago I got one from a white supremacist — they’re always emailing me — and they’re like, ‘How is this not racism when you are trying to just get jobs for — whatever’ — and I emailed him: ‘Just study history a little bit. I can’t explain the last thousand years to you.’”

Directors Richie Mehta, Giancarlo Esposito, and Charles Officer at Reelworld in 2008

“So Reelworld, what what was great, is that I don’t think everybody got it,” Tonya continues, “but the first inaugural festival, when they saw that audience, and they saw people’s faces, they just went crazy. They had no idea, the impact of it. I think I had been lucky, because living in L.A. had changed my perspective. In Canada we all kind of walk around, and we’re all different diversities, and we take it for granted. And even though there are barriers and challenges, I think we don’t really notice. Black people, we assume these limitations are there. Americans really taught me that you fight for shit! (laughs)

“Coming down to L.A., I saw the black community really come together. I mean, they’re a powerful group in Hollywood. I saw the Latino community come together, and be a powerful group. That inspired me to ask: Why are we not doing anything in Canada? When I was first in L.A., people would say, ‘Where are you from?’ and I’d go, ‘Canada,’ and they’d go, ‘There are black people there?’ They didn’t even know we existed up there, and they didn’t know we have content, that we were trying to be filmmakers in the industry. But we were a little bit apathetic about it. We weren’t fighting the fight, like they were in the U.S.

“Sometimes they say in Canada, ‘That’s like an American,’ and I go, ‘You say that like it’s a bad thing.’ Americans really stand for stuff, and they really fight for stuff, and I do like that.”

Women in the Director’s Chair: Tonya Williams with Dr. Carol Whiteman

Ms. Williams has certainly persevered, bringing that spirit wherever she goes. We close with her reflection on how her first Reelworld festival started to change the game.

“We opened our film festival in 2001 with an indigenous film called Bearwalker. Shirley Cheechoo, the director, tried to get her film in every festival in Canada. And they said no. The film had actually screened at Cannes! It had screened at Sundance! She couldn’t get it in any Canadian film festival. We screened it at Reelworld — it was huge. The film was outstanding. It overcame those kinds of microaggressions, where people don’t respect, or give opening or access to a film, because the film itself doesn’t fit into their bucket of what they think an audience wants. They don’t seem to understand that the audience has changed. The audience is people like you and me. That’s the audience. We want to see ourselves reflected on the screen.”

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Images courtesy of Access Reelworld.

Access Reelworld

Reelworld Film Festival

Writer-director-producer Gregory earned a Cinema degree from USC SCA, worked many industry jobs, and won L.A. Press Club’s top Entertainment Journalism award.