Reel Works Celebrates 20 Years of Mentoring Budding Filmmakers

Two decades before diversity in film and TV went from a minor industry concern to a mandate, Reel Works became a pioneering force in teaching underserved youth about filmmaking and bringing them into the business.

On May 26, co-founders Stephanie Walter and John C. Williams will celebrate the nonprofit’s many achievements at the Reel Works 20th Anniversary Gala. During the virtual and in-person New York City benefit event, hosted by “Hamilton’s” Bryan Terrell Clark, actress-writer-producer Issa Rae will be honored with the annual Changemaker award, and Variety will bestow its inaugural Voice of Inspiration Award on filmmaker Eddie Huang. Other honorees are playwright Fanshen Cox, lawyer Kalpana Kotagal and Endeavor Content’s Dr. Tasmin Plater. The F. John Outcalt filmmaking award will be announced at the event.

It’s all quite a leap from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park YMCA, where newlywed TV producers Walter and Williams were hired to teach teens to create a doc about retired Merchant Mariners in March 2001.

“We could see the disparities between kids growing up in [Brooklyn’s] Park Slope then,” Walter says. “I remember saying to John, ‘I wish we could help kids in underserved communities to find their voice artistically…’ and then, miraculously, the YMCA called us.” While making the doc, “the kids would tell us about their lives, and we realized we could help them put their lives into films.”

They reached out to public schools to enlist teens for Reel Works’ first incarnation, the Prospect Park YMCA Filmmakers Program, and discovered claymation artist Robert Yulfo from the Red Hook housing projects.

“The reason we’re here today is because of Robbie, because we sold his film ‘Clay Life’ to HBO Family,” Williams says. “The YMCA told us that our funding was going away due to the recession. We were about to close up shop and go back to our television careers, but within a year, HBO became our sponsor.”

Yulfo, now a graphic artist on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” is one of the org’s biggest success stories, and among more than 53% of its graduates who went on to work in media.

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John C. Williams and Stephanie Walter (center) are surrounded by some of the kids in the Reel Works program. Courtesy of Sarah Stacke/Reel Works

The program was renamed the HBO Young Filmmakers Lab in 2002, establishing its first Lab Documentary Workshop, which is still their core focus.

“We also created a mentoring program, and that was very unique in the youth media world,” Williams says. “Every student who comes to Reel Works is paired individually with a professional filmmaker.” In an effort to bring in more sponsors, they renamed it Reel Works in 2004.

Perhaps the biggest revelation to tens of millions of people who’ve seen Reel Works projects at screenings, festivals, on public television and YouTube over the years — and to the founders themselves — is the way they “allow us to understand how kids think,” Walter says. “A lot of these films were about losing your parents, trying to deal with a drug-addicted parent, eating disorders…”

Once the founders realized that teens were coming to them with their most personal stories, she adds, they knew they “couldn’t just cut them loose” after each film project wrapped. So they began consulting with educators, social workers and therapists to make Reel Works a five-day-a-week, nearly year-round operation, with a stronger emphasis on mentoring “and a consistent home for them to come to.”

Reel Works has continued to grow steadily — creating a Narrative Lab in 2006, Reel Futures Media Internships and Reel Works in Schools programs in 2010, their first feature (“72 Hours: A Brooklyn Love Story?”) in 2016 and the Reel Works Fellows program in 2018. Last year, its student-led Reel Works Prods. division booked nearly $200,000 in paid client projects.

The org’s recent partnerships have greatly expanded its industry training. In 2019, it joined forces with the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, the City University of New York, media companies and unions to create MediaMKRS, a program to prepare and credential students for media and entertainment careers. It led to the Netflix/IATSE Studio Mechanics Boot Camp, in which electric and grip department pros qualify grads for NYC union productions. And in March, it launched the WarnerMedia Access Post Coordinator Training virtual program, a free seven-week course for BIPOC early- career professionals to develop post-production skills.

In 20 years, Reel Works has grown from a $25,000 project to a nonprofit with a $3 million annual budget, 11 full- and 30 part-time staffers and volunteers who help about 1,000 people a year.
“We’ve learned that mentoring is the most important thing that can happen in a person’s life,” Williams says, “with the time and attention of a caring community of like-minded people.”