Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Females in Entertainment: NYC's Director Isabella Olaguera Talks about the Pandemic's Affect on Production and how She's Helping her Friends with Feed The Freelancers

I met Isabella Olaguera on the set of the independent film A Case of Blue, shooting outside of NYC in the burbs of Jersey. I was impressed first of all, to see a female as 1st AD and even more impressed to see the other females in the crew she surrounds herself with. 

Being part of a crew, doing production in NYC is a tricky thing; it's gig work and takes a lot of adjusting to the needs of each set. During this pandemic, "adjust" is the key word. Sitting in her apartment, with all production shut down and none even scheduled, Isabella knew she had to do something. And so, she started Feed the Freelancers, recognizing that though she could put food on her table that so many of the people in production that she had worked with through the years were going hungry now. Read on about how she got help from her friends, FEEL, and major companies. As Mr. Rogers said, "the helpers come out."

Suzee: So, tell me about what you do and some of your recent work.

I’m a non-union 1st Assistant Director for commercial and narrative work. Some of my projects include Oscar-nominated short film My Nephew Emmett, international feature film No Land’s Man (directed by Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Tahsan Khan), and All These Small Moments (starring Molly Ringwald and Brian D’Arcy James). I’ve also AD’d commercial spots for clients like Equinox, Facebook & Walmart. 

Suzee: You work gig to gig. Do you have any work in sight right now?

Isabella: All of the projects I had been prepping for when COVID-19 hit were either cancelled or postponed indefinitely. I do have a feature I’m consulting for with rough schedules and preproduction timelines. However, that project is in the early stages and at least 1 year away from principle photography. I have no guaranteed paid projects coming up.

Suzee: What do you think is the future for you and other crew in the next year?

Isabella: Film, TV & live entertainment will likely be some of the last industries to pick back up. When it does, I doubt it will return to our definition of “normal” anytime soon after. I believe that union projects like network television and major motion pictures will be the first shoot because they'll have steady finances and standardized operating guidelines from their unions. Independent filmmaking, however, will be difficult to fund and shoot in a post-coronavirus economy and environment. 

Isabella Olaguero on the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards in LA

Suzee: New York has unique challenges compared to LA, tell me about that.

Isabella: Summer 2020 will be a trial period for New York - if quarantine is lifted and productions start up again, the industry will only have a few months max to operate (LA is looking at a safer-at-home order through July, so if NYC follows suit then we’d at most have August through early fall). The indie industry tends to taper off in late fall as we lose daylight and warm weather. The winter months have always been slow for NYC entertainment industries, and I predict that this winter will be one of the worst we’ve seen recently for unemployment.

I believe that for the time being, business as usual for us in the New York indie industry will change… a lot. Crews will need to be leaner in size, even for larger budgets. We won’t be able to condense ourselves into small shooting locations or passenger vans like we’re used to. Communal craft services and catering will need to change. Scenes with lots of actors and extras may be rewritten to accommodate smaller casts.

However, I believe that of any group of people, film professionals can be some of the best equipped to adapt quickly in an ever-changing environment. We’re used to encountering new scenarios every day, and solving unforeseen problems on the fly. I have faith that we’ll be able to come out of this pandemic more prepared to handle issues like this in the future.

"When the quarantine first started, 
I had a hard time finding purpose"
- Isabella Olageura, Founder of Feed The Freelancers

Suzee: You are very connected to this community in the NYC area. What gave you the idea and motivation to start Feed the Freelancers?

Isabella: When the quarantine first started, I had a hard time finding purpose. I’ve been working as a 1st AD non-stop for several years now, and my work defines a large part of who I am. When I lost that, I didn’t know how to spend my time. I felt useless. But after noticing that large produce companies were donating food to charity groups, I figured out a way I could help. I knew that many of my fellow freelancers were struggling to afford groceries, let alone their rent, and decided that I could help connect that food to the people who needed it. 
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Suzee: So how did you get started?

Isabella: Right after I came up with the idea to start Feed the Freelancers, I started working on fundraising. I published a GoFundMe page and shared the campaign on Facebook. At first, I was only looking for $1,000 in addition to my personal donation of $500 to get us off the ground. 

Suzee: Were there people you turned to?

Isabella: I put together a team of other film crew members I trusted, including Adam Richlin at Lightbulb Grip & Electric, my fellow AD Gabriel Galvez, and a longtime network connection, Jacqueline Patchen. We teamed up with another film industry-run organization, FEEL, to help with our starting logistics. We made our funding goal in only a few days, planned our operation, and completed our first round within two weeks!

Suzee: And did I hear you raised over 16K? WOW!

Isabella: Since then, our project has taken off in ways we never could have imagined. We operate a beautiful website designed by Nicholas Keil at phecla! along with official Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn pages run by our social media manager Anthony Asaro. Through sharing on social media platforms, getting shout-outs from influencers in our network, and speaking on podcasts and for news outlets, we’ve been able to raise over $16,000 for the cause! We have also secured partnerships with companies like The Home Depot Brewster and Tortilleria Chinantla, who provide us with donations of food and site supplies every week.

Suzee: So how much food does that translate to? And how do you work with FEEL?

Isabella: Since Feed the Freelancers’ inception, we’ve completed 6 rounds of deliveries, sent out over 700 grocery boxes, and fed more than 1000 people! We’ve opened another site in Philadelphia, and are working on expansion to Los Angeles, Jersey City, and other locations nationwide. We currently partner with several charitable organizations so we can share our resources and provide food to medical professionals and undeserved communities. FEEL, one of our partners, sources our drivers and vehicles and supervises the delivery process for us. 

Suzee: I've found that when one start something good, the universe sends others to help us. Can you tell me if you've experienced this?

Isabella: Feed the Freelancers has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the freelance community. So many people reach out to us offering their time as volunteers, donated goods or services, financial contributions, and press opportunities. We also receive messages of thanks every day from the hundreds of people we have helped. Kind words and support keep all of us inspired to push forward and keep this initiative going.

Suzee: How can individuals, companies and restaurants help you?

Isabella: We accept help in many different ways. Individuals can donate to our GoFundMe if they can, share our links and website, or give us a shout out on social media! We also accept donations of goods, supplies, and financial contributions from larger companies. We are most in need of grocery donations of rice, pasta, beans, stock, and bread as well as bulk paper towels and toilet paper. We also accept all kinds of other shelf-stable and non-refrigerated goods. Some much-appreciated donations have been thousands of pounds of fresh produce from Red Hook Terminals, hundreds of bags of tortillas from Tortilleria Chinantla, tubs of Sunbutter, boxes of Michel Augustin cookies, and cases of english muffins from Grupo Bimbo.

Suzee: So you've got  a few people to give a shout out? 

Isabella: Also, I wanted to give a shout out to my flagship team members - Adam, Jacqueline, Gabriel, Erin, Andy, and Nick to name a few - who help me with every single facet of this organization. Weekly grocery orders, recipe cards, social media content, donation call list, press write-ups, delivery routes and expansion strategies are just a few of the tasks we tackle together.

Facebook & Instagram: @FeedtheFreelancers