Viacom Partners with Reel Works on Annual Day of Service

How the Brooklyn-based organization Reel Works cultivates the next generation of media talent.
May 20, 2019 4:05 PM ET
Reel Works students and Viacom volunteers, including Patricia Henry at center, during the May 15 event. Photo credit: Ryan Rivard.

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By Stuart Winchester

In 2006, Patricia Henry was a high school senior working through a complicated mix of feelings about sex.

So when her school introduced her to a program called Reel Works—which recruits underserved teenagers and, via after-school, in-school and workforce programs, teaches them the filmmaking skills that can act as a precursor to a career in media—she found a creative outlet through which she could channel her curiosity.

The result was What You Lose, a seven-and-a-half minute documentary that explores teenage attitudes on sex through a series of interviews and confessionals shot in Brooklyn walk-ups and on playgrounds.

Eventually, Henry parlayed her experience creating the film and working for Reel Works into a video editing job at Comedy Central, and then more broadly servicing all of Viacom’s networks. She recently returned to Reel Works’ offices with a few dozen other Viacom employees for a Viacommunity Day event where students could show off their current projects, discuss production challenges and ideas, and meet professionals with a range of experiences and skills. (The event was one of hundreds of volunteer opportunities held around the globe in May as part of the 23rd annual Viacommunity Day.)

Investing in the Next Generation of Creators

Viacom has supported the efforts of Reel Works for more than a decade, acting as a sponsor for the organization’s annual gala, providing a pipeline of mentors and job-shadowing opportunities, and lending production expertise and facilities to student projects. Reel Works, in turn, is an invaluable on-the-ground partner doing the tough and necessary work of identifying the next generation of diverse creative and production talent.

With a relatively modest $2 million annual budget, support from Viacom and other partner companies—HBO is a longtime benefactor, for example—is essential. “There’s no version of Reel Works that would work unless a media company was directly involved,” says Reel Works’ co-founder and Executive Director John Williams.

But it’s not just about the financial support. Industry volunteers from companies like Viacom expose students to the marketing, research, technology and other support jobs that are as essential to television as cameras and scripts.

“It’s incredibly powerful,” says Williams, who, with his wife Stephanie Walter (a producer for VH1 in the 1990s) grew Reel Works out of a student workshop that they taught in 2001 at the Prospect Park YMCA in Brooklyn. “You cannot be it if you do not see it. Meeting those professionals and seeing that they’re just people like them—and as often as possible we make sure they meet people who look like them—teaches them that there are actually jobs here. Here’s someone who looks like me who does this for a living. It really changes their perspective on what might be possible.”

"Reel Works is doing a lot for diversity and inclusion, training these kids on how to have the skills to work behind the scenes."
Gerald Yarborough
Art Director, Nickelodeon and Reel Works boardmember

Viacom has expanded its contributions to Reel Works over the years, most recently by sponsoring two programs: Reel Impact and Up Creative.

Reel Impact, funded for the past three years with an annual $25,000 grant, pairs Viacom marketing, social media and audience specialists with students to teach them online and social media marketing, a necessary post-production skill that ambitious young filmmakers often overlook.

Up Creative, now in its second year, matches students with Viacom brand teams to create mini-projects, such as a SpongeBob SquarePants promo.

Viacom also regularly sponsors one-off projects. This summer, for example, Paramount Network will purchase cameras, computers, software and other equipment to set up a filmmaking studio at Barringer High School in Newark, N.J. The network will collaborate with Reel Works on a weeklong crash course in producing social impact documentaries.

Individual employees also volunteer through Viacom’s Talent for Good program. So far, they’ve helped to modernize the Reel Works’ website, created a blog and a marketing campaign, and expanded the organization’s social media capabilities.

Creating ‘Opportunities That Wouldn't Exist Elsewhere.’

The relationship is symbiotic, as Reel Works is establishing a pipeline of diverse and underrepresented talent that will benefit all companies involved in television development and production.

“Reel Works is doing a lot for diversity and inclusion, training these kids on how to have the skills to work behind the scenes,” says Gerald Yarborough, an art director at Nickelodeon who sits on Reel Works’ board. “There’s a lack of diversity across the board in media and in film, and Reel Works is helping to give voice to tomorrow’s diverse storytellers.”

Henry, for example, never made another film after What You Lose. But, after a brief college stint, she worked at Reel Works as a do-it-all administrator, teacher, assistant, and producer. That experience gave her what she needed to land her current job at Viacom, editing footage from shows and live events for distribution on social media.

“I don’t think there’s any way I would have ended up working at Viacom as editor if I didn’t find Reel Works in high school,” says Henry, whose dad worked in building maintenance and whose mom was an administrative worker for a glass-cutting company. “After you make that first film, there’s so much more you can do at Reel Works and that’s kind of how you learn more and get opportunities that wouldn’t exist elsewhere.”