Interview: Tom Fitz / Executive Director - Schoolyard Films

When was Schoolyard Films started? 

  • Legally we got started in 2008 as an educational non-profit, and in 2009 we started putting films and study guides out.
  • Where did the idea come from to start Schoolyard Films? Where did the idea for the first film come from? 
    • Well, I have three children, and for a several years I would go to their science classrooms in school and give behind the scenes slideshows and present either a full film or a portion of a film or two, and it was always great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved seeing the enthusiasm first-hand from the kids in the audience, so the idea really came out of those presentations that I was doing for my kids’ science classes. I realized that teachers could really use films geared for their classes. Films short enough so that they’ve got time at the start of the class to introduce the film, then to show the film , and then, still in the same class setting, have a chance to discuss the film and concepts afterwards.
  • What was the first film?
    • Well, in order to jump start Schoolyard Films, [my wife] Karina and I donated a couple of BBC films that I had retained rights to. So “Florida’s Wild Side” must have been our first film, along with “Bat Women of Panama” and “A Summer on Golden Pond.” We put in these films from my library to get us started, and then the first film that we produced for Schoolyard Films was “A Day on the River.”
  • You won some awards for that film, didn’t you? 
    • We did. “A Day on the River” won the award for “Best Children’s Film” at the International Wildlife Film Festival, in Missoula, Montana. And it took a number of other awards, too, including a Merit Award for Scientific Information and another for our two presenters, Tim Walsh and Steve DeCresie. It did very well. 
  • How is Schoolyard Films mainly funded? 
    • We have a number of foundations that have been funding us each year, and we’re certainly appreciative of their help. I’m always looking for more and new foundations to come on board, those who have aligned interests with ours in terms of education and the environment and kids and stewardship of the planet, so that’s how I’ve done it. We also have some individual contributors who like what we’re doing and write us a check each year. 
  • How much does each film cost to produce? 
    • I tend to budget our films at about $35,000 per project. When I say per project I mean the film gets made from A to Z with that amount of money, plus the study guides are produced from that pot of money as well. We’ve stayed pretty close to that for all of our films. As far as TV films go, it’s very low budget. I like to think that we have high production values in our films, but with that amount of money we are very careful with the topics that we choose so that I know that when we get a film crew on site, unless there’s a hurricane or something, we really should be assured that we can do the work and get the material we need. This means we don’t choose topics that include a long waiting game in the field to get specific animal behaviour, for example, because that would require a much higher budget. 
  • What is the next film about? 
    • The next film that we have coming out, is on climate change. We’ve teamed up with a couple of groups; one of them is a non-profit that does field work up in Churchill, Canada, called Polar Bear International. They support a lot of work around polar bear research. Through them we were able to interview a number of their scientists with the second group that we’ve teamed up with, and that is a the Jupiter high school here in Florida. We teamed up with an AP biology teacher and her students, who sat down in front of a big TV monitor and a decent sound system for a video interview with the scientists up in Canada. They had prepared questions in advance and then were face to face between Florida and Canada so that they were able to have a lovely exchange and ask questions. From that interview, one of the students, who is quite an activist, was inspired to create a project of her own, which we have been building into the film. It has to do with power consumption and what we as individuals can do on a daily basis to combat the problem of global warming and climate change. So in a nutshell that’s what our film will look at: climate science and grassroots activism.
  • Did you go up to Canada to do some filming as well?
    • For just about all the films I’ve always gone on site to do the camerawork, with the exception of Kathy Kasic’s film, “Against the Current,” which we bought in for Schoolyard. With this film we’ve taken a very different approach, which made our budget affordable because I simply didn’t have the funding to travel to Canada. Our audience (K-12th grade) is certainly growing up with technology in ways that I didn’t; they’re very much a part of the YouTube generation, so it fit nicely for us to do our science interviews via a Skype-like technology. And by teaming up with Polar Bears International we were also able to use footage that they shot up there in Canada, at no cost to us, which is a huge help. So the short answer is we produced and shot our end of the film from here in Florida, and used the internet in lieu of expensive travel to Canada. 
  • Where do ideas for new films generally come from and what’s next after the climate change film? 
    • Lots of our films come out of shoots that I do as a freelancer. Most of my work is with the BBC’s Natural History Unit, so I will do a bunch of shoots for them, and then I’ll say gosh, you know what, this story we’re working on now would be a perfect fit for Schoolyard Films. So without a doubt I get great ideas from those shoots, plus I team up with the scientists that we’ll probably end up working with, too. So the freelance work helps make wonderful inroads for Schoolyard Films projects.
      The next film that we’re going to do is one on coral reef restoration and that came out of a shoot I did for a different UK company (Passion Pictures) about a year and a half ago. It’s one of the few feel good coral reef stories, because obviously coral reefs have been taking a pretty thorough beating of late. But the scientists we'll work with are growing and replanting corals on to the reef, which helps to build them up. It’s a really nice story. I’m planning to shoot it during the last week of October. We’ll work with Ken Nedimyer at the Coral Restoration Foundation and also Dave Vaughan farther down the Keys at Mote Marine’s Tropical Research Laboratory. Possibly, too, in Miami at a coral lab through NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. There’s still lots of research to do before we start shooting.