When Michael Mankowski returned to Fort McMurray a couple of years ago with friends and business partners Matt Thomas and Jonathan Rice it was done out of necessity. After having made two low budget feature films, they had run out of money and needed to come back to the community they grew up in. Though they had mixed feelings about it, the move to Fort McMurray proved to be the right decision and has led to some remarkable things.
Backing up a little, Mike grew up in Fort McMurray, attended Father Mercredi High School and went off to business school. He shared his story on IMPACT on March 1st, a weekly radio show heard on KAOS 91.1. You can listen to the interview in its entirety by clicking here.
“I graduated with a marketing degree,” said Mankowski. “After that, I got a job working for TD as a mortgage broker and investment planner for a couple of months. I was working at it and enjoying it but the whole time that I went to school I also had a dream of writing screen plays.”
He had immersed himself in the medium over many years, at one point he watched a movie a day for over five years. That passion reached a tipping point.
“While I was working one day, I got tickets to go see Kevin Smith, a famous filmmaker who had won Sundance (Film Festival) the year before for making a $30,000 film. That evening, when I was listening to Kevin talking about just going out there and doing it, I was so inspired that the next day I quit my job and invested everything I had in a single camera.”
Under the banner of Donald Kee Films, they made two feature length films, including The Legend of Wild Bill, an adventure-comedy about the cameraman you never see in the Survivorman television show. Les Stroud, Survivorman, dies and his unseen sidekick decides to go on one final wilderness adventure in his honour. Hilarity ensues as he is completely inept at surviving in the wilds. It was after the completion of this film and while they were trying to pitch it to a number of film festivals that they had to return home. The support they discovered in Fort McMurray proved to be a game changer.
Filming at The HUB Family Resource Centre
“The most amazing thing happened,” he shared. “I came home and was instantly supported by the community I grew up in. For the first time I was getting paying offers to make videos. It changed my world actually.”
Filming the 2015 Community Campaign video with Chair Marty Giles
Mike and his team have produced a number of extraordinary videos for The United Way of Fort McMurray and other social profits in the community, offering their creative expertise and rates that included lots of gift-in-kind support. In the process, they have learned a lot about their community and discovered a passion for giving back.
Through the process of making the first three Seeing Is Believing videos in 2015, Mike decided to get more involved, both with the The Salvation Army – he now serves as a member of their board, and with the United Way – he is a volunteer on the Community Investment Team. He also spent two-and-a-half months volunteering at Mat Program and even went so far as to spend a night there. The experience was intense and at times, a little unnerving, but it allowed Mike to gain the trust of one guest who looked out for him when he was in the shelter and who shared an incredible story.
“He said he worked in the oil sands for over 30 years,” recalled Mike. “His son was 18 when he got killed by a drunk driver. At that point he started drinking and eventually moved to cocaine. A couple of years after that he lost his job, he lost his wife, eventually lost his home and now he’s at the shelter.”
The story really hit home for Mike, as it punctuated the point that something could happen to any of us that could upend our lives.
“Here’s a guy like anyone else in Fort McMurray,” began Mike, “has everything: sleds, a beautiful house, family, and all of a sudden his life is turned upside down.”
They talked on a weekly basis for several months. Eventually the gentlemen agreed to visit the studio at Wood Buffalo Productions to tell his story on camera. What happened next was remarkable.
“After he shared his story, he asked for help,” said Mike. “We took him to treatment and he’s been able to get clean. Just an amazing story. Somehow, I somewhat reminded him of his son and he wanted to make a change in his life. I was so blown away that me just talking to someone could have any impact on their life. It’s forever stuck with me.”
Wood Buffalo Productions has purchased two bears from the Toronto Zoo who will be featured in Getting Lost, a full-length movie that will be filmed in the summer of 2016
Mike, Matt and Jon are heading into an exciting year. They are in the final stages of planning for Getting Lost, a feature film with a multi-million dollar budget. They have funding in place and will be making casting and distribution decisions in the coming weeks.
So why does this filmmaker, who is negotiating with major film companies and stars, place a strong emphasis on giving back to the community?
“I guess the real question is why not,” he said. “I feel extremely fortunate just to have a job I love. I don’t think I’d have been given this opportunity if the community didn’t support me. I know I wouldn’t. The only option was to support the community as well.”