Growing up as an only child in Armagh, Joan Burney Keatings MBE could not have imagined that one day she would be brushing shoulders with celebrities, chatting with movie stars, and helping to shape the careers of thousands of budding filmmakers.
But, as chief executive of Cinemagic, the international film and television festival for young people, Joan has made dreams come true for young people from all over Northern Ireland and, with their new feature film recently in the can, there is even more yet to come.
Having attended Armagh Royal, Joan went on to study business at the University of Ulster Jordanstown and gained a Masters in Communications.
Working in the family business gave Joan a passion for customer service that she has carried with her throughout her career.
“We had a clothes shop growing up so I was always working, travelling to clothes shows, and I always enjoyed working with the customers,” Joan explained. “When I finished my degree I said my dream job would be to work with young people, and to work in film and television.”
So after university, Joan started working with the BBC, in events and communications. “I was out on the road with a lot of shows, including George Jones, Patrick Kielty, Hugo Duncan,” she continued. “I always loved it and there was a real buzz. I had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Joan was keen to get involved with the work of Cinemagic and was delighted when she succeeded in securing the post of chief executive.
That was 16 years ago and she is as passionate about her role now as she was when she first started. “I really wanted to get involved with Cinemagic and I loved their ethos,” explained Joan. “It had so much potential to grow. That was 16 years ago and it seems like yesterday. It has been the most incredible journey.
“I have a very supportive board and a lot of flexibility. When I have come up with new, inventive, fun ideas, the board have been very, very supportive. Over the last 10 years we have developed the festival to work with over 100,000 young people in Belfast, Dublin, London, France, New York, and LA.”
Since taking up her position as chief executive, Joan has worked tirelessly to expand the organisation and has turned it into a worldwide name.
“Cinemagic started 27 years ago and it always had a very strong education and outreach focus, which I was keen expand. Growing up in Armagh there wouldn’t have been a lot of opportunities to get involved in the arts and I was always keen to expand Cinemagic worldwide. For me the purpose is really to help young people unlock their creativity, to take them out of their everyday environment and put them with like-minded people to see what they can achieve.” Over the years Joan has worked to expand Cinemagic outside of Northern Ireland, taking it to Dublin, London and even France. However, her ambitions went even further than that, as she dreamed of taking Cinemagic, and the young people involved, to the home of movies, the United States.
“One day I had a crazy idea to open Cinemagic in New York and LA,” said Joan. “I had no contacts and didn’t know anyone but I headed off on my own and did 64 meetings over a few days and everyone I spoke to said it was a great idea but nothing fell into place immediately. Then suddenly on my last day it all came together. We found two amazing schools and we knew that’s where the project should be based.
‘‘That first year 12 students came out from Belfast to Hamilton High School for Performing Arts in LA.
‘‘Now we take 15-20 young people from all over Northern Ireland and they get to showcase short films they have made and many of them manage to secure internships in the States as well.”
And as if that wasn’t enough, Joan then decided that Cinemagic should make its own feature length film. To mark the organisation’s 25th anniversary in 2015, Cinemagic produced A Christmas Star, which has now been screened across the world. Such was the success of A Christmas Star, Cinemagic recently finished shooting a second feature film Grace and Goliath.
With endless energy, enthusiasm and passion for her work, it is obvious there will be no slowing Joan down and she already has ambitions for the next stage of her Cinemagic journey.