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Allied Arts & Media

Little Company, Big Vision

Maria Kennedy, executive producer and owner of Little Engine Moving Pictures. Collage image: pk mutch

What was your favourite tv show when you were a kid?

If you’re an 80’s baby, it may have been Babar, Thundercats or Inspector Gadget. If you grew up in the 90s, maybe it was Lamb Chop’s Play Along, Pokemon or Gargoyles. If you’re Gen Z, you probably binged on Caillou, Teen Titans, and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Whatever your favourite, you most certainly remember it. The shows we watch as children tend to hold a nostalgic place in our hearts – and have a formative impact on our minds.

Meet Maria Kennedy, executive producer and owner of media company Little Engine Moving Pictures, who is creating TV, film and interactive content for the next generation of “the young and the young-at-heart.”

Kennedy, who identifies as mixed race Caucasian and Filipino, grew up in “a small out port town” in “the heel of the boot” in Newfoundland, a community that was “almost entirely white,” she says. “Growing up as a kid, one thing was for sure – I did not see a lot of myself on TV or media. And so now I have an opportunity to change that.”

Her mandate? “To do something that makes an impact and is sort of transformative in the children’s and family space.” She describes the shows her company develops as “progressive, aiming to have “50-50 gender balance” and sexual, gender and racial diversity.

Kennedy graduated with an applied degree in fashion from Ryerson University. Her grandmother was a seamstress in the Philippines, and her mother sewed all the family’s clothes, so it came “somewhat naturally” to her, she says. She focused on costume design, which is what “got her in” with film students. She went onto work in set decoration, wardrobe and art departments then became an assistant producer, where she started “from the ground up” working on commercials, music videos and branded content.

“I was always keen to take on new responsibilities–I think part of being the offspring of an immigrant or coming from an immigrant family is that you are very work-oriented. I don’t know if that’s a survival thing or what, but I’m a very work-oriented person.

Kennedy started Little Engine in 2013 with her husband, Ben Mazzotta, a director, originally focusing on corporate content, but she really wanted to create kids programming. “We had young kids, and I was watching and researching the shows my children were watching – I had control of the remote at that point,” she says. “My parents were both educators. I liked the idea of curriculum-lead content that could be very entertaining and also progressive that had, you know, diversity and definitely gender parity, because there are so many kids shows where the main characters are little boys and not girls.”

So, they gathered some puppeteer friends they had met while attending Ryerson University and shot a “little six-minute pilot” in their dining room, what would become Now You Know, a science-based educational program geared to four-to-six year-olds. Says Kennedy: “I sent it to TVO and the head of TVO Kids liked it and she immediately greenlit it into production.”

Kennedy became sole owner of the company in 2016, when Mazzotta stepped back to focus on content for adults. The company now has a “growing team” of six that balloons to around 60 heading into production and strives to pay fair living wages and be inclusive in hires, both on camera and behind the camera. “If you look at our crew shots, we try to have as much diversity as possible. And I try to make that known.”

Although she did not set out to build an intentionally feminist company, Kennedy found that as she created kids shows and leaned towards working with female creators that her work became increasingly focused on “not only gender, but making sure there was equality.

“I think it was really just in the course of gaining experience as a business owner that made (the company) more of a feminist company. I evolved as a feminist. And it was really only in the last few years that I learned to use my voice and I (began) seeking out spaces where I could explore and learn more about being a feminist business owner.

“Everyone is talking about diversity, everyone is talking about gender parity and equity,” says Kennedy. “And that’s one of the first things that I’m going to talk about if I’m pitching a show, if I’m looking for a show to develop, you know. Those are among the first qualities that I’m looking for.”

For example, Little Engine is currently developing a “space-adventure comedy series” aimed at eight-to-12 year-olds called Starseeker, which features a strong female lead of colour and a racially diverse cast. A teen series in development, Local Heroes, features an openly lesbian lead.

Representation in kids programming has traditionally been white cis-heterosexual male focused– think about the way men and women are portrayed in classic series like He-man or the 90s X-Men, all barrel chests and heaving breasts, or the dearth of Princesses of colour in the Disney franchise (not to mention its reticence to just give Frozen queer-icon Elsa a freaking girlfriend already– although there are rumours they may rectify this in Frozen 3).This is an overarching problem in the industry even now; a 2019 study by the Center for Scholars and Storytellers found that children’s programming focused mainly on male characters and there was serious under representation of people of colour, women and characters with disabilities.

Despite this lack of variety, there appears to be a serious hunger for more diversity. Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is more of a re-imaging than a remake of 80’s She-Ra, which featured a scantily clad heroine; the updated version features openly homosexual relationships, including those between people of colour, strong female leads with a variety of body types, and neurodivergent and openly non-binary characters. That show wrapped up in early 2020 to glowing critical reviews and nearly a dozen award nominations.

So, what does long term success look like for Little Engine Moving Pictures? Kennedy says, for her, it’s a very practical thing.

“It really comes back to what I would want, as a team member, and that’s to have a fulfilling job and a career, one that’s financially viable,” she says, with a smile. “And, obviously, to tell kids stories that travel the world, that make an impact on a young audience so that it transforms them, in some way.

“That’s really inspiring to me.”


Publishers Note: Little Engine is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for women in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.

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Allied Arts & Media

Writers for the Real World

Kulbinder Saran Caldwell, founder and CEO, REALLIFE Pictures. Photo provided.

Not satisfied with the lackluster effort the TV and film industry employs when it comes to including people of colour in writers’ rooms, Toronto-based Kulbinder Saran Caldwell took matters into her own hands. She founded REALLIFE Pictures INC, a literary agency run by agents of colour to represent film writers of colour. The company also runs a film and television production house alongside the “boutique literary agency” that gives “diverse, neurodiverse and LGBTQ screenplay and television writers a voice in the entertainment industry.”

Saran Caldwell said she recognized a “hole in the market.” Producers were telling her they wanted to hire diverse writers, but “didn’t know how to find them.” Or, at least, that was the “excuse” they gave to explain their all-white writers’ rooms.

Initially, she spoke to agencies about carving “out this niche for you under your umbrella.” But, she said, “Across the board, they pretty much said, ‘no, thanks, we’re fine just the way that we are.’ One of them actually said, ‘Diversity is a bubble.’ So, I decided then – okay, fine, if that’s the prevalent kind of thinking (in the industry), I’m just going to do it on my own and I’m going to have to find a way to do it within (my) production company.”

Saran Caldwell said the disinterested response was, in part, due to people “being comfortable in their own lane and not wanting to address some things that may not necessarily be fair, equitable, or inclusive” in their field, but they’re happy—and successful—“doing business as usual.” Not only do people not want to “rock the boat,” doing so may feel destabilizing for their white clients, some of whom feel that diversity initiatives cost them work.

“You have to realize, to a large degree, these agents have been representing white showrunners and white writers for a very long time,” Saran Caldwell said. “When you are all of a sudden advocating on behalf of another group of clients…that becomes a difficult position to be in when they’ve been your client for a long time, right?”

REALLIFE PICTURES table read session. Photo provided.

White Washing: The Stats

Currently, writers’ rooms in Hollywood and Canada are overwhelmingly dominated by white men. In 2017, a study of Hollywood writers rooms found that only 13.7 percent were people of colour – out of 234 series surveyed. An overwhelming 91 percent of show runners were white, and that shows headed by white show runners had no black people in their writers’ rooms 69.1 per cent of the time. By contrast, 100 per cent of shows headed by black showrunners hired white writers. Many of the major production and streaming services—including Netflix, Amazon and Showtime—had either none or just one person of colour in their writers’ rooms for 90 to 100 percent of their shows. The report also found that when people of colour are included in white-dominated writers’ rooms, they often “tokenized.”

Saran Caldwell said that hiring people of colour doesn’t mean pigeon-holing the writer to work only within their specific racial or cultural background; what it really achieves is expanding the repertoire of writers’ rooms by adding in experiences, styles and talents it would not have otherwise. There’s an appetite for stories that are aimed outside the white experience, Saran Caldwell noted, evidenced by the huge success of Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Kim’s Convenience (its recent abrupt cancellation tremendously disappointed viewers and producers.)

Saran Caldwell saw that appetite first hand when she ran a coaching program for BIPOC students from Ryerson University in 2019. She co-produced a couple of feature films and a web series, all with women of colour filmmakers. When she  realized there was a gap in the industry when it came to connecting BIPOC talent and filmmakers, she started building her agency with a roster of talent, spending a year “reading material, making contacts, figuring out how to present myself, as a brand… because we were new.”

Agent and COO Charanpreet Chall joined REALLIFE in 2020 and is “more hands on with the development,” according to Saran Caldwell. “We chat every morning about our day’s deliverables and divide work and conquer.”

Small-Town Start, Big-City Heart

Although she has called Toronto home for the past two decades, Saran Caldwell, who is Indo-Canadian, is originally from Terrace, a small town in British Columbia between Kitwanga and Prince Rupert. Her father immigrated from India to Kelowna, then moved north to Terrace to work in the sawmills because the wages were better. Saran Caldwell’s mother and four siblings soon came to Canada to join him in Terrace.

Saran Caldwell attended the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver for the first year of her post-secondary education then enrolled at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) to study marketing. She was the first of a family of six to go to university, saying it “wasn’t easy to get permission to go since no one else had gone before me.”

While living in Vancouver, she started REALLIFE as a music video company then shelved the project in her late 20s when she took a job as a news writer for CP24 and moved to Toronto. The position was only supposed to be for the summer, but Saran Caldwell “fell in love” with Toronto and stayed. She resurrected REALLIFE when she was “bitten by the production bug” following work on a pair of short documentary films with South Asian women directors. “I was trying to find out — how can I utilize all of these skills, and my passion to support new and up and coming filmmakers, female filmmakers, and in particular, women of color?”

In 2020, Saran Caldwell went to the Canadian Media Producer Associations (CMPA) Prime Time event in Ottawa; her goal was to build a “rolodex” of 30 people interested in her agency; she came back with 40. Production companies were excited about the agency and to work with her; they wanted to add “diverse storytellers” with “lived experiences” to their writers’ rooms. “I started chatting with production companies… and broadcasters, and all of them loved the concept. They said, ‘This is brilliant, this is exactly what we need!’”

But Saran Caldwell realized that many writers on her roster need help to get “market ready.” Often they were non-union and, due to financial and time constraints, had never attended film school or had access to workshops. To make sure their writers would be ready when they went to pitch their ideas, REALLIFE Pictures started an inhouse professional development program, reading and providing notes on “every single script” that was sent to them.

That personal mentoring is critical, said Caldwell, because BIPOC are often left outside of industry-linked social groups – largely white, middle-to-upper-class people, who have families or friends in the industry or have gone to school together for years. “(Many of my clients) have been overlooked for a very long time, and many of these individuals don’t know how the business side of the business works – how to negotiate, how to ask for what they want (in terms of) working conditions.

Saran Caldwell said she is building an inherently feminist company with a mandate and goals in line with the values of “collective feminism” — “a fair playing field, for everyone.”

At present, the agency represents about 20 writers, with “five more on deck waiting for us to read their scripts,” said Saran Caldwell. Although it’s still early in the process for original projects, Epic Story (Luna, Chip and Inkie), Wildbrain (The Snoopy Show), Frantic Films (Baroness Von Sketch) and KGP (Narcoleap) have all either hired or signed shopping agreements with writers represented by REALLIFE Pictures.

The company is working on expanding into the U.S. and international markets but, Caldwell said, what’s important at a baseline level is the success and happiness of the people they represent.

“What long-term success looks like for me is a very satisfied roster of writers and directors that we’ve worked with for years, and they’re happy–and the industry is happy–with where they have ended up in their career,” says Caldwell.

“I want to know that we have made significant change in the industry, that it’s not putting these individuals in little boxes and then just ticking them off for the sake of funding, or diversity or access, or whatever it happens to be, that (these relationships) are authentic and … have really resulted in positive change.”


Publishers Note: Fifth Wave Labs is Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for women in digital media. It is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and social justice into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Interested? Apply here.

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Transformative Ideas

If These Streets Could Talk

Chloe Doesburg on Driftscape | Photo Provided

There’s something special about exploring a city on foot. Whether you’ve lived in the same place for twenty years or are visiting someplace new, going for a wander—headphones in, music on, people watching, popping into shops, turning down a side street and discovering a hidden gem—is a consummate pleasure. 

What if, though, you could engage more intimately with the cityscape by accessing information about it—events, history, restaurants, music—as you move through it? That’s the idea behind Driftscape. Co-founder and CEO Chloe Doesburg calls the app a “cultural discovery platform,” which allows the user “seamless connection” to the physical spaces they occupy. 

Driftscape offers a selection of topics—from architecture to history to arts and literature. As users approach things that might interest them, the app on their cellphones will send a notification. This could be a piece of trivia, a festival nearby, or what Doesburg calls the most “sophisticated” option: an immersive experience such as a Jane’s Walk, free urban tours inspired by Jane Jacobs, who penned the classic, The Life and Death of American Cities, and advocated for mixed-used, walkable streets; or First Stories, which documents the rich Indigenous history of Toronto; or Queerstory, which will leads to sites in Toronto’s vibrant LGTBQ2S+ culture.

Driftscape, which now employs six, officially incorporated in 2017 but had been “in the works” for at least a year before that and involved a lot of “serendipity,” says Doesburg. She was inspired by a “location-specific project” called Murmur, which existed before smartphones: You could dial in and hear a story about a specific place. She was also working with a musician friend who was recording an album of location-specific songs set in Toronto; they created Track Toronto, which allows users to listen to music associated with places in the city as they pass through them, now used by Driftscape.

“People were super enthusiastic” about the experience, says Doesburg. While working on that concept, she met programmers working on a similar project, and together they dreamed up Driftscape.

The project has evolved significantly since its inception, adding more layers of information by becoming a subscription platform. For a fee—Driftscape partners—which range from not-for-profits to private content producers to businesses and municipalities—provide content for the app, such as visitor’s guides, self-guided tours[1] , and digital walks. There’s a sliding scale for partners, ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 a year. More content draws more eyes to the app, which draws more users to the app and, in turn, more partners subscribing, creating a positive feedback loop.

Says Doesburg: “We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19. People want to do more digitally. People are looking for self-guided tours, for ways they can be their own guide, and also just looking to rediscover their own city and places nearby, the way the way you would as a tourist.”

“We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19″.

Chloe Doesburg

That style of subscription service, however, is not without issues. Open the Driftscape app and you’ll be presented with a map of Canada, with Driftscape’s points of interest and services— loaded by its subscribers. The first thing you’ll notice is that most of the content is based in Southern Ontario, and the vast majority of that in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), making the app, at present, tremendously urban-centric. In Northern and rural areas, programming options include things like Historica Canada and its Heritage Minutes, providing a perspective that can skew to colonial, cis-heteronormative Settler norms. That’s a very different experience than users can access in the GTA, where Driftscape offers more of a mosaic.

This discrepancy is due to growing pains, Doesburg says. Driftscape can’t offer a wider variety of content in more remote areas until they bring on a wider variety of partners. “That’s certainly something we’ve spent a lot of time talking and thinking about and we’re trying to layer in other perspectives wherever we can. We are especially working to grow the Indigenous voices on the app.”

“We would certainly welcome organizations anywhere in Canada and in North America to host their content on the platform,” she adds.

In April, Doesburg participated in Fifth Wave Labs, a four-month feminist incubator geared towards supporting women-identified digital media entrepreneurs in Southern Ontario. She says the program provided mentorship and networking in a time when, due to COVID-19, everyone was feeling very distanced from each other. It also altered the way she thought about her business practices. 

Although Doesburg doesn’t necessarily consider Driftscape a specifically feminist enterprise— “We haven’t really been using that word”—she thinks of it as being in keeping with those values.

“Before doing the Fifth Wave labs program, I didn’t really think about feminist business practices,” says Doesburg, “but certainly while we were part of that program I was like, ‘Oh, this is what we already do.’” 

Doesburg says she thinks of Driftscape as a social enterprise. That “seems very, very similar, although not identical (to feminism) but certainly in terms of just looking at business as something that has profit as one of its goals, and not its only goal.”

The company’s social values, she says, include “a commitment to supporting the cultural community and being part of that ecosystem” as well as “how we run our business, that we’re committed to making the best place to work for employees. “We’re committed to having a really transparent company where we involve everyone at all levels of decision making. We’re really open about what we’re doing and what our values are, what our challenges are.”

In contrast to multinational social media giants serving up information, Driftscape features diverse local experts. Says Doesburg: “We boost the voices of local organizations who are creating fantastic content, and we create a place where users can access a wide-range of otherwise hard-to-find local information on an ad-free platform at no cost to the user.”

Driftscape is Doesburg’s first entrepreneur venture. Until 2015, the University of Waterloo graduate worked as an architect, a profession that obviously gives her a special appreciation for cities and the nature of place. “Being an entrepreneur certainly offers more freedom and flexibility,” she says of the change. “Buildings take years to complete so, compared to architecture, working on software is refreshing because it’s possible to iterate quickly, see what works, and make changes easily.”

With Driftscape growing, adapting and adding new directions, Doesburg is content knowing what entrepreneurial path she is on. “I don’t have any next steps in mind. For now, I’m focused on growing Driftscape.”


Contributor’s Bio: Lori Fox is a queer, non-binary journalist based in Whitehorse, YT. Their work focuses primarily on issues of class, gender, sexuality and environment, and has appeared previously with Vice, The Guardian, CBC, and The Globe and Mail. You can find them on twitter @fox.e.lori.


Publishers Note: Driftscape is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.

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