Women Behind Canadian TV: Stephanie Ouaknine

Shaftesbury
Shaftesbury

In the era of PeakTV, some of the best content can be found on YouTube in the form of web series. The platform offers creators a more free-form approach and safer space to take risks. The result is that the popularity of web series continues to grow, as the series that are being produced grow in variety of content and format. More and more television fans are flocking to web series, finding that not only is the power of fandom quite impactful, but also that, despite television’s efforts getting better, web series offer more in the way of LGBT and diverse stories.

As a producer for Shaftesbury/Smokebomb Entertainment, Stephanie Ouaknine has had the opportunity to work on a variety of digital series. She was a producer on all three seasons of the very popular Carmilla and on Inhuman Condition, recently nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. Ouaknine joined The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to lend insight into the world of web series, as well as discuss the importance of diversity and the importance of building an interactive relationship with fans.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you share a little about your background? Did you always want to go into television production and how did you wind up making web series?

Stephanie Ouaknine: I’ve always been a fan and Alias was probably my first fandom. Interacting with fans and being excited about shows is what led me to want to work in them. It was a running joke for my parents and myself when I was watching Alias that I either wanted to become a secret agent or work for a show about them. I went for the latter option and that’s where we’re at now.

I did study theater and history in university, nothing related to film, and then I went to Sheridan, a post grad film school in Ontario. My first internship was with production executives at Shaw Media for Showcase and Global. I really got to see who was pitching what and why, as well as what the discussion was like between network execs and creatives. I also got to read a lot of the development documents for some of my favorite shows so I learned a lot.

From there I moved on to Shaftesbury, and we were working on digital series that were connected to the shows that we do. So I worked on The Listener and Murdoch Mysteries web series, and then we started ramping up our originals to the point where that now takes up all of my time.

TTVJ: What duties are all involved in your job as producer?

SO: As a producer at Shaftesbury/Smokebomb, my job is to take a project from ideation to completion. At the end of the day, we as producers are the first ones in and last ones out. We’re responsible–and accountable–for our shows. We find the writers with the right sensibilities, assemble the team, give notes, and work with them very closely on multiple drafts as we move towards production. Then we work with our directors to make sure we find the best way, within our means, to translate the pages to the screen.

Producers are continually faced with an avalanche of compromises, and my job is to work through these and decide which compromises are acceptable for the show and which ones aren’t. Then of course, there’s all the outreach, distribution, and release strategy we work on with the amazing team at Shaftesbury/Smokebomb. When we’re not in heavy pre–production, I’m working on developing new projects.

KindaTV
KindaTV

TTVJ: We know that there’s still a lack of gender diversity behind the scenes in television, but what’s your experience with that been like in the web series world?

SO: Well since my co-producer Melanie [Windle] and I are in charge of hiring everyone, we make it a point to hire as many women as possible in key creative roles. Our production designers for almost every show, except one, have always been women. Directors of photography, I would love if there were more because female DoPs are the rare unicorn. I know three and would love to know more. I can see the difference because when I work on shows that are not ours you can feel the difference on set. We have a lot more women than is standard.

TTVJ: How much input do you have on casting? The series you have worked on seem to put a priority on diversity and on casting a lot of females. Why is that so important to you?

SO: The success of our shows really relies on the casting, so we’re the ones who do auditions and present our choices to the branding partners. Usually when we really believe in someone we’ll push hard until they are accepted. With every season of Carmilla I’m reminded how important that is, and especially in terms of ethnicity. So we make it a point to include as many people as possible.

For Inhuman, we reached out to actors we really wanted in the show, and I was thrilled when Cara [Gee] and Torri [Higginson] came on board. Torri I had worked with before, but Cara we just tried to convince her to come aboard and she agreed, so that was really fun.

TTVJ: Queer representation on TV had a really difficult year in 2016. Your productions have always excelled in that area, so do you see positive signs that things are improving and how can the industry get even better?

SO: Hearing the amount of showrunners saying they had no idea the trope [bury your gays] existed, just by them being aware and it coming back again and again in the public discourse, will no doubt influence their writers’ room. We learned that as well when thinking about the meta text, what happens in the story and what are all your narratives, casting and story choices saying in the larger context. On a show saying ‘well it makes sense in the scope of our show,’ fans now come back and say ‘this plot point, in the larger scope of what is happening, just adds to a story we should be aware of.’ So I think it was a really important year in terms of everyone becoming aware, outside of queer people, and I think it’ll get better for sure.

KindaTV
KindaTV

TTVJ: Inhuman Condition is based in science fiction and Carmilla also had fantastical elements. Why do you think that genre seems so much more accepting of females and diversity in sexual orientation?

SO: Well, it’s a genre that’s been, up to a point, particularly male oriented, so it’s a fun one to subvert and make it particularly our own. Going back to Carmilla and having two lesbian characters at the forefront, we don’t want to see each other as “the side gays,” so it’s really fun to have them leading the series. The same goes for an older woman leading Inhuman.

The best sci fi in my opinion is when the social and political metaphors are really clear, but at the same time, talking about them through the lens of sci fi. It makes them easier to talk about through the lens of fantasy.

TTVJ: The cast and crew of Carmilla, as well as the show itself, has a very interactive relationship with the fans. How are you involved in that, and why was building that relationship so integral to the show’s success?

SO: Many of us on the team come from fandom and were excited to bring this show to our own communities. The Carmilla fandom was growing quickly in Season 1, but still quite small and intimate. That made it easy to communicate with many of the Creampuffs and have fun along with them, from post-episode chat rooms to Tumblr. It became a community of its own, and we wouldn’t be where we are without them!

Since launching in summer 2014 on our YouTube channel KindaTV, it now has more than 55 million organic views and our stats show that it’s been watched in almost literally every country in the world. I’m continually amazed at how creative, supportive and community-minded our fandom is. We want to celebrate fan works, but not intrude or impose too heavily on fan-centric spaces where every viewer should be free to challenge or celebrate the show as they wish. And it’s such a joy to meet them in person when Carmilla has been invited to large consumer-facing events like New York Comic-Con and Fan Expo Canada.

TTVJ: What advice do you have for other young women looking to break into television production?

SO: Everyone is going to have a different path and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. One thing that was really helpful to me, that I always encourage people to do, is seek out writers and producers that you really admire and are personally a fan of. Don’t just talk to someone who works in the industry because they do and you don’t really care about their show. Seek out the ones that you’re personally a fan of, and ask them for an informational interview if you’re in a place to do that. Talk to them about what excites them and you’ll learn from that and make a connection.

 

Are you a fan of Carmilla and web series? Sound off in the comments below!

Carmilla Season 3 and Inhuman Condition Season 1 episodes are currently available on KindaTV’s YouTube channel. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.