Ava Karvonen: Mentoring the Next Generation of Film and Television Producer

Photo credit: Ian Kucerak

In collaboration with Femmes du cinéma, de la télévision et des médias numériques (FCTMN), CMF Trends meets inspiring women as part of a content series focused on female entrepreneurship in the screen-based industries. For this fifth article of the series, our guest is Ava Karvonen, the storyteller and cross-platform producer who believes in the importance of giving women a voice.

Ava Karvonen’s start in the film and television industry was a family affair. Her father became a full-time filmmaker when she was a pre-teen and he initially produced eco-films and radio plays. And, as Karvonen says, he was always asking for help from his five children.

She remembers that family vacations in the Rocky Mountains were often impromptu film sets. “My father, when we went camping or went to the mountains, always had his film gear with him,” she says. “He’d be like ‘Hey kids, can you flush that bear out of the bush’ and that is how we grew up.”

Photo Credit: Ian Kucerak

Karvonen and her four other siblings were often called upon to help their father with his film work. In particular, Karvonen took a liking to the screen-based industry. From grades 7 to 9, Karvonen would voice radio plays for her father.

“As kids, we had a big family, we all pitched in and we were always expected to help,” she says. She recalls spending time as a family watching her father’s films show at the outdoor park amphitheatres.

Initially, those summers in the mountains led Karvonen to want to become a park interpreter. But she could never stray far away from a film set. While studying, she would often help her dad with editing, location sound and production.

On being ‘adaptable’

With little to no jobs available as a park interpreter upon graduation, Karvonen continued in the film industry, saying yes to any available job behind the scenes.

“I was always adaptable,” she says. “I did [assistant director] work, cast extras and somehow got into craft service. I’m a mom, I’m a good cook and I like looking after people so craft services was where I was stuck for a while.”

She worked in craft services for several years, while still working alongside her father on his films. She would later take on a job working as a publicist with Great North Productions, once Canada’s largest documentary makers. But she craved something more. In the 1980s and after several years working on Canadian screen projects, Karvonen decided it was time to break free and start her own company.

She created her company, Reel Girls Media.

Photo Credit: Ian Kucerak

Thanks to her roles with other production companies, Karvonen was already able to obtain funding for projects. Yet, she says the biggest hurdle when starting out was getting funding as an Alberta-based storyteller.

“The ongoing challenge is it’s a few thousand bucks if you want to go meet the people in Toronto. I ran into obstacles because people refer to Toronto as ‘the centre of excellence’ and how we should be developing filmmakers who are in these centres of excellence. If you’re in the regions, you’re snubbed a bit,” she says. “To be validated, you’re supposed to work with these producers in Toronto but yet, we’re producing perfectly good content out here in the west.”

Photo Credit: Ian Kucerak

She also says it was not easy as a woman to obtain funding and that it can still be challenging today.

Karvonen suggests that women filmmakers establish connections with those in the film and television industry by volunteering or attending industry events. But, most importantly, she encourages young women filmmakers to persevere. “More women need opportunities in this industry,” she says. It was through her connections that she landed one of Reel Girls Media’s first opportunities: a special series with CBC’s The Nature of Things.

Since then, Reel Girls Media has tackled a range of projects from documentaries to factual-based productions. Karvonen has created documentaries to children’s programming to directing television shows like APTN’s television series Chaos and Courage.

Photo Credit: Ian Kucerak

Many of her projects rely on a storytelling narrative that focuses on people. One of her projects, a 10-part series on rites of passage called The First Kiss and other Rites of Passage, relies on shared life experiences to connect viewers to the subjects.

Another one of her projects, Finding Bobbi, is a documentary about an actor who “spent 50 years in the wrong body” and “returns to the stage, as a woman,” according to the promotional poster.

The Alberta-based storyteller describes most of her projects as those with strong personal journeys. “A project really has to resonate with me,” she says. “People’s personal journeys really resonate with me because it helps us understand the world we live in.”

She doesn’t work alone and has a small team. Her company also expands for projects by hiring crews when needed to keep overhead low. “My business model is I’m a nimble company. I try to keep my overhead low. I do maintain an office and a team, but I work with an exceptional team of contractors,” she says.

Reel Girls Media has been around for more than 20 years. Karvonen has won more than 40 awards for her work and has had more than 65 worldwide screenings in 12 countries.

Photo Credit: Ian Kucerak

Being a woman on set

Reel Girls Media’s founder says it wasn’t always easy to work in the film and television industry as a woman. She was sometimes the only woman on the set.

But a lot has changed since Karvonen started in the industry. She says that women have made great strides in the industry. More and more women are being recognized for their work behind the camera. The Toronto International Film Festival announced that 36 percent of the festival’s films this year are directed, co-directed or created by women. And with more women earning accolades in the industry, it’s time they were reimbursed as much as their male cohorts, Karnoven says. The documentary maker is a firm believer in equal pay.

Photo Credit: Ian Kucerak

“As a woman, I have also been on the union side, seen contracts and men are negotiating much better rates than women,” she says. She works hard to ensure women are being paid the same rates as men on her film sets. “I think we have this bias when it comes to paying people […] and we have to be conscious of that. I think people should be paid equally.”

She says that, overall, women just need more opportunities to fill in on roles on set.

Mentoring the next generation

When she is not on a set, she has mentored students through her work as an instructor at post-secondary schools in Alberta and internationally for almost a decade. She also volunteers her time, most recently as the president of the Women in Film and Television Alberta (WIFTA), the non-profit that provides assistance to women in the media and screen industries.

Photo Credit: Ian Kucerak
Photo Credit: Ian Kucerak

Through her company, she has hired women to help give them essential experience and teach them the skills of running a business. It’s something she wished she got as a young professional. “Mentoring and knowledge-sharing is important. I wish someone had told me about planning for the future 20 years ago,” she says.

The storyteller wants to help women succeed in the industry by providing insight and expertise on and off the set to women and other filmmakers.“For me, industry-wise, mentorship is one of the most important things.”

Photos by Ian Kucerak

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