This month’s member spotlight features Kristen McGregor and Jennifer Treuting, who recently started their own production company. Having met through a fellow CMA member, they’re a true blue CMA success story, and they’ve been kind enough to share the details behind that setup as well as what’s new with Squirrel Friends Productions and their thoughts on children’s media in general. Take it away ladies!
Kristen (L), and Jennifer (R) pose at the annual Christmas party for the Children’s Media Association.
Can you both tell us a little about your professional backgrounds and what drew you to children’s media?
I remember sitting in a car one day and asked my mom if it would be an okay job if I were a “children’s entertainer”. From there that moved to an interest in acting, which introduced an opportunity to study clown and perform at the Kids Fringe festival in Edmonton, Alberta (in Canada, where I’m originally from). I loved working with children and entertaining them – they are hilarious, and really the most honest audience you could ever hope for, which I think hones your skills as a content creator. I was also getting into video production at the time and thought that children’s television might be the perfect combination (plus it sounded like a more stable career than “clown”). I studied children’s television at Ryerson University and got a job at Kids’ CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster). After a stint covering every position between outreach, production assisting, and associate producing, I moved to Sinking Ship Entertainment and worked as a creative producer and producer on a couple of their shows including one I co-developed, “Giver” – all about communities coming together to build playgrounds. Meanwhile, I had been inspired by Angela Santomero’s story and started my master’s degree at Teacher’s College to study how children learn through digital media, first online, and then moved to NYC to finish. Now I work doing all sorts of fun children’s media research at the Michael Cohen Group. Phew!
Going to the movies and seeing the new Disney animated feature was always a treat—same with getting to watch Nickelodeon at a neighbor’s house. (We didn’t have cable.) I was always writing and telling my own stories and making videos with friends. After getting my film degree and moving to New York, I worked in advertising and post-production, moving up the ranks from assistant producer to freelance post producer. While I was happy to have a job in my field and loved working with gifted designers and animators, I knew I wanted a change, but wasn’t sure what. Thinking back to the personal work I made that I liked the most, and the work others were making that I admired, I realized that it was kid-friendly or family-friendly, whether that was intentional or not. And that’s when I realized where I needed to be. Fast-forward, and I’ve been at Nick for almost five years now. I work on promos, interstitials, and all sorts of short-form content for Nick Jr. and Nick Preschool.
Around the same time I started at Nick, I also got involved at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and I’m now a director/producer for one of their video teams. I love taking what I learned at UCB and using it to create great children’s content: there’s a lot of overlap in the kinds of humor and story-telling that you can use. Funny is funny.
We understand you met through a fellow CMA member. How did your collaboration come together?
I went to school with fellow CMA member LaToye Adams: after graduating, we both ended up in New York. Last year, when I was working on a pilot for the New York Television Festival, I needed some help on-set and LaToye put us in touch. When we met, we realized we had an insane amount in common: not just filmmaking and production but specifically children’s media and comedy: Kristen does a lot of improv and I do sketch comedy. (And later we learned our dads are both chemists!)
We were basically Canadian/American doppelgangers. You know those movies when you see twins separated at birth meet for the first time? Imagine living that experience!
After the shoot, we got together for drinks and to talk about life. And then project ideas came up like crazy! The first was “Brother’s Day,” a short child-led documentary we’re currently in post-production on: we both knew of a family upstate where the boys had formed their own holiday, and knew there was a story there. I had known about the boys from casting a prior film project, and Kristen met them separately on a research trip. One day they came up in conversation, and as we compared notes on our experiences with them and how unique these boys were, we knew we had a story on our hands.
This is all a true. I was just happy to use my production skills for a day on-set for Jen’s pilot and eat some free pizza. I didn’t know that a creative partner would come out of it!
Please tell us about Squirrel Friends Productions and some of the current projects you are working on
We’re always working on something. Here’s the link to our site:
Our first release was What’s Inside? – two very short programs showing the taking-apart of common household objects. We’ve since filmed two more (with an orange and an iPod). We’re also working on the release of Brother’s Day – our child-led documentary. As always, we have other ideas floating around so stay tuned!
Jennifer (L) and Kristen (R) on the set of their documentary Brother’s Day
What has been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of starting your own production company?
We’ve actually thought of Squirrel Friends as more of a collective. Somehow, collectives sound better when you’re not making money. I’m inspired a bit by the atmosphere in Brooklyn, which for me gave me some bravery to form the collective with Jen.
For rewarding aspects, I love seeing things come together. Two heads are definitely better than one, and it’s good to have someone to talk out the difficulties with regarding any particular project. It’s also double the contacts, and double the ideas.
For challenging aspects, I’d say it’s just tough to balance this with the rest of our lives sometimes between our full time jobs and comedy commitments. Sometimes I think what going full time and having funding would be like.
On set of What’s Inside
Hmm, like any new thing, it’s interesting to watch it take shape. I think a big challenge is to get our name out there and find exposure for our projects. We’re not in it to get rich, but to create quality content and find an audience to connect with. Building that connection and that reputation takes time.
As for the reward, I’d say I love feeling like I’m part of a real team, and that depending on the project, our team can grow to include our friends. Taking a step back to look at what we’re doing and be able to say “Yeah, this is more than just us, this could be bigger,” was exciting.
What emerging trend in children’s media are you most excited about now?
I’m excited about second screen experiences– Kidscreen this year had a really interesting panel showing what you could do with apps to create real-time experiences for kids as they watched a show. I think it has a long way to go, but I’m curious to see what kind of content gets created and how it evolves.
I’m also excited about the democratization of content: Amazon, YouTube, and other outlets are providing new ways for stories and characters to find homes. Even more exciting, it’s not just adults that are utilizing these tools: I love getting great videos passed to me that kids have created and shared on their own.
I’m excited about the idea of “broadcaster as a democracy” – and am intrigued to see how selecting pilots through audience votes goes for Amazon. I’m excited to see a shift in producers preparing projects for not just one broadcaster, but the whole audience at large.
I’m also excited about the spread of children’s stories via viral video. For me, it feels like this is one way to attempt to foster co-viewing. There’s something really special about media content that appeals to adults that makes them want to share it with their children together. I hope we’ll be able to accomplish this with our work.
I love how we tackled these questions separately but are excited about the same things.
If you could live in any TV program, game, or book, what would it be?
My first answer that comes to mind is “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” – Mr. Rogers got his start in Canada, so we could totally bond over that, but mostly I’d just ride the trolley around and around, sitting in the back. There’s something comforting about riding trolleys.
My second, and most correct answer (though not technically a book) is a Lisa Frank school supply folder. Who wouldn’t want to slide down a rainbow and ride a unicorn?
The first answer that comes to mind is Harry Potter. I’d give Hermoine a run for her money—I would totally nerd out at Hogwarts. But digging a bit deeper, I’d say Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass series also comes to mind. Lyra’s closeness with her daemon Pan was something I was always envious of as I was reading, and long after I put the books down, I’d wonder what form my daemon would take if I had one.
Complete this sentence: My media guilty pleasure is…
Right now, I hunker down with fantasy shows like “Once Upon a Time” or “Lost Girl,” where fairies, werewolves, and other mystical creatures live in the real world among humans, but they’re in disguise.
Well, aside from all the shows I’ve had a part in making, I’d say shows like Teen Mom, Catfish, The Bachelor, and Girls. I love documentary/reality style programs with real people. I love seeing how producers line everything up so well. I also really love Disney’s “Enchanted” – I wish more of life was like that movie.