With its Netflix deals, a new HQ for Atomic Cartoons and plenty of projects in development, the prodco’s leaders discuss the company’s future growth plans.
Playback’s annual Indie List breaks down industry trends and ranks the biggest-spending Canadian companies. This year we spoke with some of the List’s movers and shakers to discuss the strategies and shifts that shaped their businesses in 2017. The second part of this series is an interview with Thunderbird Entertainment execs Jennifer McCarron, Mark Miller and Ivan Fecan.
Thunderbird Entertainment spread its wings in 2017. The Vancouver-based prodco, known for hits like Kim’s Convenience (CBC) and animated series Beat Bugs (Netflix), increased its production spend to $65 million, from $41 million in 2016.
Founded in 2003, by Tim Gamble, Michael Shepard and Cam White, Thunderbird Entertainment is comprised of four divisions: scripted (produced under the Thunderbird brand), animation (Atomic Cartoons, which it acquired in 2015), factual (Great Pacific Media, acquired in 2014), and distribution (Thunderbird Releasing, acquired in 2014 as Soda Pictures).
The company’s 2017 jump in production spend can be attributed to its growing animation arm, says co-president and Atomic Cartoons CEO Jennifer McCarron. The division recently moved into a new 35,000-square-foot Vancouver headquarters and has shifted away from being a service hub to become a full-fledged, independent content creator.
McCarron says it’s largely Atomic’s relationship with Netflix that’s allowed it to expand, with the SVOD picking up the worldwide rights to Atomic’s new animated adventure comedy The Last Kids on Earth, exec-produced by McCarron and set to debut next year. The studio also does service work on shows such as the upcoming Cupcake and Dino: General Services for Netflix and Nickelodeon’s Max & Ruby.
Mark Miller, co-president and CEO of Great Pacific Media, says Thunderbird’s three-pronged approach has been designed since day one to sustain the highs and lows that define video production. “If factual started to have a low point, it’s going to be propped up by animation or by scripted,” says Miller. “So, we have this diversified company that can help support its parts when times are bad and times are good.”
Great Pacific productions include reno show Game of Homes for W Network and two unscripted series for Discovery: Heavy Rescue: 401 and Highway Thru Hell, a show Miller calls “a true Canadian story.” He says both Heavy and Highway, in addition to having strong linear viewership, have found new audiences on Netflix as well, with the former being shown in 160 territories via the streamer and Discovery.
While Great Pacific and Atomic continue to ramp up, Thunderbird executive chair, producer and interim CEO Ivan Fecan, who directly oversees the company’s scripted division, says he is paring down the number of scripted projects Thunderbird has in development, from around 30 to four or five in any given year.
One of Thunderbird’s big scripted releases in 2017 was on the film side, with Blade Runner 2049, a franchise for which it has long owned the underlying rights. Reflecting the challenges of today’s exhibition market, the film was well-reviewed but underwhelmed at the box office.
That said, Kim’s Convenience has been a hit, earning a third season on CBC and winning best comedy at the 2018 Canadian Screen Awards.
Building on that traction, Thunderbird is looking to option more existing IP (Kim’s is based on a play of the same name) and adapt properties into compelling series, says Fecan.
It is currently in production on one such property (undisclosed) and, in the year ahead, its other divisions will debut new series, Queen of the Oil Patch for APTN (Great Pacific Media) and Molly of Denali (Atomic Cartoons/WGBH Boston) for PBS Kids and CBC Kids. Great Pacific’s hit Highway Thru Hell will also return for a seventh season on Discovery in Fall 2018.
Both McCarron and Miller say they expect Thunderbird to continue to grow as the divisions look for symmetry where genres can overlap, like in adult animation and kids factual, for example.
But with all this growth, Fecan notes Thunderbird’s biggest challenge will be to keep expanding in a way that supports a healthy work culture and structure. That said, he adds Thunderbird is always on the hunt for another company or catalogue to take under its wing.
“I’ve certainly done a lot of mergers and acquisitions in my life, and the number one place where these things make or break is culture,” says Fecan. “In our business, the assets are creatives and they walk in and out the door every day, so if you don’t get the culture right it’s going to fail.”