On the Slate: Aircraft Pictures

With production close to wrapping on two animated features, the company is fine-tuning a cross-border development slate with a view to finding success in evolving markets.

In a new seriesPlayback is catching up with Canadian production companies to discuss what projects they’re working on, their production strategies and where they see room for growth. Here, we catch up with Aircraft Pictures.

Anthony Leo and Andrew Rosen of Toronto’s Aircraft Pictures say they’re in a development phase at the moment. But with production inching closer to wrapping on two long-gestating animated features, Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: The End of the End and The Breadwinner (pictured), it doesn’t quite feel like it yet.

As Aircraft isn’t the key animation studio on either feature (the Toronto company serves as a creative producer on both and partners with animation studios), the prodco’s focus has now (partially) shifted toward fine-tuning its development slate. Rosen and Leo are working on a range of live-action and animated projects, with their typical focus on international partnerships, expanding existing IP, nurturing projects with cross-border appeal and mining new ideas.

Among those in-development projects are a number of extensions of the Gordon Korman young-adult novels Bruno and Boots, which Aircraft has already remade into a trilogy of MOWs for YTV. Bolstered by a unanimously positive reception from Corus, Rosen and Leo said the prodco is developing a number of other projects based on the property with Corus Entertainment.

As with many Canadian prodcos before it, Aircraft built a reputation in the domestic industry before looking for opportunities south of the border. The Toronto company established an L.A. office in 2014 and has since made connections with companies such as Legendary Television, which handles international sales on Aircraft’s Jason Priestley-starring family comedy Raising Expectations.

More recently, the L.A. office has led to development on a live-action scripted show with U.S. card company American Greetings. The TV project, entitled Holly Hobbie, is aimed at a nine-to-12 year-old audience and based on the American Greetings brand. The pilot script and series bible were penned by Degrassi: Next Class showrunner Sarah Glinski and the project is currently in the financing phase.

Also on the U.S. side, Aircraft is in the financing stage on the scripted comedy Kimberly Jenkins Has a Problem, created by Canadian writer Mark Steinberg. Lee Aronsohn, co-creator of Two and a Half Men and executive producer on The Big Bang Theory, is attached as the lead director. The show is about a writer experiencing success for the first time as a mommy blogger – her only problem is that she doesn’t have kids. Aircraft is producing the 18-to-35 aimed series alongside California-based Jumpwire Media. 

Name recognition on the kids and family front has allowed Aircraft to hit the ground running with some of the U.S. broadcasters. On the adult side though, for both comedy and drama, it has proved slightly more challenging to crack, said Rosen. The reason, he said, is that U.S. broadcasters are more inclined to make deals directly with writers and showrunners for their projects, which differs from the Canadian market, where broadcasters prefer to work with showrunners/writers who are attached to production companies that know the ins and outs of the domestic system.

“As a producer [in the U.S.], it’s about partnering with a writer more than it is hiring a writer to pen a script,” he said. As well, added Rosen, the influx of writing talent transitioning from film to TV over the past 18 months has meant program buyers are looking to work with scribes with name recognition. “It’s getting really difficult to get a show sold with a junior writer.”

Meanwhile, back in Canada, Aircraft is in development with CBC on E-lebrity, a half-hour comedy produced in partnership with NextTime Productions, the team behind the Canadian YouTube channel Epic Meal Time. The pilot script and bible for the series, which is also aimed at 18-to-35 year olds, was written by Max Reid and Adam Reid.

The company is also on development on an animated property with Nelvana, though could not share any further details at this time.

On the animation front, Rosen and Leo said producing the The Breadwinner and Todd and the Book of Pure Evil has really whet the company’s appetite for more. Through the projects, Aircraft has significantly expanded its contacts list: The Breadwinner is a coproduction between Aircraft, Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon and Luxembourg’s Melusine Productions, with Toronto’s Guru Studios handling 40% of the animation and Angelina Jolie‘s Jolie Pas Productions exec producing. Todd and the Book of Pure Evil is an all-Canadian affair, produced by Aircraft Pictures alongside Toronto prodcos Corvid Pictures and Frantic Films, with animation handled by Smiley Guy Studios.

Going forward, the plan is to develop more animated projects for both TV and theatrical distribution. By doing both, Leo said he hopes the company can gain a competitive advantage, which could pay dividends in the long run.

With Canadian commissions on the animation side declining in recent years, Rosen said it would be counterintuitive to make a push into TV right now. However, should the domestic market swing back toward TV animation in the next couple of years, the company wants to be well positioned to capitalize.

As for what’s in store in the long term, Leo and Rosen said the plan could potentially be for Aircraft to become an animation studio owner – but that day isn’t coming imminently. For the two animated features they will be releasing this year, the pair said, it makes more sense for Aircraft to partner with other animation studios, as it allows them greater flexibility when selecting the right studio for the right project.