Kids Production Company of the Year 2020: Atomic Cartoons

This year has seen Thunderbird Entertainment's kids and family division continue to thrive with an impressive body of work and other big achievements.

A s 2020 draws to a close Playback is announcing its Best of the Year, an annual recognition of the people, companies and projects that set themselves apart from the pack. Due to the unprecedented challenges faced across the sector, this year’s selections were especially tough, as the examples of resilience, ingenuity, quick thinking and collaboration on display were too numerous to mention. Check back throughout the week as we name our Best of the Year for 2020.

pb.34149.boty2020_2000x1200 (1)When discussing the success of Atomic Cartoons this year, Jennifer Twiner McCarron references her father, Don Twiner, past president of Robin Hood Multifoods.

“He always said he was in a good industry because in times of recession or difficult times, people stayed home, baked and watched TV,” the president and CEO of Vancouver’s multi-pronged Thunderbird Entertainment and CEO of its award-winning animation studio Atomic Cartoons tells Playback Daily. Now the duo joke: “‘Well, you did flour… we’re doing TV.’”

Known for its streamers-focused strategy, 2020 has seen Atomic continue to build relationships to meet the heightened demand for premium content. A key strategy, Twiner McCarron contends, that’s seen the company continue to thrive amidst an ever-changing landscape.

“There just became that many more places to air content and also for people to watch it anytime [and] anywhere on any device. And since COVID it’s only increased,” she says, further noting that she feels extremely grateful to be at a company with talent that’s doing well and in a somewhat pandemic-resistant industry “because let’s face it – everyone’s at home right now trapped watching content. And so we’ve only further seen things blow up.”

With its 2020 slate comprised of 50% IP and partner-managed and 50% service production – some of Atomic’s (many) accomplishments include: two new instalments of its Netflix series Hello Ninja and The Last Kids on Earth, the latter of which earned a Daytime Emmy and four Leo Awards (including Best Animated Program); a Peabody Award and the Television Critics Association award for Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming for PBS Kids/CBC animated series Molly of Denali with WGBH; the debut of Netflix CG-preschool series Mighty Express, co-produced with Spin Master Entertainment; and Disney+’s LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special with producers Lucasfilm and LEGO Group.

Other notable service production projects include animated comedy series 101 Dalmatian Street for Disney+ and film Curious George: Go West, Go Wild for NBCUniversal, to name a few.

All told, in Q1 2021, which ended on Sept. 30, Thunderbird reported that Atomic Cartoons was in various stages of production on 19 animated series, with 12 major clients, four of which were new relationships.

Additionally, this February, the artist-driven animation company announced that it had expanded its footprint with a new L.A. studio as a way to further focus on talent, headed up by Thunderbird Entertainment and Atomic Cartoons chief creative officer Matthew Berkowitz.

“Similar to our Vancouver and Ottawa locations, it’s all about how do we support the talent, how do we make sure everybody is still able to do their best work from home given that we’re working in this dynamic,” Berkowitz tells Playback Daily, noting that even with the pandemic, the new studio’s mandate is still the same. “We want to work with the great showrunners, designers, board artists and storytellers down here and mix them in with the teams working in Vancouver and Ottawa.”

Currently, the L.A. hub has 70 team members, 45 of which have never stepped foot in the office because of the pandemic. However, that hasn’t stopped the office – which is underway on three projects with major global networks.

Another thing that’s continued to ramp up for Atomic Cartoons is its original development slate – with the studio going from five projects to about 15, according to Berkowitz.

Some of the property’s on Atomic’s slate include previously announced original projects such as Princesses Wear Pants, a CGI-show based on The New York Times bestselling book series with Savannah Guthrie, Allison Oppenheim and Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films attached, and Eerie Elementary, an animated and live-action adaptation of The Last Kids on Earth author and creator Max Brallier’s book series of the same name.

Additionally, as announced this February, there’s Nate Create, an animated series with The Jim Henson Company about a young boy who draws worlds into existence. Of note, both Berkowitz and Twiner McCarron serve as executive producers on the trio.

Berkowitz says Atomic is feeling bullish about all three series.

In particular, speaking about Nate Create – a series designed to blend various visual styles – Berkowitz says: “We have so many artists with so many skill sets and for us, we are definitely at a stage where the studio has become known for hitting a diverse range of looks. And we’re really focused on, when we look at our development slate, merging that with a little bit of R&D of what are new inspiring looks that we can bring to the table and try to help establish things as opposed to like ‘hey, that was a really cool look, what would be our version of it?’ Nate Create for us is the beginning. And it was such a privilege to be able to co-develop this project with The Jim Henson Company to be able to really push unique looks out there.”

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Additionally, 2020 has been good for Atomic’s original property The Last Kids on Earth. Based on Brallier’s bestselling book series of the same name, the animated series – which streams in 28 languages and 190 countries on Netflix – follows 13-year-old Jack Sullivan and his friends as they battle zombies in the aftermath of the monster apocalypse.

Of note, this April, The Last Kids on Earth‘s sophomore season launched alongside the debut of the book series’ latest instalment. As well, earlier this year, Atomic Cartoons launched a global toy and merchandise line with JAKKS Pacific and Cyber Group Studios, while culture and music-focused retail chain Hot Topic also launched apparel. Up next, a video game based on the IP with Outright Games is slated to debut in 2021.

“We have great hopes for The Last Kids on Earth. It will be available on every console, mobile, micro-transactional games. It’s a great property that lends itself to video games because it’s quest based,” Twiner McCarron says. The show’s executive producer also acknowledges that although video games aren’t Atomic Cartoons’ core competency, the company is interested in creating more content for properties that are video game friendly. As well, the team is working away on a special interactive episode.

“We’re always trying to go where kids are happy and their eyeballs are,” she says. “I used to love reading those choose-your-own adventure books when I was a kid. And this is quite similar in that it is choose-your-own adventure online, so we want to do more interactive content, more getting kids participating in the viewing rather than the passive experience. So we are always contemplating that.”

And alongside all of the opportunities Atomic Cartoons has seized and is working towards, 2020 has also been a year that’s seen the company think further about its future. For instance, the company has sublet its Thunderbird head office and is planning to have a mixed home-and-office work week.

Additionally, Twiner McCarron says another silver lining has been the push for authentic storytelling. “The real challenge and responsibility as content providers, especially for kids, [is] to create content where every child can see themselves reflected back and to honour and execute that in a really authentic way and to bring up new voices and open up the industry. That’s been a bigger and healthier challenge for us this year,” she says.

For 2021, Twiner McCarron says the studio will continue to pursue opportunities in areas where streamers are focusing their efforts – such as animated feature films and abroad – and, most importantly, continuing its focus on quality and the people behind Atomic.

As well, addressing Thunderbird’s recent decision to start trading on the OTCQX Best Market – which offers international companies the opportunity to gain visibility in a public market – McCarron says that the move is a response to receiving interest from potential U.S. investors.

“The company is doing really well. The stock is starting to follow our amazing story and we have zero debt, which is huge as a company and a real differentiator for us. And so it allows us with our healthy balance sheet to be nimble, to make decisions, how do we allow more people to participate in our story and growth trajectory?” she says, adding that Thunderbird has an eye to become the next global studio. “On our board are Marni Wieshofer and Frank Giustra, they started Lionsgate in Canada and successfully transitioned it to Los Angeles to become one of the first major global studios in decades.

“There’s no reason that Thunderbird can’t do the same.”