Pandemic paradigm shift

THOUGHT LEADERS: Jennifer Twiner McCarron, CEO of Thunderbird Entertainment Group, says the pandemic has allowed the Vancouver-based company – and indeed the entire Canadian TV industry – to rethink its production operation.

Jennifer Twiner McCarron

How has the pandemic impacted your business most significantly?
The greatest impact on our business was the shift to remote working for our entire crew of more than 1,000. Preemptive actions by our IT department in February enabled this transition, allowing us to quickly relocate our team to remote working with minimal disruption to our business operations.

To do this, we invested in state-of-the-art technology for our team and worked closely with our partners to minimize disruptions and navigate the new workflow in our virtual environments. During this time, the resiliency of the team was second to none, and everybody nimbly worked together to find new ways to continue our creative work while prioritizing the health and wellbeing of our team and our communities.

As such, despite Covid-19 restrictions, we’ve been able to continue developing, producing, pitching, selling and delivering content to our media partners, including Netflix, Disney+, NBCUniversal, Nickelodeon, CBC, Corus, Bell Media and PBS. The demand for content was exploding prior to the pandemic and it has only heightened since stay-at-home orders were mandated. With many production companies having to halt their work due to pandemic restrictions, there are now more slots and schedules to fill with premium content.

Our new remote working structure allows us to take on more work because we are no longer restricted to the four walls of our studios. It has also opened doors in terms of recruitment because, with the right technology, we can now work with talent from around the world.

Animation and factual content make up a major part of our business, and both of these divisions continued to work throughout the pandemic. We consider it a great privilege that we are able to uphold our role as storytellers and content creators during a time when people are seeking entertainment as a positive escape.

Which projects have been affected and in what way?
We are fortunate to work in an industry where demand outweighs supply and where technology allows us to continue business operations virtually. With the transition to remote working, our animated and factual productions have been able to continue with minimal disruption. As such, we’ve maintained all business operations, continuing to deliver high-quality, healthy entertainment to our partners – and, therefore, viewers of all ages – as scheduled.

At the onset of the pandemic, most of our factual productions had moved to post-production, which can be done remotely. Those still in production have since resumed with small, physically distant crews working in isolated locations, using guerilla filmmaking techniques and with health and safety as the top priority.

For scripted productions such as hit CBC comedy series Kim’s Convenience, we are in the writing phase of production for seasons five and six, which were announced in April during the pandemic. This work is being done remotely. Our teams are doing as much as possible during the pre-production phase in order to hit the ground running when we are physically able to return to the studio to shoot.

Our animated division experienced an initial dip to about 90% of productivity as we were transitioning to virtual setups, but this returned to normal within a few weeks as people adapted to their new working structures. For factual productions, physical distancing guidelines and guerrilla filmmaking techniques were adopted to keep our teams healthy and safe. To date, our factual division – Great Pacific Media – is 100% contracted for 2020 and already 80% contracted for 2021.

Thunderbird, fortunately, has not lost business or projected EBITDA. At the onset of the pandemic, our focus was on transitioning our teams, overall health and safety, and business continuity. Our work continues. In fact, our kids and family division has received several new inquiries from partners seeking new ways to complete and tell their live-action stories using animation.

What have you learned as a result?
My key learnings from the past few months involve the importance of adaptability, teamwork and resilience. We are definitely living through uncertain times, and I am honored to be a part of a leadership team that has demonstrated such unwavering resilience and dedication.

Throughout this experience, the Thunderbird teams have come together in new, agile ways to continue our work, with a collective goal of health and safety for every member of our crew. Everyone has been solution-focused and open to change. In my mind, there’s no doubt that one of the keys to the success we have been able to achieve despite the pandemic is the incredible commitment of the teams we have cultivated across Thunderbird.

How will your business be different beyond the pandemic?
There has been a lot of discussion around silver linings of the pandemic. For Thunderbird, we would never have embarked on a full-scale work-from-home initiative had something like this not required us to. But now we find ourselves in this place, and we are looking at the positives and flexible working structures long term.

This has an incredible impact on our business because it allows us to scale up like never before and take on more work – as long as we can continue to set up more virtual working environments. We can also virtually recruit incredible talent outside of the confines of the cities that our studios are located in. In addition, the pandemic has caused us to re-evaluate travel schedules, meeting structures and conferences. It has provided a moment for the industry to pause and think about ways we can adapt and improve things in the future.

How do you think the business as a whole will be different?
The pandemic has challenged the entertainment industry as a whole to rethink how it approaches and optimizes work. It is opening up doors for innovation on and off the screen, and for creativity to maximize productivity. There really isn’t a set ‘status quo’ anymore, and I think we are going to start seeing new techniques and types of filming.

As I mentioned earlier, the pandemic also validated that virtual production is a viable way to work post-pandemic. And as demand for new content continues to rise as the pandemic continues, companies like Thunderbird are well positioned to meet that demand. We now have the ability and the technology to offer hybrid working structures with work-from-home flexibility for the long term. This has shifted our company into a whole new paradigm that completely changes how we scale up to meet demand. It also opens up new opportunities for organic growth and acquisitions.

As we look behind the pandemic, we also recognize more than ever that diversity on screen and behind the camera is no longer just an option. World events have made all of us aware of the vital importance of helping all communities move forward and for everyone to be well represented positively and accurately. While diversity has always been a priority for us at Thunderbird, we are committed to ramping up our efforts to make permanent changes.

What will be your biggest challenge?
Our biggest challenge will be navigating the new landscape. While we have always focused on creating working environments that are safe, healthy and vibrant, this has taken on new meaning.

Careful planning will be needed to bring people back to the studio and our offices, and we believe the days of people commuting five days a week are done. 2020 has forever changed how we work, how and why we travel, and how we bring on board new team members. This is a deeply exciting time, and one to be approached with the safety, health and comfort of employees at the forefront at all times.

What will be the biggest opportunity?
The appetite for content was exploding prior to the pandemic, and it was further heightened as shelter-in-place orders came into effect. The demand is predicted to continue, with streaming services forecasting large audiences for the foreseeable future – long after the pandemic ends.

As a company, we are uniquely positioned to meet the demand for content with our development expertise and a diversified portfolio that includes 2D and 3D animation, factual, lifestyle, reality and scripted content.

With deep expertise in both content creation and sourcing the best creative talent in the industry, we have changed the way we operate because of the pandemic. It has increased our ability to scale up and keep on delivering premium content to our media partners around the world.

Our team is focused on acquiring, developing and producing premium content that has the ability to evolve into global entertainment franchises. Owned IP is incredibly important to Thunderbird because it provides ancillary revenue opportunities like toys, apparel and video. A great example of this is our acclaimed series for Netflix, The Last Kids on Earth, starring household names including Catherine O'Hara, Mark Hamill and Rosario Dawson. Its second season premiered in the midst of the pandemic in April with 10 new episodes, and more episodes are currently in production. This owned IP also has a worldwide toy line and a T-shirt line, plus a video game in development for 2021.

Additionally, there is an opportunity to tell stories with impact that connect people with positive messages. Thunderbird is unrelenting in our mission to produce content with affirming messages that help make the world a better place. As a company, we are committed to investing in and developing brands with longevity and global appeal that align with our mission and provide healthy entertainment for all.

What ‘good’ has come of the pandemic?
It’s been incredibly heartening to see the industry come together and to see the transparency and communication between production companies as a result of the pandemic. Since the onset, we’ve been open about sharing our plans with any other company that can work from home in animation. We have also contributed to the brainstorming and problem-solving in our industry that’s been needed to keep as many people working as possible through uncertain times.

There have been challenges, yes, but overwhelmingly, there’s been a lot of supportive, productive dialogue industry-wide that’s a testament to the ‘good’ that’s come of the pandemic.
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