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Canadian animator Gyimah Gariba’s cartoon Big Blue, which airs on CBC Kids, Nicktoons in the United Kingdom, and on the Cartoon Network in Africa.Guru Studio/Handout

It wasn’t the parents eyeballing Andrew Strimaitis’s Paw Patrol staff swag, or the instant fame he would gain at kids’ birthday parties, that made the animator realize he’d become part of a cultural behemoth.

No, it was at a Wu-Tang Clan concert in 2019 that Strimaitis – animation director for Guru Studio, which brings the stories of Paw Patrol to life on screen – came to recognize that perhaps he was part of one of the biggest TV shows in the world.

Standing in the beer garden, Strimaitis heard a group of parents talking about the shows their kids loved. Each I can’t stand this one that he heard was often followed by a more inquisitive How about this show?

“And I’m waiting for it. I just know what’s coming,” he says. For a while, the parents were grumbling. “And the second they mentioned Paw Patrol, they go positive.” Strimaitis smiles as he recollects the story. “And then I politely interject. ‘Hey, fellas, I overheard you say Paw Patrol,’ ” he recalls saying. “I just want to say thanks for watching it because I make the show, and we really pour our hearts into it.”

Within moments, his fellow Wu-Tang fans were scavenging for pens. They wanted autographs. Not from Ghostface Killah or Raekwon, the day’s performers. From Strimaitis.

Since its launch by Spin Master Entertainment a decade ago, Paw Patrol has come to reach 350 million homes in more than 30 languages across nearly 180 countries. Built on an idea by Spin Master co-founder Ronnen Harary and initially designed by Bob the Builder magnate Keith Chapman, its crew of puppies don familiar gear as police, firefighters, construction workers and aquatic rescuers, and spend each episode saving their fictional town and its residents. Retail sales of Paw Patrol toys and other products have surpassed US$14-billion. It’s become a borderless, inescapable phenomenon and a cash machine for its producers.

Kids’ TV has become one of Canada’s best-known exports in the past decade. As Toronto’s Paw Patrol engrossed the world’s toddlers, the show’s animator, Guru Studio, was catching fresh attention for new shows such as Big Blue. TV veterans such as Ottawa’s Kratt brothers are building brand empires through shows such as Wild Kratts. Some players are building on Canada’s long history of importing and refining brands and ideas, building on the legacy of the Care Bears with franchises from Peanuts to Arthur.

The dean of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Creative School, the long-time entertainment executive Charles Falzon – who played a major role in bringing the likes of Ringo Starr and George Carlin to an Ontario film studio to make the nineties’ series Shining Time Station – says the domestic kids’ TV sector has significantly matured in the past 20 years.

Last century, “the concept of licensing, merchandising and themed entertainment wasn’t part of the psyche of the companies that were here,” Falzon says. As animation techniques improved, so, too, did their shows’ ability to feel universal, and not confined to the aesthetics of a single region or culture: “It was a lot easier to sell Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs around the world than it was to sell Mr. Dressup.”

Combine that with the children’s storytelling prowess Canada had been honing for decades, and the sophistication of companies that considered brand development a key part of a TV show’s legacy, and, as the country entered the 21st century, someone was bound to make a hit. Jennifer Dodge, Spin Master’s president of entertainment and executive producer of Paw Patrol, puts it succinctly: “Everything worked. The timing was right.”

The precise time turned out to be August, 2013. As Dodge tells it, the market for preschool TV was thin, and streaming had yet to become a dominant mode of TV watching. “Nickelodeon and Disney – every child in America was looking at those channels,” she says. “We didn’t have dilution; there weren’t a thousand choices for distribution.”

What happened next is seared into the mind of just about everyone who became a parent in the past decade: Paw Patrol launched on TVO in Canada and Nickelodeon in the United States. Then the obsession kicked in.

The Canadian Media Producers Association found in 2021 that the international sales value of animated shows supported by the Canada Media Fund shot up nearly 160 per cent between the five-year period leading up to Paw Patrol’s launch and the five-year period afterward.

Average production budgets doubled. The specific number of enthralled preschoolers Paw Patrol reaches is less measurable, but is likely a large subset of the 350 million homes it’s broadcast into.

It took the industry many years and many shows to reach this point. Chase and his littermates are standing on the shoulders of giants, including those of a skyward-looking polar bear – the logo of the Toronto studio and distributor Nelvana. That bear has appeared at the end of the closing credits of several lucrative franchises, including the Care Bears, which the company transformed from greeting-card characters into global bastions of the “sharing is caring” mindset, and Bakugan, a Japanese show that it animated, the franchise of which is joint-owned by – well, how about that? – Spin Master. (Nelvana was subsumed by Corus Entertainment in 2000.)

When Clive Smith, Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert co-founded Nelvana half a century ago, it took a while to get things off the ground. The National Film Board had supported early animators, and Canadians had launched a few cartoons, such as Rocket Robin Hood, but there wasn’t much of an industry.

“Those days were very, very dodgy,” Smith says. They would take on a steady stream of talent from Oakville, Ont.’s Sheridan College, work on half-hour specials, then struggle with new projects or financing and need to let people go.

Just at the point that Nelvana was millions of dollars in the hole and needed a saviour, Smith’s co-founder Hirsh delivered one in the form of The Care Bears Movie. Making a “service-job” production feature film – meaning the intellectual property stayed out of Nelvana’s hands and in that of American Greetings – wasn’t particularly lucrative at first, but it kept the studio alive.

Then one Saturday morning in 1985, Smith was driving through Toronto when he passed by a theatre with a lineup around the block. It was for The Care Bears Movie. It had become an enormous success, building Nelvana a reputation and filling up its bank account as the company developed the spinoff The Care Bears Family for TV. Nelvana began hunting for projects with proven IP and track records, such as Pippi Longstocking, Rolie Polie Olie and Beetlejuice. The emphasis on service work was hard for Smith to take. “I really missed those days when we were just inventing stuff ourselves.”

As cable TV surged and animation techniques matured in the nineties and early aughts, channels such as YTV and Teletoon delivered groundbreaking TV, sometimes through creation, sometimes through animation, sometimes through distribution. That included the first truly computer-generated cartoon, Reboot, whose Vancouver-based British and American creators built on the success of their pioneering music video for the Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing. Even adult cartoons got a leg up from Canada: Teletoon was the first network to premiere Clone High – which followed the lives of teenage cloned historical figures – before MTV got a hold of it. Its creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller would go on to become prolific screenwriters, and are set to premiere their latest blockbuster, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, this summer.

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Some players are building on Canada’s long history of importing and refining brands and ideas, building on the legacy of the Care Bears with franchises from Peanuts (pictured) to Arthur.Wildrbrain/Courtesty of Wildbrain

While the Nelvana crew was putting the final touches on The Care Bears Movie in the mid-eighties, the production company Cinar Corp. set up shop in Montreal and began churning out animated content of its own. It took on animated adaptations, such as Arthur and Caillou, and brought ambitious original shows to the screen, including the co-production Are You Afraid of the Dark?.

But Cinar was rocked by scandal at the turn of the millennium, as allegations of plagiarism, misuse of company funds and transferring money to an offshore account without board approval sent the $1.5-billion company into a tailspin. A few years later investors, including Nelvana co-founder Hirsh, snapped up the company for about US$144-million and renamed it Cookie Jar Group.

A smattering of mergers and acquisitions later, Cookie Jar Group is now part of Toronto’s WildBrain, whose work spans production, licensing and distribution for a war chest of brands such as Peanuts, Teletubbies and the recently repatriated Inspector Gadget. Its president, Josh Scherba, says the foundation of service work that Nelvana helped shepherd into Canada, combined with domestic tax credits, Canadian Content rules and a whole lot of animation talent, have created today’s flourishing industry.

Importing ideas from abroad, which many studios in the industry still do, naturally makes many Canadian writers with big ideas bristle. It also, for better or worse, can make a show ideal for export. WildBrain still sees a lot of value in service work. “For us, being investors in known IP that had a proven track record with kids and family seemed like the ideal place to go,” Scherba says.

Frank Falcone, creative director and president of Guru Studio, says there may be something about the fabric of our national identity that’s bolstered animation industry. “Canadians are a little bit quiet and reserved, and we don’t like the spotlight on us – so it’s great to be able to say, ‘Put the spotlight on this character,’ and we’ll puppet from behind.”

And these days, Toronto Metropolitan Creative School dean Falzon says, “there’s a lot more ability to see magic in a story or property than there used to be.” In the 20th century, he points out, production companies and studios had few routes other than optioning popular children’s books when it came to IP. These days, video games offer a separate pool of IP, while video services such as YouTube can help road-test a show concept.

There are negatives to democratized distribution, however. “Introducing new properties that aren’t already known is tricky,” Falzon says. He points to the hegemony of Marvel movies at the box office: It can simply be easier to build franchises around things people know.

It’s not surprising, then, that many studios, distributors and production companies are led by alumni of Canada’s first generation of service animation.

Vince Commisso, president and chief executive of 9 Story Media Group, spent his childhood obsessing over the original Spider-Man cartoon (starring Canadian Paul Soles!), started his career in finance and accounting in Nelvana, and later produced shows such as The Magic School Bus. Now Commisso oversees an empire that’s included later seasons of Arthur and the Mr. Rogers spinoff Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

9 Story also co-produces Wild Kratts – the wildly successful animal show for preschoolers – with Ottawa’s Kratt brothers. Wild Kratts is Canadian-made in a way that, like Paw Patrol, appeals to a borderless audience in the preschool crowd. These kinds of shows build on decades of Canadian experience in kids’ TV to tell universal tales that happen to be original, too. “There should be regional kids’ content, but if you’re looking to distribute, you have to have elements that speak to kids around the world,” Commisso says.

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Cookie Jar Group is now part of Toronto’s WildBrain, whose work spans production, licensing and distribution for a war chest of brands such as Teletubbies.Courtesty of Wildbrain

The many brands of kids’ TV that Canada has come to excel at, and the homegrown of success of shows such as Paw Patrol has created a sector that many young Canadians now aspire to be a part of. It’s also finally come to better reflect Canada’s diversity. Turning Red’s creator, the Chinese-Canadian Oscar winner Domee Shi, is now vice-president of creative with Pixar. Ghanian-Canadian animator Gyimah Gariba’s cartoon Big Blue, which airs on CBC Kids, Nicktoons in the United Kingdom and on the Cartoon Network in Africa, centres on two Black siblings, and received two Canadian Screen Award nominations this year.

Both are graduates of Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., which has become a key pipeline for Canada’s animation talent. “People who have talent gather at the place where they’re told the best are,” says Gariba, who works for Guru Studio.

Interest in the program has soared there in recent years, with about 1,600 applicants competing each year for the 150 seats in its Bachelor of Animation program, says associate dean Theresa Scandiffio. At the same time, the school has been working to ensure students from historically under-represented groups have fair access to the program, with scholarships and mentorship to help their way through.

Alumni such as Shi and Gariba “are driving an inclusive vision” of the Canadian industry, Scandiffio says. “It’s an intersectional lens that I think is inspiring to students.”

Kashuss Belmar, who’s turned a childhood love of Dragon Ball Z and other Japanese media into a lifelong love of drawing, is about to graduate from Sheridan’s animation program. He hopes to find work as a character designer and animator – to “just create the best artwork that can impact and inspire people.”

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Kashuss Belmar, who created the film Boom Bap, pictured above, hopes to find work as a character designer and animator.Handout

Belmar, a Canadian of Caribbean descent, says both Shi and Gariba have laid pathways for new Canadian stories that he hopes to soon walk along. In his vision of the sector’s future, “I hope Canadian animation can produce our own intellectual property. A lot of studios do service. It would be great to see more original stories – work we create and own here.”

Despite making his own acclaimed original show, Gariba himself gets more excited about Canadian animators’ opportunities on the world stage, be it at Pixar, Guru or Ottawa’s Mercury Filmworks, than about where ideas first originate. “Canadians are working on the highest quality content, globally,” he says.

“I don’t think of it so much in terms of a border” separating where ideas might have originated or been financed from, he says. “I think of: Are you a Canadian person representing the diversity of your Canadian experience?”

Sustaining a global TV phenomenon, even when it’s bolstering a high-demand toy franchise, isn’t easy. Paw Patrol’s march into the world’s collective imagination is showing some signs of waning exuberance: Spin Master’s TV-driven Entertainment division brought in $17-million, or 12.5 per cent, less in 2022 than in 2021, while its lucrative toy revenue barely budged.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the company is repackaging Paw Patrol in new ways. It launched a spinoff, Rubble & Crew, earlier this year, and a second movie based on the original franchise is scheduled to hit theatres in September. The formula has worked for a decade; like the books that so many predecessors adapted, Spin Master is just changing a few variables and hoping for a bigger audience.

“There is a universal appeal to wanting to have a puppy when you’re a child,” Dodge says. “And when you have pups that are rescuing in their community, helping in their community – it gives empowerment to young children.”

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