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The Globe and Mail

Studio behind Happy Tree Friends turning to Canada for next big idea

The U.S. online animation studio that gave the world a hit show about adorable woodland creatures enduring gruesome deaths is looking to Canadian creators for its next big idea.

Mondo Media, producer of the YouTube hit Happy Tree Friends, is teaming up with Toronto-based Blue Ant Media for a $3-million project to turn up to 30 pitches from Canadian writers and producers into pilots for shows. Those pilots – up to 2 1/2-minutes each – will be posted to Mondo's YouTube channel, where audience reaction will determine whether they become full series.

"YouTube provides the perfect piloting ground," said Raja Khanna, Blue Ant's chief executive officer of television and digital, in an interview. "It [provides] real-time data, it takes the subjectivity out of creative decision-making. The audience can tell us what's working and what's not, and using a short format allows us to pilot at low cost. …

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"The data will tell us which ones we should do a whole year of shorts with; and then, out of those, which one or two deserves to be their own half-hour television show: Does it make sense as feature-length content? Does it make sense as key chains and T-shirts? These are all things we'll explore."

Blue Ant will air the material on its Bite TV comedy channel, which is in about 2.8 million Canadian homes. But television is not the only goal: Happy Tree Friends has spawned a line of merchandise; Dick Figures, another popular Mondo property, recently was adapted into its own feature-length movie sold on multiple online platforms, including iTunes and Google Play.

"This is what we're calling 'streamium,' " Mondo CEO John Evershed said. "You build up ad-supported audiences to scale on YouTube, then you push that audience into paid long-form movies."

Evershed, who was born in Canada and graduated from the University of Toronto, says he had been looking for an opportunity to tap into the Canadian creative community, in part because of generous government incentives. The new program, Bite on Mondo, will be supported by the Canadian Media Fund.

Mondo describes itself as similar to a record label, with the business smarts and the reach to help creators fund their projects and find larger audiences. "It's very common to find a series that you can see having the hallmarks of being a success but maybe they don't have the big footprint that we've got on YouTube," said Evershed. "We go in and work with them to really scale their audience and finance them properly, so that they can grow their show and get it out on a regular basis, which is important on YouTube."

Khanna believes Canadian content hasn't yet reached its potential. "Canada should be, can be, a global exporter of digital content," he said. "Not just because of the subsidies, but also because of the talent pool. We have this diverse talent here. We can produce, in Toronto, content that will play in India and Germany. In many cases, we can even do the voice work in Toronto. It's an exciting centre of excellence for the city to explore."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bite TV is in about 2.3 million Canadian homes.

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