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Report on Business DHX hires former Pixar Canada president as it competes for animation deals

DHX Media Ltd. is adding a new animation executive to its ranks, as competition among streaming services has led to a spike in demand for children’s entertainment content.

On Monday, the Halifax-based media company is announcing that it has hired Amir Nasrabadi, the former president of Pixar Canada, to run the company’s Vancouver animation studio starting in June.

The studio is currently producing new Peanuts content for Apple Inc., a deal that was announced in December. The new hire is a reflection of DHX’s strategy to pursue more deals to produce “premium” content. As companies such as Netflix Inc., Hulu, Apple, The Walt Disney Co. and Amazon.com Inc. all compete for viewers in an ever-expanding streaming market, budgets for shows have gone up.

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“All of those services are looking for high-quality content and are putting an emphasis on kids’ content,” DHX president Josh Scherba said in an interview. “We see that as a tremendous opportunity. We have put our focus and attention in the past year on that space to be sure that we’re able to compete.”

Competition among streaming services to rival the popularity of Netflix is intensifying. Disney is preparing to launch its own offering, Disney+, which will benefit from Disney’s massive library of content, including Pixar films, the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, The Simpsons, and more, in addition to new content. Apple is preparing to roll out its own streaming service, Apple TV+, in the fall.

Streaming companies are hoping that children’s content will prove to be a powerful incentive for people to subscribe, as kids’ viewing habits are changing rapidly and parents are seeking out shows that they feel comfortable allowing little ones to watch on phones, tablets and connected TVs – often ad-free.

Last July, Amazon Prime acquired streaming rights for content from PBS Kids. Netflix has also been investing heavily in children’s content, such as the animated show Carmen Sandiego, which DHX is producing at its Vancouver studio. Apple has acquired one animated and one live-action show from Sesame Workshop, the creator of Sesame Street. And work at the DHX studio is already underway on the Peanuts deal with Apple; it will develop new Peanuts shows and specials, as well as short-form content related to science, technology, engineering and math (also known as STEM) subjects that will star Peanuts characters such as astronaut Snoopy. Peanuts Worldwide LLC has an agreement with NASA to promote those subjects among young people and to pique students’ interest in space.

“It’s about adapting to the current landscape, with these streaming platforms coming on board, having larger budgets, and looking for premium, high quality content,” Mr. Scherba said.

As a producer, DHX competes for deals both with digital players that take a more global approach to show rights, as well as with broadcasters in a variety of markets around the world. And productions also contribute to other parts of the company’s business, such as licensing deals for consumer products, and distribution.

Mr. Nasrabadi will move to Vancouver from Los Angeles, where he was most recently executive vice-president of finance and operations for animation studio Illumination, which produced movies such as Despicable Me, The Grinch and Sing. His former roles included senior vice-president of production at Paramount Animation; 15 years with Disney, including a role as vice-president of finance and operations for Disneytoon Studios; and general manager of Pixar Canada in Vancouver. That Canadian division of Pixar was a relatively short-lived project, which parent company Disney launched in 2010 and closed in 2013, moving the jobs to California.

“He brings a tremendous amount of leadership at high-quality studios. ... What great leadership does at a studio is allows creativity to thrive,” Mr. Scherba said. “There’s more animation production in the world now than there ever has been, and Vancouver has taken a significant chunk of that. ... It’s been a healthy industry. We expect it to continue to be so.”

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