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In the cutthroat, highly-competitive entertainment business, Jennifer Twiner McCarron has put together a string of hits by treating people fairly

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Thunderbird Entertainment CEO Jennifer Twiner McCarron.Lindsay Siu/The Globe and Mail

Matthew Berkowitz vividly remembers the first time he met Jennifer Twiner McCarron. It was 2016, and he was in the midst of an interview process that would end with him joining Thunderbird Entertainment as its chief creative officer. At the time, McCarron had just been promoted from head of production to president of Atomic Cartoons, which itself had recently been acquired by Thunderbird. During a tour of the Vancouver building, McCarron stopped to introduce Berkowitz to every single employee they passed—producers, illustrators, editors piecing together shows like Counterfeit Cat and Beat Bugs. “We’re talking about hundreds of people,” says Berkowitz, who remembers thinking this was going to be a very long tour. “But then we stopped to talk to an artist, and Jenn asked them about an event with their child that happened weeks before, remembering details that blew my mind. That was my defining Jenn moment. I realized she actually cared about every single team member that much.”

Six years later, McCarron is still by all accounts one of the kindest, most compassionate leaders out there, a notable feat in a business that can often be cutthroat. But she also has big plans—like, Disney-sized ones.

As CEO of Thunderbird—a job she won in 2018, just months before the company went public—she presides over one of the largest production houses in the country, with 1,000-plus employees, more than $111 million in revenue, two headquarters in British Columbia (one for each of its two major subsidiaries, Atomic and Great Pacific Media), animation studios in Ottawa and Los Angeles, an office in Toronto, and a roster of intellectual property that includes animated, factual and scripted programming. A few of its greatest hits—shows it created and owns outright—include Kim’s Convenience, Highway Thru Hell, now in its 10th season, and The Last Kids on Earth, an animated series that won an Emmy in 2020. It currently has more than 50 new projects in development and 26 in production, and deals with virtually every major content creator and streaming service, including Netflix, Marvel, Lego, Disney, Discovery, NBC Universal, HBO Max, Hulu and CBC.

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The Globe and Mail

Thunderbird’s growth has loosely tracked the explosive rise of digital streaming. Globally, the number of people who subscribe to a streaming service is expected to hit 1.8 billion by 2027, according to London-based Digital TV Research. In the first three months of 2020, at the height of the tightest pandemic lockdowns, roughly 16 million people subscribed to Netflix alone, with another 20 million or so coming aboard by the end of the year. Since launching in late 2019, Disney+ has amassed more than 129 million subscribers.

Signing up all those eyeballs requires phenomenal amounts of unique content, and the Netflixes, Disneys and HBOs of the world are spending vast sums to produce and license it. In 2020, that figure hit US$220 billion—an increase of 16.4% from the previous year. This year, they’re expected to spend US$230 billion, with Disney alone planning to drop US$33 billion.

It’s a huge shift from the old days of the production business, when a handful of broadcasters doled out a handful of new contracts each year. “In the early days of working in cartoons, there was the Saturday-morning window,” says McCarron. While she says Thunderbird’s broadcast clients—among them Discovery and CBC—are still vital, “streaming means more people to sell our content to, which is amazing.” Indeed, Thunderbird’s revenue increased by 37% last year.

The company’s CEO has ambitious plans: to double Thunderbird’s current market cap within three to five years, expand its library of owned IP, and open studios in Europe and Southeast Asia. More than that, McCarron says she wants Thunderbird to be held in the same regard as studios like Disney, DreamWorks and Lionsgate (whose founder, Frank Giustra, owns a majority stake in the company).

No matter how big Thunderbird gets, though, McCarron insists she won’t put the bottom line above the people who work there. “Quality is my North Star,” she says. “I work for the teams. That’s the path forward. I want to build a major global studio filled with talented, thriving people. That’s the trajectory we’re on.”

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Wandering through Thunderbird’s ghost town of an office in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, you’d never know its employees are working on dozens of new shows. Meeting rooms where producers once pitched new projects sit empty, and the communal kitchens are roped off and used for storage. Row upon row of desks sit empty, surrounded by framed posters and shelves lined with Jurassic Park dino skulls, Sailor Moon figurines and other pop culture ephemera.

The first round of lockdowns presented a unique challenge for production houses like Thunderbird. You can’t put together a TV show on any old laptop—it requires a lumbering hardware setup. And the digital files take up an astronomical amount of server space. Then there’s the protection of valuable IP. When the first rumblings of COVID-19 came in early March 2020, Thunderbird bought new firewalls and hard drives, and started implementing Teradici licenses, secure VPN portals that let its people work off-site. Today, every desktop in its abandoned office is securely connected to a Thunderbird employee working from home, busy as ever.

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The rise of Netflix, Disney and other streaming services—which expect to spend $230 Billion in content this year alone—has been a boon for studios like Vancouver-based Thunderbird EntertainmentLindsay Siu/The Globe and Mail

In a way, Thunderbird was perfectly positioned for success during the pandemic. Its subsidiaries, Atomic and Great Pacific, specialize in kids’ and factual content, respectively. “During the pandemic, streamers didn’t have as much scripted content, but they did double down on animation and factual,” says McCarron. “Those two are considered the stickiest for a lot of buyers, because when families are watching together, they’re less likely to unsubscribe. And what do families tend to watch? Animation or documentary-style programming.”

Thunderbird was founded in 2003, a tiny company with a handful of employees that distributed Canadian series to the United States. Seven years later, co-founder Tim Gamble persuaded his billionaire buddy Frank Giustra—who’d left Lions-gate years earlier and had recently gotten out of the mining game, too—to buy a stake. Originally, Giustra just wanted a vehicle through which to secure the rights to his favourite sci-fi movie, Blade Runner. Eventually Thunderbird would land a 50% stake in the cyberpunk masterpiece. But Giustra also began growing the company through acquisitions in an effort to bring top creative talent under its umbrella.

McCarron, meanwhile, had studied film and journalism, and spent 13 years at animation studio Mainframe Entertainment (then known as Rainmaker), where her three years as head of production put her in charge of roughly 700 employees. She was on maternity leave in 2010 after having twins—making her a mom to three kids under four—when she got a call from Atomic, a boutique shop looking to scale up. In 2015, it signed a deal with a guy in Australia who had the rights to the Beatles’ music and developed it into Beat Bugs. Netflix loved the show so much, it ordered episodes on the spot.

Thunderbird bought Atomic that same year. “I liked Jenn right off the bat,” says Giustra, who quickly promoted her to president. “I could see she had major leadership potential. She had such a great way about her, not only with employees but investors and clients, too. We thought she would make a great CEO for Thunderbird, and we were right.”

McCarron knew a lot about what motivated creative people and what didn’t. She was in a gifted program through high school, largely populated by the same quirky creative types she would later end up working with. “Going into TV, I felt like I understood the artistic community. I love all the creative tensions of putting a project together, what you can do to smooth those over, bridging a gap between the buyer and the creator,” she says. “I found a passion for creating an environment where people can do their best work, where everyone feels safe and where mistakes are okay.” She remembers working on productions with software that would constantly flash messages like, “You’re two shots behind!” and how demotivating it was to the crew. “They wouldn’t do as good a job under that kind of pressure,” she says. “We’ve all had managers whose employees operate out of fear. Fear of repercussion, of not meeting deadlines, of making a mistake. I remember thinking that when I have autonomy, that’s not how I’m going to work.”

That kind of attitude can be rare in production, a primarily gig-based industry known for gruelling work hours and exacting standards. A $35-million class action lawsuit in 2020 alleged employees at a Toronto production company were frequently misclassified as independent contractors, and denied overtime pay and other benefits. (The suit was recently dismissed under Ontario’s new dismissal-for-delay provision.) “To me, suits like this just underscore the importance of putting people first,” says McCarron, who adds that while Thunderbird occasionally employs gig workers, it hires the bulk of its people as employees for the duration of any given project.

“The great and the bad thing about this industry is, everyone has an opinion and thinks they’re an expert,” says Giustra, who sits on Thunderbird’s board. “Jenn has an uncanny ability to make you feel heard, even when she doesn’t agree with you.” He recalls a contentious meeting about Thunderbird strategy with a few other company directors. Despite having widely opposing opinions, no one was completely sure when the meeting concluded whom McCarron had sided with. And yet, he says, everyone felt respected and heard. “I’ve been involved with a lot of public companies over the years, and that’s a really rare quality: making everyone feel good about your vision. It requires a very specific kind of personality, and she’s got it.”

McCarron says her leadership revolves around answering three questions: Do people know what they’re supposed to be doing? Do they have the tools to do it? Do their managers have their backs? If all these things are in order, she says, people thrive. But if any one of these key points is out of alignment, people are more likely to fail—or go elsewhere. To help track where Thunderbird employees are at, they regularly fill out anonymous satisfaction surveys, the results of which McCarron and other leaders present to the company personally, making changes accordingly. If the survey reveals workers on a specific show are struggling with the workload or their mental health, Thunderbird will either hire more support or find a way to give workers a break.

McCarron’s biggest professional challenge came before the pandemic, in November 2018, when Thunderbird went public. “I don’t come from finance,” she says. “I was concerned I’d get caught up in managing to the quarter, which isn’t what I wanted to do. The bottom line is hugely important, but if that was going to be the sole focus once we went public, it wouldn’t have been the right fit for me, because I would have been forced into decisions that weren’t right for the studio.”What can we as a company be doing better to support you?” So far, the studio hasn’t missed a single deadline for content delivery.

Marni Wieshofer, chair of Thunderbird’s board, says McCarron’s willingness to take criticism helped flatten the learning curve when it came to leading a public company. “Jenn is constantly learning, and she just doesn’t have an ego,” she says. “In the early days of the company being public, I would listen in during conferences. She was nervous.” Wieshofer remembers texting McCarron that if she’d taken a drink for every one of her uhs and ums, she’d be in big trouble. “She laughed, but she took the advice, and it didn’t take long for her to absolutely nail it. Some people in this industry, you just can’t talk to. Jenn’s not one of them.”

She’s also taking a methodical approach to expansion. Giustra says the cardinal sin of production companies, Canadian and otherwise, is growing too fast. “Bankers in this industry will always try to convince you to grow more quickly than necessary,” he says. “To do that, you have to take on debt. A classic mistake I see is companies that are a hodgepodge of a million things slapped together, and they’re all done through acquisition, backed up by debt. There’s no synergy, and the company can’t be well managed because they’re trying to do too many things.” Eventually, he says, “it becomes too hard to manage, the debt gets out of hand, and one mistake can be fatal.” Thunderbird, meanwhile, has zero corporate debt.

To keep the organic growth going, McCarron wants to increase the amount of IP the company owns. Thunderbird works under a few different business models. In one scenario, a broadcaster hires the studio to produce a project, with the client covering the budget and paying Thunderbird a set fee. One step up is the partnership model, in which the studio gets more creative input, plus a cut of back-end and merchandise sales. These two models account for a substantial portion of Thunderbird’s growth. “We love our services business. We get to create content for some of the biggest IP in the world, like Star Wars and Spiderman,” says Berkowitz.

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Thunderbird Entertainment's roster includes Emmy-winner The Last Kids on Earth.Supplied

The gold standard, however, is the owned-IP model: developing ideas from scratch or by optioning another form of content. That was the case with The Last Kids on Earth, which Thunderbird adapted from the post-apocalyptic New York Times–bestselling book by Max Brallier. If the show’s a hit, owning the IP can be huge, since the studio can license its content to a streamer or broadcaster for a fixed period, after which it goes back into the library and can be sold again in perpetuity. Then there’s merchandise sales on top of that, especially around kids’ programming. Great Pacific owns most of its content, including Highway Thru Hell, which has two spinoffs and is going into its 11th season on Discovery. Thunderbird also owns Kim’s Convenience and the sci-fi series Continuum. Thunderbird has some hits under its belt, but the studio is still waiting for the one that’ll knock it into the stratosphere. “It’s a numbers game,” says Giustra. “If you stay in this business long enough, you will get your hit. Our objective is to develop quality content where we take more risk, but keep a lot of the upside when we negotiate.”

As it pursues more original content, Thunderbird is actively pursuing stories from groups that are underrepresented in mainstream media, which McCarron believes will ultimately lead to a healthier bottom line. Molly of Denali, a co-venture between Atomic and GBH Boston, revolves around a young Indigenous girl, her dog, and her family and friends in their Alaskan village. More than 60 Indigenous people worked on the production (including all the actors who voiced Indigenous characters), and in 2020 it won a prestigious Peabody Award. Great Pacific also produced two seasons of Queen of the Oil Patch, which followed a two-spirited Indigenous person navigating life in Alberta’s oil sands. The company offers on-set internships for Black and Indigenous youth, and in 2021, Great Pacific helped launch and partnered with Wapanatahk Media, a female-led production company that recently wrapped its first project, Dr. Savannah: Wild Rose Vet, about a Métis vet in central Alberta.

As Thunderbird moves into the post-pandemic future, McCarron says she’ll keep paying attention to what her employees want even as she pushes them to continue creating the kind of content that will fulfill her big-studio ambitions. One part of that is moving to a hybrid work model. Employee surveys have shown about a third of Thunderbird staff wants to work from home permanently, another third wants a bit of both, and the rest just want to get out of their basements and back into the office. “While we all see the benefits of being at home and not having a commute,” she says, “I think a lot of people are missing that human contact and creative collaboration.”

One silver lining of the pandemic is that McCarron has found some balance in her own life. “I used to be on a plane two weeks a month,” she says. “I have three kids, I’ve got parents, I’m married, and I was still trying to be a great mom, wife and daughter. At a certain point, I felt like I was going to explode.” Now, instead of travelling into the office or jetting off to make a pitch in L.A., she gets up early to catch up on work—particularly the financial side of the business—and manages to spend time with her family, too. Her goal, she says, is “making sure the business end is such a well-oiled machine that you don’t see it working. We’re nailing it, but in a way that lets our programming thrive. People come first, and that’s what’s going to propel us forward.”

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