When it comes to new concept development, Stephanie Betts wants it as original as it gets.
The newly promoted EVP of content and current series at Canada’s DHX Media is going to great lengths—and some not-so-far-off places—to mine original ideas that can potentially lead to evergreen brand status. Her expanded remit, along with the appointment of former Corus Entertainment and marblemedia exec Todd Brian as director of animation development, signals both an amplified and streamlined approach to content creation on the part of DHX.
“I will be expanding our development and production teams, and giving more attention to every project. A big part of my new job is working more closely with all company divisions, including distribution, channel and WildBrain teams,” Betts says. “I was always part of these divisions in my previous role [as SVP of development and current series], but now we are ensuring a more formally aligned approach that entails setting creative-first strategies from the onset.”
For example, Betts will sit down with division heads upon optioning a project in order to decide whether the creative approach is primed for short-form content (à la WildBrain) or is a better fit for long-form formats. Aligning marketing and creative forces is also important as the company looks to relaunch some of its evergreen properties like Strawberry Shortcake. While Betts is familiar with the world of global franchises—she has more than 16 years of experience developing and producing content that includes upcoming Apple TV+ series Snoopy in Space, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Teletubbies—her plate is also full of new modes for discovery. In terms of mining old properties versus new one, DHX’s slate is currently comprised of about 30% well-known franchises and 60% new concepts.
“We are meeting with as many creatives and talent as we can, and we want the community to know that we are open for pitches,” Betts says.
And, given its large workforce (750 artists in its Vancouver studio alone), DHX relaunched its internal incubator program this past spring, which has led to several short-listed pitches. The winning concepts will then move forward to an option deal in September. A WildBrain-focused incubator program is also in the works.
“We want to mine in-house talent, so that’s a big focus moving forward,” Betts says. “We want to support creators who haven’t always had have a voice. It’s a good time to be an artist, director or designer—they make the rules now. And that’s why we want to lean into our studio talent.”
While Betts looks inward with the help of Amir Nasrabadi, the company’s new EVP/GM of Vancouver-based DHX Animation Studio, Brian’s remit will involve tapping further into the Canadian production scene. “We have partnership relationships in place, and that’s something we want to continue to uphold,” Betts adds. “Great ideas come from all over the place.”
In that vein, Betts says that DHX is taking a less-is-more approach to development. “We are actively looking for a few projects rights now in categories across preschool, action, animated comedies and tween live-action. We’ve always [worked] across all genres, and that’s not going to change, but we will be giving more care to fewer projects on our slate.” Betts says she will ideally oversee between 20 to 25 projects (animation and live-action combined), adding that the company is being very mindful about how much it takes on at any given time for ground-floor development due to a heightened focus on premium content, which requires more time and attention.
Betts believes that putting more focus on projects will also breed creativity. “I’m all about reimagining formats. Can we crack a preschool sitcom? Or an animated procedural? We are trying to avoid following one way of doing things,” she says.
Of course, it’s hard to avoid flowing into SVOD territory. There are currently no original content plans for DHX’s new Kids Room SVOD service, but Betts says she will continue to dedicate significant resources to creating content for platforms like Netflix. (DHX/DreamWorks collab DreamWorks Go, Dog. Go!, for example, is slated to hit Netflix in 2020.) The company’s deal with Apple TV for exclusive Peanuts content is also biting into a lot of Betts’ time, though she remains tight-lipped on launch details. “The Peanuts-Apple collaboration is very exciting in terms of format freedom. That’s all I can say for now.”
What Betts is readily open to discussing is the state of creativity in children’s entertainment right now.
“It’s a pivotal time for the industry as a whole. The rules have been thrown out, and there are new platforms for interesting voices and concepts to be heard and made,” she says. “We want to continue surprising ourselves and, mostly importantly, our audience.”