As global demand for animated content continues to explode, it’s increasingly important for small- to mid-size animation studios to strike a balance between service work and original content to maintain a consistent cash flow. Matthew Berkowitz, the new chief creative officer of Vancouver’s Thunderbird Entertainment and its kids subsidiary Atomic Cartoons, knows this environment well.
When Atomic opened its LA office in 2016, the former Arc Productions exec was brought in as VP of originals to tap the local sector for IPs. He was also tasked with increasing the company’s original content output to 50%—up from the 20% it had been creating.
“You never want to be too heavy on one or the other,” says Berkowitz. “Service work is a margin-driven business, and you are competing on every project with a lot of amazing studios. On the flipside, you don’t want your company to be entirely based around original IPs because there may be a year when you’re excited about the projects you develop, but the buyers aren’t. Then you don’t have work for your artists.”
Before Berkowitz joined, Atomic had success with its first original series Atomic Betty, which aired for three seasons (2004-2008) and aired in more than 180 countries on networks including Cartoon Network (US), Teletoon (Canada) and Teletoon+ (France). But Atomic’s next global original didn’t materialize until early 2016 when the studio signed on to co-produce Netflix’s Beatles-themed series Beat Bugs.
The success of the show, now in its third season, coupled with Atomic’s LA opportunities, led the studio to nearly double its staff in Vancouver to 400 by early 2018 (up from 250 just a few years earlier). It also shifted its service versus original load to 60/40. Today, the studio has achieved a 50/50 split and increased its staff to 700, thanks in large part to more work from Netflix. This includes a pickup of Atomic’s adventure-comedy adaptation The Last Kids on Earth (pictured), which will bow later this year, and service gigs on the SVOD’s original series Cupcake and Dinosaur and Hilda.
Other projects in development include Princesses Wear Pants, a CGI show based on The New York Times bestselling book series of the same name from Today Show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim; Eerie, Atomic’s first hybrid series and an adaptation of the Eerie Elementary book series by Max Brallier (The Last Kids on Earth); and Mermicorno, a 22-minute, semi-serialized 2D toon made in collaboration with Japanese pop-culture brand tokidoki based on an extension of its Unicorno toy line.
Long term, Berkowitz is aiming to have six or seven original projects in production, with around 20 projects in development over the next two years (doubling its current production and development slate). Along with Atomic’s bread and butter—toons for preschoolers and six- to 11-year-olds—the growth will also accommodate moves into adult animation and the kids live-action and factual space.
To bolster this expansion, Atomic hired ex-DreamWorks Animation development director Kristin Cummings and upped its own director of development Aaron Behl to jointly fill Berkowitz’s previous VP of originals role.
Alongside the growth of Atomic’s animation studio, Berkowitz says the company will continue to expand its footprint in LA, where Atomic manages its showrunners and the bulk of its development and pre-production business.
“LA serves as a great hub for access—both creatively with talent, and business-wise with the networks,” he says. “It’s important to have a place where showrunners can see us daily and also know it’s only a two-hour flight to Vancouver.”