After a career focused on iconic brands—from working as a character designer on Teddy Ruxpin in the ’80s, to overseeing a content portfolio including SpongeBob SquarePants for nearly 20 years at Nickelodeon—Russell Hicks is ready to build big things on his own.
As president of LA-based Curiosity Ink Media (Baldwin’s Big Adventure), and poised to take over leadership of Philippines-based Top Draw Animation next year, Hicks is focused on finding a crop of new film, TV and publishing concepts he can develop into hits.
And this effort will hinge on discovering talent from underrepresented groups. “The European fairy tales have been tapped out,” says Hicks. “Why don’t we look to other cultures and people for their fairy tales, lore and characters that work for them?”
He points to an original kids graphic novel called Thunderous as a good example of the direction Curiosity Ink is going in. “We’re working with an Indigenous writer on the book…the story has all the ingredients for a successful IP,” he says.
The company is also developing Bear Force Five, an animated eco-adventure series for four- to six-year-olds about a group of bear cubs and an Indigenous boy who team up to protect a national park. Hicks says a master toy partner is already secured, but not quite ready to be announced.
Hicks is also searching in Europe and Asia for artists, character designers, book illustrators and development talent, and as well as turning to locations outside of the US and UK for writing talent. “There are a lot of great writers around the world,” he says.
Bestselling author-illustrator Darren Farrell (Dandelion Magic) has already joined Curiosity Ink. He’s currently writing a series of kids books based on the popular Cats vs Pickles collectible plush brand from Missouri-based toyco Cepia. Due out in 2022, this publishing range is part of a larger deal Curiosity Ink and Cepia signed in June to develop and produce a non-dialogue Cats vs Pickles TV series for preschoolers.
Prior to launching Curiosity Ink in 2018 with his partner Brent Watts, Hicks served as president of content and production at Nickelodeon from 2012 to 2017, and as CCO before that from 1998 to 2012, playing a key role on tentpole series such as SpongeBob SquarePants, Henry Danger and The Loud House. Earlier in his career, he worked at Warner Bros. as VP of marketing for Cartoon Network, and he also produced content for Disney.
Applying all that he’s learned about brand-building will be the key moving forward, says Hicks. “We want to find characters that have the right emotional ingredients to touch audiences in certain ways. With that, you can build franchises.”
Hicks is taking over from Top Draw’s longtime managing director Wayne Dearing, whose retirement early next year is setting off a chain of other executive shuffles. Curiosity Ink co-founder Watts is now serving as CCO—a title Hicks held until he became president in April. Meanwhile, former Jakks Pacific exec Jared Wolfson was hired earlier this month as CEO of Curiosity Ink and EVP of Top Draw. Wolfson reports to Grom CEO Darren Marks in his new role.
Though Wolfson was brought in to spearhead partnerships, operations and finance, Hicks was equally compelled by his development and production experience at Jakks and ZAG Entertainment.
He and Wolfson are currently getting up to speed via Zoom on Top Draw’s team and ongoing projects, as well as looking for ways to keep the pipeline fed with both originals and service work.
Now that Curiosity Ink and Top Draw are under the Grom umbrella, both companies are planning to start testing short-form content ideas on kid-safe social media platform Grom Social, which has more than 25 million subscribers worldwide.
“If they are popular on Grom Social, then we can push forward into long-form content,” says Hicks. “We can also gauge how the projects are performing through publishing, which is a great place to get your IP established.”