Pam Westman, president of Nelvana, spoke about the company’s approach to developing and sourcing content and mining its extensive library of IP as day two of the TV Kids Summer Festival came to a close.
In the keynote interview with TV Kids’ Anna Carugati, which you can watch here, Westman began by discussing Nelvana’s production strategy today.
“We have thousands of hours of content and a very vast library. So when we’re thinking about our production strategy, looking into the future, a lot of times we look into the past at what is sitting in our library that we can bring to a new audience.” A good example, Westman said, is The Hardy Boys. “That was sitting in our library for a long time—we’d made an animated series. We just recently turned that into a highly successful live-action series. We have amazing brands within our portfolio. We have Max & Ruby, Franklin, Babar. All of those are being considered and thoughtfully put into development as to how they can perhaps be brought to a new audience in a slightly different way while still being very true to what they are.”
When devising new IP, “creator-driven, story-led content,” Westman said, “we have a very deep development process where we accept and welcome ideas from all across the globe. It goes into our development process to be assessed, and the ones that make it are funded. We consider what the market is looking for today and what would be successful in today’s market of the new linear and streaming customers. We have to focus on attracting and nurturing and retaining the best creators across the globe and the best talent within Canada to make those animated series.”
On the importance of partnerships in creating new content, Westman noted: “Co-productions and partnerships add talent, they add financing and they add distribution to any production of new content. It is becoming harder and harder to place brand-new, truly new content in today’s streaming world, as all the streamers are looking for some variation of a known IP, which the audience recognizes and therefore helps in their subscriber base or the stickiness of people already subscribed to their streaming platforms. So if you’re trying to break through with something new, you need that storyline to be compelling. You need the animation to be unique and attractive. You need that platform that you’re placing it on to reach a global audience and to gain that momentum. When we look for co-productions and partnerships, we look for partners that can help us with those areas within a new production.”
As for the appetite for content today, Westman noted: “All studios right now are struggling to meet the demand in both talent and equipment. It’s becoming nearly impossible to get the people hired for your crews and buy the equipment because of the supply chain issues. We are starting to hear about some productions being canceled or postponed due to increased competition within the streaming industry.”
On the opportunities in the live-action space, Westman said, “Our success on The Hardy Boys turned our focus towards the live-action market. We’ve primarily been animation previous to this. Live action has very quick production times compared to an animation production. It can meet that demand and allow us to tell stories perhaps in a different format and in a different way than we would have if we had used the animation platform.”
Westman then talked about she and her team at Nelvana have learned about how kids are engaging with content online. “We have a lot of highly successful YouTube channels that we put most of our catalog episodes on to in some way. Sometimes you slice and dice episodes to make new YouTube shows. And sometimes you put full episodes on there. We have a retro channel for all of Nelvana. It allows us to analyze what people are watching. When do they fall off watching an episode? When do they engage? It allows us to see what characters are resonating? What storylines are people watching or children watching now? It allows us to look for trends outside of our own production. What is trending on YouTube in terms of subject matter?”
Changing consumption habits online have also allowed for creative innovation, Westman said. “Back in the day, when you made episodes for linear channels, you made them 22 minutes of content to allow for station breaks or commercials. You did 26×30 or 52×11. That has been going on for 20, 30 years. That is how you delivered a show. Whether the show could sustain 26 episodes, the storyline could sustain 22 minutes or 11 minutes; you had to ram the creative into that format. With streaming platforms and YouTube, it is completely different. You can have shows be whatever time you want them to be.”
Animation on YouTube, Westman continued, “the storylines only need to be 2 or 3 minutes. It is allowing the creative to lead rather than the platform.”
Owned by Corus, Nelvana continues to see linear television as a critical part of its business. “Especially with preschoolers, linear is where it’s at. You can have a show on a streamer, YouTube and linear. The engagement on linear is still what makes or breaks that show. It starts to compete a little bit more with the older age groups, 6 to 11, and not necessarily with the streamers; it starts to compete with gaming and YouTube. Everybody, streamers and linear, are losing audience in that older age group.”
Linear is especially important for L&M, Westman added. “If you want to launch a merchandising campaign, the choice for children right now is enormous. Gone are the days when there were only three or four brands that a child would be exposed to. And therefore, you could launch a licensing and merchandising program based on wedging yourself into that limited choice. Now, if you go on to any of the streamers, there’s unlimited choice. That dilutes the focus of a child wanting to extend their enjoyment of the show into product. When that happens, the sell-through is less, and therefore retail can’t necessarily sustain. Linear is key. That show happening at the same time every day in that child’s routine. That’s when you start to see merchandising kick in high gear through retail. It is becoming even more challenging to establish those brands in the child’s psyche, in the child’s house, to the point where they’re asking for products.”
On growth opportunities in the one to two years ahead, Westman identified live action, partnerships and new platforms. “What’s the new YouTube? What are NFTs about? How will we create digital shorts that make money and aren’t just marketing for series that we’re having? So there are a lot of really amazing, fun things that are happening that we are looking towards, as well as making sure that we are sustaining our very mature studio. We just turned 50 years old last year, one of the few studios that have survived successfully for 50 years. We have a core business that is solid that we also have to make sure continues to evolve with the times.”