Guru Studio’s Frank Falcone

Frank Falcone, co-founder, president and executive creative director at Guru Studio, tells TV Kids how the Toronto-based company has evolved and discusses “the danger in just generating a lot of original content for the sake of feeding the demand,” emphasizing the importance of quality over quantity.

Among Guru’s current highlights are the preschool series True and the Rainbow Kingdom, a Netflix original that is also available on CBC in Canada, and PAW Patrol, airing on Nickelodeon as well as Canada’s TVO. Upcoming shows include Pikwik, due to debut on Disney Junior in the U.S., Australia/New Zealand, Korea and India, and Big Blue, which was recently given the go-ahead by CBC in Canada.

TV KIDS: Tell us how the idea for Guru Studio first came about.
FALCONE: Guru started as an accidental comment at a dinner. [Laughs] I felt l­ike there was no place for me in Toronto to properly thrive as a creative person. I didn’t think there were places focusing on character animation and narratives that would come from good characters. I was debating moving abroad; I was basically debating what studios I could go to and the struggles of having to be a forced immigrant [since I felt I was] not able to do what I wanted to do in the city. I sort of jokingly said, “Let’s just start a studio,” to a producer friend of mine, and she said, “We should!” And then I was like, I guess I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is—maybe I should do it. So we went ahead and did it.

Initially, my experience was in advertising, so [I was] doing advertising work for U.S. agencies and a lot of the work that I was doing, the majority of it was character-based 30-second pieces. But the mission of the company was always to look for and create projects and organize our talents around projects that had at the center of them characters with stories to tell. And that quickly evolved from television commercials to TV series for others to pitches that began coming our way for TV series. So we evolved from that central [idea] of finding really interesting characters and telling their stories to creating interesting characters and telling their stories.

TV KIDS: What are the company’s current and upcoming highlights?
FALCONE: [We have a] collection of things that we really treasure and care about…. We choose the projects that we get involved in very carefully. Right now, one of the highlights is our series True and the Rainbow Kingdom, which has just launched a second season on Netflix. A third season was announced [for] next year. We also launched some extended music videos from content from season one.

We recently announced a new series that I’m a creator on called Pikwik. That should be slated for a late 2019 launch on Disney Junior in the U.S. and in other territories. We also have a new series greenlit at the CBC called Big Blue, a comedy adventure…. There’s lots of new content coming out of the studio this year and you’ll hear more about it as the year goes on.

TV KIDS: How much of Guru’s content is original versus third-party?
FALCONE: The majority is original at this point. We choose our partnerships and service projects very carefully. We look for partners that have great projects that we think have legs so that they can run, and a partnership model that involves us in its success. That said, we really enjoy the projects that we’re working on at the moment, PAW Patrol being one of them, and it’s obviously a calling card for us and for anyone involved in the show.

TV KIDS: What trends have you noticed in the animation industry?
FALCONE: The trend is producing a volume of originals. The danger is when you are focused on originals, you really can generate a catalog very quickly now. Whether you will actually be able to control that catalog or participate in the long tail of it is debatable as the landscape changes. But I think the danger in just generating a lot of original content for the sake of feeding the demand is that you just become, for a lack of a better comparison, yet another app in the App Store. As we know, there are 2 million apps in the App Store, there are 26 million songs on iTunes, and just releasing a song isn’t enough. You have to have a great song, first of all—that helps a lot—and you have to know how to launch originals in the market. So I think it’s increasingly important for us to understand not just the shows and the content that we’re producing, and understand their DNA, but [also to] understand who our audience is, reach out to our audience, appeal to our audience and our demographics, and do what we need to do in marketing to succeed…. No one should rely on any of the emerging services to make their show a success. They need to do the deep soul-searching and heavy lifting required to find their audience.

TV KIDS: How important are nonlinear extensions for kids’ programming?
FALCONE: It’s debatable whether more is more. [Laughs] I think it’s important to have a good product, first and foremost, whatever extension. I think an app could create a show, a show could create an app; I don’t think they need to all the time. Some concepts and some brands have the DNA to warrant extensions, where the audience is in search of more experiences [because] they can’t get enough of the thing they love. I think without having a brand and a set of characters and a storyline and a world that people deeply engage in and love and that has room to build more connection, there’s really very little point in creating extensions because it’s just busywork and it’s cluttering the marketplace.

TV KIDS: What’s in store for the future of the company?
FALCONE: We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’re very happy with what’s on our slate at the moment. I’d like to say we’re sold out, but we’re not. [Laughs] The projects we’ve been working on and bringing to market over the last few years have all found homes, so we’re very happy with that. We have another round of projects in our development slate now that we’re very excited about; we’ll start to bring those to market later this year and early in 2019…. I’m super excited about [these] new projects that will take us into new markets and new types of content. We’re known for preschool; we don’t actually have a preschool show to sell right now, but we have one in development that we’re very excited about. So we are obviously not neglecting our core competency, which has been preschool, but there are lots of other areas that we’re extending our abilities into. As artists, we’re really excited to stretch what we do. I think what we do for other age groups and for other demos can only strengthen what we do in preschool. Certainly there’s a lot to be learned and there’s value in exercising your brain to appeal to audiences in other demographics and to story-tell in other ways that could be leveraged back into the storytelling that you do for preschoolers. And vice versa—there’s a lot to be learned in preschool when you’re telling stories for older demos as well. So lots of fun stuff coming up in the next year.

We’re expanding into licensing. We have new licensees on board for our big property True and the Rainbow Kingdom. We have a master toy [partner], we have a costume licensee in Palamon, we have sleepwear with AME, we have Global Brands Group for socks, we have Chouette for master publishing, we have Bendon for coloring books and art sets. We also have a huge success on our GIPHY page for True, which is approaching 700 million GIF shares…. Clearly there are people—either guilty older-kid viewers or parents—who are sharing these things, which means that there is a connection to an audience out there that we are seeing in social media. And we are going to continue to build that brand on Netflix and outside the service.