9 Story Media Group’s Vince Commisso

VinceCommisso-117Vince Commisso, co-founding partner, president and CEO at 9 Story Media Group, tells TV Kids about taking bigger bets with shows in development and about Canada’s place on the global stage in the content industry.

The acquisition of Ireland’s Brown Bag Films, renowned for its prowess in 3D animation, set into motion a wave of activity at 9 Story Media Group. This includes the recent launch of a new sales operation, 9 Story Distribution International, based in Dublin and housed at Brown Bag’s flagship animation studio. For Commisso, this is all part of a larger strategy to deliver the best-quality content possible to the international marketplace.

TV KIDS: It has been a year and a half since the Brown Bag acquisition. What has evolved from that deal for 9 Story?
COMMISSO: There have been a lot of great changes since the acquisition. In addition to Brown Bag’s new flagship studio [in Dublin], our studios in Toronto are now markedly different. We’ve undergone a massive transformation, with a rebranding effort and upgrading our resources and technological infrastructure on both sides of the Atlantic. [Technological infrastructure] is one of the things that Brown Bag has always been conscious of because they have such large files when they do CG. That mentality trickled over to us. In terms of backing up, process and pipeline, we’re now one of the most advanced companies in the world in tracking all of those things and moving forward in regard to animation production.

We’ve since put in place a new management structure, with an executive leadership team that involves Cathal Gaffney [co-founder of Brown Bag]. We’ve also brought in some Brown Bag employees at senior levels across the company. We went to both sides of the company and looked at who can do what the best and merged the teams underneath them. Cathal is responsible for the studios, and creative takes center stage in our process. We’ve integrated our development slates. We’ve opened a distribution [operation] in Dublin, and some of our people [from Toronto] are moving over to run international distribution there.

TV KIDS: What other growth opportunities is 9 Story exploring?
COMMISSO: When we partnered with ZMC [Zelnick Media Capital] in 2014, we were very clear about what we wanted to acquire. For one, it was factors of production, and with Brown Bag we’ve acquired the best, highest-quality independent factors of production in the marketplace. Another was libraries, which we’re looking at in a new light these days because getting a library for library’s sake, while there are some long-tail opportunities, is not the win that it was two or three years ago. Selectively, we’re still looking at that. Then, if there’s a brand that opens up a new line of business for us, we would look at acquiring that, too. So there are a couple of [areas] we’re looking at, but the wonderful thing about being in the position that we’re in right now is that we don’t have to do anything! We’re only going to do something that makes sense. When we did [the deal for] Brown Bag, we got to know the people, and because of that we wanted to do the deal. We now have a terrific mix of people on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a powerhouse team; there’s perfect chemistry. We are reluctant to mess with that. We will more likely look at [acquisitions] that are accretive from an asset standpoint.

TV KIDS: What’s currently in the production pipeline?
COMMISSO: We’re currently in production on several shows. We have 3 Amigonauts going on, and Camp Lakebottom season three. We’re doing Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood season three and there will probably be more. We’re doing Peg + Cat season two and Wild Kratts season five. We recently greenlit more Nature Cat, which we produce in partnership with Spiffy Pictures and distribute around the world. We’re also in active production on The Magic School Bus with Netflix. There’s going to be a big announcement with regard to who is going to be voicing Ms. Frizzle. We’re in production on a show called Top Wing in a new partnership with Nickelodeon that we’re excited about. On the other side of the Atlantic, we have Doc McStuffins season four, and the show has been greenlit for a fifth season. We have Vampirina being produced [in Dublin] and Nella the Princess Knight being produced out of Manchester. We’re in active development with some high-end shows, too.

TV KIDS: What can you share with us about the development slate?
COMMISSO: It’s ironic; we’ve grown and become a bigger company—we have more people and more resources—yet we’re developing fewer shows. That’s by design. We’re taking bigger bets and putting more behind the development. As a producer these days, you’re required to develop more fully than you were in years past. You have to go with concepts that are pretty much baked. You have to take the risk that somebody will say yes to that concept, and you have to have the star voice cast, star showrunner and high-end talent already attached. With the reboots of Barney and Angelina Ballerina, you’ll see some big names attached to the shows when they get greenlit. We recently announced our partnership with Little Critter for production of a series based on the books. There is going to be some great talent attached to that, too. It’s not a broad slate, but we will go to market with bigger shows that we will put a lot behind, just fewer of them.

TV KIDS: How does the approach differ when working with known brands, such as Little Critter, versus with new, original concepts?
COMMISSO: Heritage brands like Little Critter, Magic School Bus, Barney and Angela Ballerina are obviously attractive because they have an existing and significant brand equity, which creates a point of differentiation when we reintroduce them to buyers and ultimately to the consumer. Each one of those has to be relaunched in a very different way. They were all of different times, of different sources, and they may or may not have things that need to be reprised from the original and things that don’t. That’s a brand-new creative assessment that you have to make, where you help and enhance what’s been done and reintroduce that—but not hurt it. When you’re doing something new, you’re not worried about the “not hurt it” part. [A heritage brand is] a bigger responsibility. That brand and equity is still alive and is what attracted us to it. Now you have to honor that. You have to reintroduce it to the market in a way that does honor it and makes it of-the-moment again.

TV KIDS: What is the balance in the company’s distribution catalog of 9 Story-produced shows versus third-party acquisitions, and are you looking to tip that in either direction
COMMISSO: Around 20 percent of our catalog comes from third-party acquisitions and 80 percent can be shows that we own or produce. We know that we’re really good at doing [certain types of shows], but the marketplace has a broader demand for content than just the things that we’re good at. We look for partners who we know are good at doing those other things the marketplace has demand for.

We look at what the optimal strategy is and how we can come up with the best configuration of acquiring shows, producing shows and partnering with others on co-productions or co-ventures for content to optimize what we do operationally. If we have the strategy right and we [execute] it to the best of our ability, the numbers and growth will follow.

TV KIDS: What are some of the greatest issues the Canadian kids’ programming landscape is facing today?
COMMISSO: Four or five years ago, in the time of cultural sovereignty, Canada created a system that worked for the Canadian consumer and the Canadian marketplace. Technology and globalization have disrupted that sovereign system. The government is aware of it and doesn’t want to tear it down because it has done so many great things for our econ­omy and our culture, but they do want to adjust it for what the new realities are. The Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly, launched a national consultation on what [Canadian content’s role is] in a digital world, with an aim to revolutionize the policies born in the analog era. I believe that’s the right endeavor. There is a willingness inside the country, both from the production community and from the regulatory community, to try to make the system better.

What’s really become important is export. Your content works when people around the world consume it. There is a lot of great content being produced around the world, including in the U.S., that works for global audiences. Canada is no exception, but we have to tout that and celebrate it more. If we did that, we would be more successful with what we’re doing on the content side. The quality of Canadian content is really good, and there are a lot of Canadian companies doing great work right now in the kids’ space. Ten or 15 years ago, that wasn’t the case. We’ve received tremendous support from the system in Canada, but that system has accomplished its goal of creating a very internationally competitive production community.