5 Questions: Thunderbird Entertainment CEO Jennifer Twiner McCarron digs on a year like no other for the film industry

The production studio head reflects on a successful 2020 and looks to the future.

Credit: Courtesy of Thunderbird Entertainment 

The production studio head reflects on a successful 2020 and looks to the future

Jennifer Twiner McCarron got her start in the film industry as an office production assistant at Rainmaker Entertainment (now Mainframe Studios). She worked her way up to that company’s vice-president of producton role before joining Atomic Cartoons (Thunderbird Entertainment’s Kids and Family division) as head of production in 2011.

From there, in June 2018 she was promoted to CEO of all Thunderbird companies, a role in which she oversees some 1,000 employees across offices in Canada and the U.S. Over the past 20 years, Twiner McCarron has produced or executive-produced dozens of award-winning animated series, like Beat Bugs, which won an Emmy in 2017.

Perhaps most remarkably, she oversaw a record year for Vancouver-based Thunderbird. We asked Twiner McCarron about that and how she plans to keep the momentum going.

1. How was Thunderbird able to hit record numbers during everything that was 2020?

As content creators, we were fortunate to find ourselves working in a relatively pandemic-proof industry. When much of Hollywood shut down (i.e. movie theatres, in-person productions, et cetera) in early spring, streaming content consumption increased rapidly. With people spending more time at home than ever, content consumption hit all-time highs just one month into lockdowns.

This, of course, resulted in a heightened demand for new content from our worldwide streaming partners, which include Netflix, Disney+, and NBCUniversal, to name a few.

Our strong, clean balance sheet enabled us to adapt quickly and nimbly, first and foremost to prioritize the health and safety of our workforce, but also to ensure business continuity. Coupled with early anticipation of the pandemic, this also allowed us to invest in the necessary cutting-edge technology to continue all our operations remotely. Our IT team worked around the clock to ensure everything was able to continue despite the pandemic, and ultimately, we’ve been able to operate with minimal interruptions to our workflow.

2. What productions that aired last year are you particularly proud of? 

A handful of our productions across all divisions were nominated for and won industry awards, including Molly of Denali, which won a Peabody Award in June for its groundbreaking work featuring the first Indigenous lead character in a nationally distributed children’s series, and a 2020 Television Critic Association Award.

As well, we’re incredibly proud of our owned-IP animated series for Netflix, The Last Kids on Earth, which premiered its second and third seasons worldwide in 2020, and also won a Daytime Emmy Award and four Leo Awards this year.

Meanwhile, our long-running CBC original comedy, Kim’s Convenience, took home a Canadian Screen Award this year, was recognized by TV Guide as one of the best “feel-good” streaming series available and was dubbed “the perfect quarantine distraction” by The Oprah Magazine.

In June 2020, the second season of Queen of the Oil Patch, produced by our Factual division, premiered on APTN and was shortlisted for a 2020 TBI Content Innovation Award. That documentary series is a prime example of the type of meaningful content we strive to produce, following the raw and emotional journey of one man with Two Spirits, Massey Whiteknife and Iceis Rain.

3. Were they any that you think deserved a better shake from audiences than they ended up getting?

No; we trust the audiences’ taste. If it works, it works, and if not, we learn from it and pivot.

4. What do you think 2021 holds for the Vancouver film industry?

Opportunity in this sector is only increasing with so many big, new players up and coming online that are not startups, including Disney, who’ve intensified their focus on streaming content now that their cruise ships and theme parks are down, for example. Apple, HBO Max, Peacock—the list goes on. Similarly, this is the case with so many new buyers and partners entering the scene.

Add to this the recent move to modernize the Broadcasting Act in which Ottawa is moving ahead with its long-anticipated plan to make online streaming services contribute financially to the creation of Canadian content. 

With Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault recently tabling a bill in the House of Commons to create a new category for online broadcasting within the Act, traditional Canadian broadcasters will no longer be at a competitive disadvantage with online broadcasters. Canada’s broadcast regulator can seek financial contributions from players like Netflix, Spotify, Crave and Disney+ moving forward. This is incredible news for Canadian content creators like us, and for the industry overall.

5. What can we look forward to, consumer-wise, in the next year from Thunderbird?

We have lots of exciting things in the works that we can’t wait to share—more announcements will be made public in the coming months. We also recently released the official trailer for The Last Kids on Earth and the Staff of Doom, a video game adaptation based on our popular owned-IP series for Netflix. The video game is a collaboration with Outright Games and will be released in spring 2021 for PC, PS4, Switch and Xbox One.

On the factual side, we recently announced two exciting new projects currently in development: a new premium scripted drama series entitled Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, which tells the incredible true story of Wernher von Braun, a man who became an American hero and was also one of the most controversial people ever to join NASA; and a global television series titled What If, based on the Webby Award–winning social media brand that is routinely the No. 1 science and technology video channel in the world for media and entertainment companies.

This interview has been edited and condensed.