Nelvana: 50 Years of Big Content for Little Viewers

With half a century of experience working in the entertainment industry, Nelvana now stands as one of the leading producers and distributors of kids’ content in the international market. In the following interview, Pam Westman, president of Nelvana, explains how the company has been able to continue working safely during these unprecedented times to create new animated and live-action shows, perfectly suited to meet the growing demand for family entertainment.

Since taking its first steps in the entertainment industry in 1971, Nelvana has grown to become one of the biggest producers and distributors of kids’ animated and live-action content in Canada and the international market. Over the last 50 years, the company has amassed a catalog of thousands of hours of content that is now present in over 180 countries around the world, created through an in-house studio, as well as multiple alliances and joint-ventures with partners around the world.

And now, in the midst of a global pandemic and quarantine measures that have increased the need for entertainment and content, Nelvana has prepared a catalog of new shows that are perfectly suited to meet the growing need for family-friendly content.

“For us it’s been about keeping the business going, keeping our deliveries on time and on budget, and most importantly keeping our employees safe while doing it”, said Pam Westman, president of Nelvana, who spoke to ttvnews about how the company has adapted to the “new normal”, its newest titles and its main goals for the near future.

How did Nelvana adapt to the pandemic?

After the first flurry of getting everybody at home with computers and software, internet that worked, we settled in really well. It’s been 18 months now and we’re 100% at home, and we’ve really done a good job. Production is coming in on time, on budget. Creativity is strong. From Nelvana’s point of view, it’s good. It’s given people the flexibility that they need. The creative process doesn’t always work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. Sometimes people prefer hours of working when they’re at their best. This allows people to take advantage of that, as well as the company.

Dog & Pony

What worries me, if this continues on forever or for the foreseeable future, is how do we make sure our communication continues to be as strong, how do we mentor young talent, how do we make sure people are visible for promotions and other opportunities within the company, when we’re all at home watching each other on zoom. Those are things that Corus as a whole is addressing now, since they’re looking at a more flexible work environment, so they will give us the resources to work with a new management style.

How has it affected the business side of things?

The production hasn’t changed. We’ve been able to communicate with our partners, probably better now, because we are all so much better at zoom than we were a few years ago. On the other hand, the client side is different because we’re not going to tradeshows anymore, we’re not flying and seeing each other face to face. So it’s been more of a challenge to make sure that those relationships stay solid and strong. For instance, if a new client comes on board, how do you form a strong relationship via zoom? How do you pitch shows when you’re not there in person, answering questions and making sure people connect to it? When they’re in the room with you, you have a different connection with people. So we’ve had to adapt our presentations to be virtual; instead of one meeting at a tradeshow, we have several meetings with people in different territories and different time zones. It’s more work and you have to make presentations that are more dynamic, more visual.

Will Nelvana be participating at this year’s Mipcom?

Yes, but we will do so virtually. We are considering sending some of our European colleagues, but we won’t be participating from Canada. Travel is uncertain and people might not feel entirely comfortable with traveling and being at the Palais with so many people.

Which new titles is Nelvana currently presenting in the international market?

We are selling The Dog & Pony Show, which is a show about these two characters, a dog and a pony. The pony has magical powers and they come from their beautiful, idyllic land to the big city, the cartoon care-bear type world to the big city, and they get into all kinds of problems. It’s currently airing in Canada and in Latin America on Discovery Kids, doing amazing in the ratings. So we are hoping to bring it to the rest of the territories.

We are also selling Agent Binky, season two. Season one has done extremely well, so we are meeting with our buyers to present them the new one.

Agent Binky

And then of course we have our catalog of live-action, which will be headed by Miss Persona, a live-action show about a woman who sings songs and interacts with the kids within her own little world. It’s doing amazing on Canadian TV, to the point where it started as short-form on YouTube and now we’re bringing it to long-form. So we’re excited to show that.

Speaking of animated shows, has animation been a big trend for Nelvana during this past year?

I would say yes. The demand is there. I think because of Covid, some of the new streamers that have come on board have been more successful. Two or three years ago we would wonder how many streamers people would actually subscribe to. But with Covid, people need to be entertained and there’s a need for content, so they’re subscribing to more platforms. And streamers’ demand for content is extremely strong.

The negative about animation is that it takes a long time. If you’re starting a new project now, it will take about 18 months to be ready. And streamers like to have quite a bit of content before launch. I would say live-action reacts much quicker to that demand.

How do you see the market evolving in the near future? What are the company’s main goals?

We have our slate already on the go for the next year in terms of deliveries. We have several deliveries going out to all our major partners. So for us it is all about keeping the business going, keeping our deliveries on time and on budget, and most importantly keeping our employees safe while doing it. And also continue to pitch content for our new partners and streamers, as well as our linear partners who are so important for our business, trying to find the perfect project for each one.

Dog & Pony

For instance, a lot of our linear partners now have streaming arms, they all have their own platform, so they’re trying to find their identity for consumers to want to buy multiple subscriptions, as well as keeping their cable packages and watch the linear channels. So that requires us to find the perfect, unique project for each one of them as they continue to craft their identities.

What role does Latin America play in your strategy?

A very, very important one, especially over the last couple of years. We have a joint-venture with Discovery Kids Latin America called redknot. We greenlit Dog & Pony and Agent Binky through that, so the two first shows out of this venture are doing extremely well in the ratings in Latin America and in Canada. Which shows you that two regions that are very different in terms of geography and language, when it comes to kids’ programming, there’s a lot of common ground. Discovery Kids is bringing shows that they love to us to put into redknot, and we continue to bring them shows to put into redknot, as well as jointly look out into the marketplace. Because when you start a new venture and your first two shows out of the gate are a hit, you want to continue that. The Latin American market is a really important place for us.

Are you looking for more co-production partners in the region?

Absolutely, we’re looking for co-production partners in different countries in Latin America. We’re exploring the different treaties that Canada has with the different countries. With Latin America, not only because of our relationship with redknot, but also because streamers that are now coming into Latin America are also focused on local productions. So for us to be able to tap into the Canadian funding model and the countries within Latin America who have funding models, and be able to produce shows that have a voice that appeals to a global marketplace, is very advantageous for people who want to buy shows and want to commission shows.

When it comes to producing this type of content, what’s the most important thing you look for?

I think it starts with story and characters first. For instance, Dog & Pony had some big industry talent attached to it and Agent Binky came from a series of books out of Nelvana’s publishing arm, Kids Can Press, and was all produced within our own in-house talent, which is an extremely talented team but there isn’t a huge industry name. So I think it starts with the story and making sure you have talented people throughout the process leading it.

Dog & Pony

How do you see the industry evolving in the near future?

I don’t think we’re going to go back to the way things were and I also don’t think we’re going to stay as we are today. I think we’re going to find a model in the future once Covid has been contained, that now works for more people. We have proven to the world as an industry that we can function and work completely at home, and we’ve obviously proven for many years that we can continue to function in the industry when we’re all at the office. So now I think there will be a nice blend that will allow people to have a life, to choose where they want to live, have more time without commuting for hours, because now we’ve mastered communication through virtual platforms, and that will give everyone a better quality of life. Happier people, better product.