As the proliferation of devices and platforms continues to shape kids’ viewing behavior, the long-form live-action renaissance shows no sign of slowing down. Buyer demand for binge-worthy scripted children’s programming is higher than ever. Netflix alone is expected to spend upwards of US$15 billion on content this year, according to Wall Street analysts, with a significant proportion undoubtedly heading to the kids and family space. In particular, demand for sophisticated, single-cam dramas for tweens, teens and the family co-viewing audience is leading many animation-focused companies to expand their remits with live-action content.
In January, Canada’s 9 Story Media Group—a company known for award-winning animated series like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Peg + Cat—launched its first live-action division, bringing in Emmy-nominated producer, writer and director Jeremy Slutskin (Blue’s Clues) to run it as VP of live-action development and production. Although 9 Story had previously dabbled in the genre with the 2010 TV film Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars and 2017 YouTube series Furze World Wonders, the new division marks a much greater commitment.
Recognizing the potential for dramas aimed at a co-viewing audience, one of 9 Story’s first new projects is Motel 51, a 13 x half-hour serialized sci-fi drama for ages nine and up. It is being developed and co-produced with Peacock Alley Entertainment, the Toronto-based production company behind all three seasons of Netflix series Travelers.
Written and created by Laura Kosterski (Big Top Academy), Motel 51 is executive produced by Canadian sci-fi showrunner Brad Wright, creator of the Stargate TV franchise. The series will chart the quest of the Williamson family to find its patriarch after he mysteriously disappears. Their journey will lead them to a strange motel with an otherworldly secret.
Travelers executive producer and Peacock Alley president Carrie Mudd, along with 9 Story’s president and CEO Vince Commisso (Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood) and chief strategy officer Natalie Osborne (Angela’s Christmas), will serve as EPs.
Currently being pitched to broadcasters, Motel 51 joins the company’s growing slate of new live-action projects, including CG-live action hybrid series Blue’s Clues & You for Nickelodeon, interactive mixed-media adventure series and Scholastic adaptation TombQuest, and three untitled series to be developed in partnership with producer Tom Lynch (Scout’s Safari).
Slutskin, who’s based in New York, says 9 Story’s latest jump into live action is organic. Before the division and his appointment were officially announced, Slutskin was working on the upcoming Blue’s Clues & You in Toronto and previously worked on the original series as an assistant director. Other projects, like Motel 51, were also in development.
“Beyond the obvious reasons of meeting demand and the desire to grow, a lot of animation companies are getting into live action now because the genres aren’t that separate anymore,” says Slutskin. “Many of our properties, including Motel 51 and TombQuest, will have heavy quantities of both CG 3D and 2D animation, so it’s a natural outgrowth.”
While the lines between animation and live action are blurring artistically, Slutskin says the genres are still very different in terms of legal and human resources issues.
“Animation and live action are like racquetball and tennis. They look similar, but you can’t play one on the other’s court,” he says. “Animation tends to rely on permanent employees [for longer production schedules], whereas if you’re producing a show like Blue’s Clues, you’re leaning more on freelancers or people who work two or three days at a time.”
Slutskin adds that footage is also handled quite differently. “Animation is built like boxcars on a train: You build exactly the boxcars you need, and then hook them up,” he says. “Live action, meanwhile, is a data hog because you often shoot way more than you need and then have to do forensics work to find what you want. It’s a different type of thinking in post production.”
When asked how the division will tackle rising demand from streaming platforms and their faster speed-to-market requirements, Slutskin says 9 Story is paying attention, but needs to be as smart as it is fast.
“Nobody wants to rush to market with a mediocre product. Right now, we’re focused on the initial creative phase and much more on finding our Game of Thrones, if you will, than hurrying to get content to air,” he says.
As for 9 Story’s capacity to handle a growing number of expensive productions, Slutskin notes that a relatively small division can oversee a fairly large live-action slate with the work and financial support of strategic producing partners. Moving forward, 9 Story plans to focus heavily on Canadian co-productions and will look for opportunities in Toronto and Vancouver.
“A large chunk of our live-action content will likely go through Toronto because our headquarters are there,” he says. “But we’re not locked in Toronto. We could shoot in New York, Atlanta, LA or even New Orleans—we’re currently talking to a show creator there who’s writing about that area. We’ll go where good stories take us.”
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