Mainframe Embarks on New Adventures in Storytelling

***This article originally appeared in the November ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 324)***

Vancouver-based Mainframe Studios has had quite a productive period since it rebranded in 2020 (the studio became known as Rainmaker from its acquisition in 2008 through the 2016 merger with Frederator Networks and Erzin-Hirsh to create WOW! Unlimited Media.) The studio recently hired former Technicolor exec Kristy Scanlan to serve as its first-ever SVP of business development.

We recently caught up with the studio’s SVP of content and exec producer Gregory Little to find out more about the studio’s hot animation slate, which includes The Guava Juice Show, DreamWorks’ Team Zenko Go and Madagascar: A Little Wild and Octonauts specials.

 

Animation Magazine: Can you tell us a bit about what Mainframe plans to bring to the fall markets this month?

Gregory Little
Gregory Little

Gregory Little: This year we have a great slate of new projects that spans everything from younger preschool to older kids action-adventure and character-based comedy. Our shows for older kids tend to have a broader age range than we were doing a few years ago — more along the lines of what you would want for a family animated feature film. We think the audience lines have blurred a lot for older kids during the pandemic and that’s a great opportunity to make shows that are even more interesting and different. We’ll be previewing a number of new shows for buyers and partners this year.

What are Mainframe’s priorities for the next few months and 2023?

We can boil it down to three things: More original content, more 2D production and more premium shows with great partners on the work-for-hire side. We continue to make original content an even bigger part of our overall slate, building on the success of Team Zenko Go (Netflix) and The Guava Juice Show (YouTube). With three of us focusing on new shows — Tanya Green our head of preschool, me for older kids and families, Michael Hefferon as a creator and EP — the range of projects is broad because we each have the creative freedom to pursue what we love.

2D is new to Mainframe with The Guava Juice Show, an original series we’re really proud of.

We can now announce that our newest 2D project is a partnership with Coyote Peterson’s Brave Wilderness YouTube channel, where his 20 million followers journey with him into the wilderness to encounter the world’s most interesting species. Our show, Coyote & The WildAways, follows three kids and a talking dog — inspired by Coyote’s dog Charlie — after they are marooned in a primeval forest with no way home. It’s completely different from the Brave Wilderness YouTube channel but embraces similar themes of adventure, discovery and care for our natural world.

Tonally it skews a bit younger than Guava Juice, but features the same combination of warm, character-based comedy in a huge, offbeat adventure world, which is what makes The Guava Juice Show so much fun. We are working again with Lienne Sawatsky, Dan Williams & John Hazlett, our amazing Guava Juice creators and showrunners, who bring a very special combination of heart and comedy. They were my first choice for Guava and we’re excited to work with them again on Coyote & The WildAways.

Finally, on the work-for-hire side we continue to build on our great relationships with the world’s best partners. We’ve worked hard to have long term relationships with companies like Mattel, Spin Master, Silvergate Media and DreamWorks, and we love that it’s never just one show. Our relationship with Mattel, for example, spans 22 years and counting. We recently added Kristy Scanlan to the company as our SVP Business Development to help us build new relationships that will last for the next 20 years.

The Guava Juice Show has been a big priority for the studio this year. Can you tell us about the future plans for this franchise?

So far we have produced 26 11-minute episodes — two 13-episode seasons. The second season launched on September 16 with an awesome two-part episode that takes Guava back to his long-lost home planet. New episodes drop weekly until the end of 2022 and we are currently prepping for our next season.

One of our priorities for MIPCOM will be to explore partnerships with worldwide broadcasters for The Guava Juice Show. We think there’s a lot of value in a premium show that has the direct fan connection of Roi Fabito’s Guava Juice channel with its 17 million subscribers. Our fantastic partners at YouTube Originals and Studio71 are enthusiastic about exploring these opportunities and we are hoping to extend the show for many more seasons. There are a lot more stories to tell.

Team Zenko Go
Mainframe’s hot new projects include the inclusive preschool superhero show ‘Team Zenko Go’, which launched on Netflix in March.

Why do you think The Guava Juice Show has struck such a chord worldwide?

It’s all about character. Our three leads are so much fun and so distinct, and the way they relate to each other feels like another character in itself. I think the best character comedy comes from the heart — characters who love each other reacting in real time to each other’s familiar and often infuriating quirks. To make the most of this, the show is purposely dialog heavy. To keep our running time in check, our voice actors were amazing at dealing with our most frequent note — “act faster!” — and really brought their characters to life.

We shot the show like a sitcom in the dialog-heavy parts — wider shots and cuts that find the comedy in reactions. I think audiences respond to the natural feel this creates: three best friends reacting to each other like real characters at an age when your best friends are your life. Of course, a lot of heart comes with that, and the show always emphasizes that, while Roi, Jenny and Guava have differences, they have each other’s backs always, through anything.

The funny thing is, that’s how it feels for us making the show. All of us have said many times that this is the most fun professional experience we’ve ever had, and that feeling comes out on screen.

Lastly, a lot of this starts with Roi Fabito, creator of the Guava Juice channel, show EP and voice of Roi. He has a huge heart and infectious positivity that informs everything we do.

2022 has been tough on some animation sectors. What is your take on the industry’s big picture as we enter the fall market season?

We’re not alone in seeing that change is in the air, which can make buyers cautious. But we think there’s more opportunity now than in the last few years to see how separated rights can help producers who can bring co-financing, as Mainframe can. And a big part of it is leading the creative conversation so that you’re bringing buyers what they want next instead of what’s seen as hot right now.

Of course, getting away from single-financier deals often means reducing budgets to make room for more partners. We’ve made huge progress at Mainframe over the last few years to push our quality and creativity even higher while working in a broader range of budgets, from super premium to value-oriented. We are working better and more efficiently than ever thanks to countless changes under the hood, led by our EVP and head of production, Kim Dent Wilder.

What are some of the challenges ahead for indie animation producers?

Two immediately come to mind: smaller initial orders and competition for audience from short-form platforms like TikTok.

Getting a 10-episode initial order makes it tough to monetize your show beyond fees. You can’t really start a merch program with that order and distribution options are limited until you have more episodes.

And we all have to deal with the attention shift to cheap, short-form content. Kids love it and a lot of it is really funny. The Frederator side of the company has taken a “join ‘em” mentality and is developing great shows out of TikTok. Mainframe’s partnership with major YouTube creators looks in a similar direction. These alliances help us pitch to buyers the discoverability and built-in marketing power of our shows, which makes them more attractive.

But the real bottom line — the answer to all of these challenges — is what it’s always been: great shows with great characters that help define kids’ childhoods. The challenges change but that’s what we need to make, and it’s what we love to make.

For more info, visit www.mainframe.ca.

Coyote Peterson
YouTube personality Coyote Peterson will bring his wildlife education to animation in Mainframe’s ‘Coyote & The WildAways’
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