Recently, the entertainment industry has come under pressure to increase diversity both on and offscreen. Yet according to the 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, women earned just 17.4% of writing credits, and minorities claimed only 13.9% of such credits in 2019. Analysis of 11 major and mid-size studios showed that 91% of C-level positions were held by white people and 82% were held by men. On screen, the numbers weren’t much better. Researchers found that just one in five lead actors in broadcast-scripted television shows were people of color.
Meanwhile, Thunderbird Entertainment Group – a content production studio led by a woman – was named to Fast Company’s 2020 list of Most Innovative Companies in the Film and TV category for its commitment to diversity. Thunderbird, which produces high quality, innovative, and socially responsible content, is committed to keeping inclusion at the forefront of its agenda. Through its divisions Atomic Cartoons and Great Pacific Media, the company delivers numerous popular animation titles including the Emmy-award winning Beat Bugs and The Last Kids on Earth, as well as Trolls: Trollstopia, 101 Dalmatian Street, and Molly of Denali, which recently won an esteemed Peabody award. On the factual side, the company is renowned for titles such as Highway Thru Hell and Queen of the Oil Patch. Thunderbird is also the production company behind the hit comedy series Kim’s Convenience.
Headquartered in Vancouver, the Thunderbird crew consists of more than 1,000 people across Canada and the U.S. Prioritizing diversity on-screen means ensuring productions are staffed with inclusion in mind, hiring BIPoC and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community. Thunderbird also strives to hire cast and crew members who authentically represent the shows they are creating. For example, for Molly of Denali, over 60 Native American people were employed to create, produce, and work on the show. All voice actors were voiced by people of the correct ethnicity.
Off-screen, Thunderbird has prioritized ongoing initiatives that celebrate diversity and inclusion, including partnerships with organizations such as Black Women Animate and Film2Future, a non-profit that helps diverse teenagers from low-income households pursue an education and career in entertainment. Under the leadership of CEO Jennifer Twiner McCarron, the company has also championed paid internship programs for Black and Indigenous youths on the sets of various shows.
“At Thunderbird, our mission from the beginning has been to focus on producing content that is inclusive and diverse, and can help make the world a better place,” says McCarron, who in addition to serving as CEO also executive produces several Thunderbird shows. “This means we are always looking to shed light on stories that are typically untold and underrepresented in mainstream media. We intentionally pursue projects that advocate for important societal issues, including female underrepresentation and authentic racial and cultural representation.”
McCarron got a head start early on in life. As part of an enriched program in elementary and middle school, she engaged in alternative learning such as “lying on the ground for hours at a time, meditating with the understanding that if you could picture it, you could do it.” The experience, she says, taught her “to dream big.”
After studying fine arts and film, she ended up at an animation studio. McCarron worked her way up to the role of Head of Production for Atomic Cartoons. At the time, she had a three-year-old as well as newborn twins. “Becoming a mom changed my entire outlook on life and motivated me to become a better, more effective leader,” she says. “I truly believe that I’m a better mom because I work and vice versa.”
One of the greatest rewards of her career, McCarron feels, is her ability to enable the development of important stories that shift the diversity narrative in mainstream media. “We have a huge responsibility to create meaningful, diverse, and inclusive content and we are 100% committed to doing it right. The power and privilege that comes with storytelling can empower and inspire entire generations of people. As such, I feel lucky to be in a position where we can use storytelling as a force for good,” she says.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the way Thunderbird does business. Since lockdowns were first implemented in spring 2020, content consumption has reached an all-time high. But production also had to shift to being remote. Within three weeks of the initial lockdowns, McCarron was able to transition her entire team of 1,000+ to remote working. Even when the time comes to return to the office, she feels Thunderbird will likely adopt a permanent hybrid work structure that allows greater flexibility and a better work-life balance for employees. Since April 2020, the company has also added more than 400 new team members to its crew.
McCarron’s go-to advice for young people looking to tap into their life purpose is to ensure that they bring a positive attitude to anything they pursue. “Skills can always be learned on the job, but a good attitude will take you further than anything else,” she says. “Be personally accountable for everyone in your circle, and always operate with kindness and integrity. For young women specifically, make your work work for you. No woman should ever have to choose between having a career and a family. You can do both.”