Netflix’s John Derderian, Karen Toliver on Netflix Animation 



Netflix, the world’s preeminent animation producer by production volume, outlay and awards, has set out a roadmap at Annecy for how it is looking to invest in the future of animation.

Sketched by John Derderian and Karen Toliver, Netflix animation heads of series and film respectively, the gameplan takes in building on Netflix’s strengths, in adult animation, and genre and anime in series; maintaining a vast diversity of shows and movies; and looking in every project for a creator’s vision which Netflix will seek to connect with the right audience, at the right price.

Derderian and Toliver talked to Variety at France’s Annecy Animation Festival whose Netflix’s panel this Wednesday June 14, From Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget to Blue Eye Samurai – See What’s Next @ Netflix, promises to be one of Annecy’s most talked-about highlights.

As for diversity, the panel looks set to serve as a case in point. Anticipated feature “Nimona,” adapting ND Stevenson’s graphic novel, world premieres on Wednesday. DreamWorks Animation and Netflix announced at Annecy on Tuesday that they are teaming on CG family-targeting fantasy comedy  “Orion and the Dark,” written by Charlie Kaufman.

“‘Chicken Run’ and ‘Nimona’ couldn’t be more different,” Toliver told Variety at Annecy. 

“We just love what that diversity of ‘Blue Eye Samurai’ to ‘Nimona’ to ‘Chicken Run’ really says about Netflix: That this is a place where you should be able to see any kind of animation that you want for kids, for adults, across the board, and we’re very proud of that,” she added. 

Netflix is also making a determined play for the kids & family space. Of seven titles bowing (“Nimona”) or sneak peaked at the panel, also taking in “Leo” and “Exploding Kittens,” and Annecy’s WIP strand – which includes Netflix’s “Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon” – kids and family is the demography targeted most consistently of Netflix titles at Annecy. 

Again, “Leo,” “could not be more different” to “Orion” and “Chicken Run,” Toliver stressed.

An animated musical comedy, “Leo” could be huge for Netflix in the kids & family space, given Adam Sandler’s fan base. The movie weighs in as coming-of-age story about the final year of elementary school as seen through the eyes of Leo, the class pet, a doe-eyed 74-year-old pet lizard voiced by Sandler.

Courtesy of Netflix

For Netflix, however, movies and shows are not just a case of targeting demos but also communicating an excitement about specific visions of creators in unique works.  

“The brainchild of Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison crew,” in Toliver’s words, in reference to Happy Madison Productions which Sandler founded in 1998, “Leo” comes from a filmmaker such as Sandler who “knows his audience, this is a musical, and Adam has been doing this for a long time. He’s really built his career off it,” said Toliver.

“This is an opportunity to have an animated movie that really speaks to Adam’s voice as a filmmaker and a comedian in ways that he really hasn’t before, in animation. That’s a very good example of sort of how specific this is, and our making sure that we do something that is in the spirit of his voice,” she added.

“In every project we look for this,” Toliver said. “‘Nimona’ is based on a graphic novel by ND Stevenson. That has a very specific voice and very specific following and fan base. So the movie was really made in the spirit of that, and ND worked very closely with the filmmakers to make sure that there was an authenticity to that movie, and it shows. ND is very proud of this movie and we are too and we think it’s great that these two movies couldn’t be any more different.”

“We’re always trying to attach the vision to the right audience for that show,” Derderian observed. “The goal isn’t just mainstream programming. Sure, we have to entertain a lot of people, but it’s really about finding a show that we really believe can connect with someone. And then our job is to connect to that audience at the right sort of price.”

“We’re as committed as ever [to animation],” said Derderian. “We’re putting a lot of effort into adult comedy right now, adult genre, which is an area we’ve kind of fostered out of the tradition of anime. As we move forward, [one question] is how do we build those areas with great shows,” he added. 

Netflix is working with “many of our partners around the world” to replicate its huge success in the U.S. with adult comedy, he said. 

“We’re in the U.K., we’re doing that as well now, which is also such a fertile ground to make adult comedies. You have incredible performers and stand up producers and writers. There’s definitely a bigger opportunity for that around the world,” Derderian said.

In anime, “incredible shows are being made in Japan, and we’re partnering on many of them,” said Derderian.

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget
Credit: Aardman / NETFLIX

“Yet there is this other area that is new and fresh, which didn’t really exist before. A lot of our shows are a sort of western genre – action thrillers or dramas,” he added. 

“So many great directors and writers are so heavily influenced by anime. But the question is whether we can also create this other zone, which maybe has a L.A. writer and maybe a studio from Japan or not from the U.S. which has an influence of anime in this new form but there are also some unique things that are not really copying,” Derderian explained.

One prime example is Netflix’s “Arcane,” created and produced by France’s Fortiche inspired by the video game, which made history last year with its Primetime Emmy Award win in Outstanding Animated Program, making Netflix the first streamer to win this category. A stunning mix of 2D animation for backgrounds and texture and 3D for character and action, “Arcane” helped Netflix dominate 2022’s Annie Awards with 20 wins.

At Annecy this year, Netflix hosts a work in progress unveil of “Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon,” from France’s Ubisoft and Indian-American producer Adi Shankar (“Castlevania”) which is described as “an anime love letter to the ‘90s.”  

The Netflix panel today also features “Blue Eye Samurai,” which reportedly brings a female sensibility to an action revenge tale set in Japan’s Edo era. 

“Blue Eye Samurai” is executive produced, however, by U.S.-based Erwin Stoff and Taiwan-born but Los Angeles-raised Jane Wu, who boarded sequences for “Into the Spider-Verse.” Studio work is from France’s Blue Spirit Studio, which can bring a gorgeously textured 2D look to its CGI animation.  

“We’re producing a lot in Japan, and we’re excited about France, we’re doing a bunch here. Probably outside of the U.S. these are our biggest markets in terms of production, but Spain is another area that’s fantastic. They are incredible studios we’ve worked with, we want to work more with Rodrigo Blaas. Alberto Mielgo’s working there now, both in Madrid.” 

That said, “There’s such a distribution right now of talent around the world,” Derderian concluded. “So we need a lot of creative flexibility. We’re not just one type of studio. Every show has its own demands and needs, and we really cast a very wide net indeed.”

Blue Eye Samurai
Credit: Netflix


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