Connecting with kids against the odds
How Canada’s Sinking Ship Entertainment became a kids’ TV powerhouse
Standing in the middle of Chichen Itza in Mexico, executive producer J.J. Johnson was prepping for a big reveal: two blindfolded kids were about to lay eyes on the Mayan ruins for the first time.
Just as he was thinking the “wow pyramid” moment he had set up would make for some great TV, the children’s eyes fixated on a tiny lizard instead of the ancient structure in front of them. They started to chase it.
Standing there next to a team from National Geographic — to whom he had successfully pitched a children’s TV show about world travel (“Are We There Yet?”) before he or his two business partners had ever globe-trotted anywhere themselves — Johnson decided to roll with it. He told his camera crew to follow the kids.
“We’ve learned to just share the control of our shows with our kid casts. They know what their peers want and what they’ll like,” Johnson says, remembering that shoot from a decade ago. “If you listen to them, you’re just going to get a much better product.”
That philosophy helps guide Toronto’s Sinking Ship Entertainment, a children’s production company that took home five Daytime Emmy Awards last month for its hit series “Odd Squad.” (Caledonia native Isaac Kragten, who plays Agent Otis, won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a Children’s, Pre-School Children’s or Family Viewing Program.) Three other Sinking Ship shows, “Annedroids,” “Bookaboo” and “Dino Dan,” were nominated for multiple Emmys (for a total of 28) but didn’t win.
The company now employs 90 permanent full time staff, has made about a dozen kids’ TV series (mostly live action) and a movie spinoff, and engineered its own virtual reality experiences.
From their first go at children’s TV more than a decade ago, Johnson and the two other founders — all Ryerson University graduates now in their mid-30s — have been flying from the seat of their pants.
“Our inexperience has been our greatest asset,” said Johnson, who leads the company’s creative. “We approach everything with fresh eyes so we’re not conditioned to repeat the same things that everyone else has done.”
He and friends Blair Powers and Matt Bishop met at Ryerson almost 20 years ago. In their final year, Johnson and Powers pitched a project and tried to convince their peers to pick up the remaining crew roles. “Don’t join them — it’ll be like joining a sinking ship,” a classmate warned a fellow student who was considering it. The two friends registered a company in the same name later that day.
As fresh grads, neither Johnson nor Powers liked the idea of working their way up the intern ladder or taking an assistant role that would lead to a better job later. But when the plan to skip all that proved easier said than done, Johnson took a gig at a talent agency and Powers started working as an assistant editor in a basement in Burlington.
Then a boy named Daniel Cook walked into Johnson’s talent agency. The two hit it off, debating whether Decepticons are cooler than Autobots. Johnson immediately called Powers with an idea for a TV show: “Just following this kid around as he went around on different adventures and did different jobs to just see his perspective on things.”
They shot a pilot, which was when Bishop, who now leads the company’s visuals and animation teams, joined their team.
At last, the three sent a cut of “This is Daniel Cook” to children’s broadcasters in Canada (which, at the time, they had to look up to identify). To their huge surprise, TVO called the next day with some interest: “We literally didn’t know what to do,” recalled Johnson, who was 23 at the time.
The show was eventually picked up in Canada by TVO and Treehouse, and later in the U.S. by Disney.
Since then, Sinking Ship has pitched and sold hundreds of hours of children’s programming. The company now has filmed in upwards of 40 countries, and employs its own production, postproduction and interactive teams.
In its almost 20 years of producing content, the company has amassed a loyal following of kid fans. When they held an open house on the set of “Odd Squad” last month, more than 1,000 fans (and their scrambling parents) bought tickets to meet their favourite cast members and stock up on weird gadgets from the show.
Millie Davis, the 9-year-old Canadian actress who plays Ms. O on the gently educational series, greets and poses for pictures with starstruck young fans. On the show, which airs on both TVO and PBS, Millie plays the juice box-sipping squad leader who sits at her desk and sends her agents on strange problem-solving missions.
Millie thinks her character is important, on and off screen. “It’s a child of colour playing a lead role and being like a boss and leading people and stuff. I think that’s really cool,” she said in a recent interview at the open house on set. “I think that (people who watch the show) learn that girls have power too.”
Featuring diverse casts and characters has been a big part of the production company’s focus. Sinking Ship’s founders say they have also made an internal effort to hire more women, acknowledging that touting shows with strong female leads made by an all-male production team would miss the point.
The founders believe kids are often underestimated, and want to talk up to their viewers instead of down.
“Sometimes (kids) want to see more of themselves reflected on screen and they are not getting that in the demographic that they are assigned to on the TV,” said Powers, who heads the business side of the company and its interactive teams.
The company founders say they want fill the gaps in children’s programming. They’re turning their focus to the 9-to-12-year-old age group, an audience they feel is overlooked.
Adam Peltzman, left, and Tim McKeon, right, are both cocreators and JJ Johnson, middle, is the founder of Sinking Ship. They’re on the set of "Odd Squad."
Ms O, a.k.a. Millie Davis, on the set (her office) of the kids TV show "Odd Squad" where she sends her agents on strange problem-solving missions.