Why authentic representation matters — and how this impacts our future generations.
Jennifer Twiner-McCarron, CEO of Thunderbird Entertainment, shares her Lessons Learned.
I am privileged to be a mom of three and the CEO of Thunderbird Entertainment, a multifaceted entertainment company that employs over 1,000 animators, creators, directors, crew members, and more across Canada and the US. At Thunderbird, our focus is on creating meaningful, diverse, and world-changing content that helps shift the status quo and places the spotlight on stories that might otherwise remain untold. And, in an unprecedented time in history where people are consuming more content than ever, it has become even more important to create and tell stories that uplift and authentically represent visible minority groups and strong, fearless women.
I love stories, and the immense impact they can have. Stories have the power to influence and can be used as a force of good to share experiences, broaden perspectives, and inspire change.
At Thunderbird, we produce stories that have the potential to change and impact our world. I’m fortunate to work alongside people who collectively believe that authenticity is a critical element in storytelling. Authenticity matters on so many levels. Simu Liu of Kim’s Convenience, tells the story of how growing up he could be any superhero that wore a mask – and didn’t directly show his face. Why? Because before he was cast as Marvel’s superhero, Shang-Chi, there wasn’t any Asian superheroes.
What’s more, the statistics don’t lie: in a world where the business of streaming is becoming increasingly competitive, diversity and inclusivity are becoming bedrocks of new content — especially so when it comes to content created for kids and families. In fact, children are likely to go elsewhere for entertainment when they do not see themselves, their cultures and lifestyles reflected on television, which is why the lives we have already been able to touch and change through positive and accurate representation of Indigenous culture on the animated children’s series, Molly of Denali, is just the tip of the iceberg. Creating content for children and youth, and all audiences for that matter, is a huge responsibility and we are 100% committed to getting it right.
Making diversity a non-negotiable aspect of our business makes complete and total sense.
Aside from prioritizing authenticity being the right approach, it is also good for business. According to The Ticket to Inclusion, an analysis of the top 1,200 films released from 2007-2018 found that films led or co-led by people of color generally net more revenue than those with white leads/co-leads. The bottom line? Diversity sells.
As an advocate for women in the workplace, a champion for underrepresented voices, and someone with a deep-rooted passion for people, making diversity a non-negotiable aspect of our business makes complete and total sense. But, it’s easier said than done. Yes, we are committed to diversity, and not just in a token form. Instead, we are committed to making our content as authentically, and with as much intentionality as possible. This includes everything from the early stages of development and research (for Season One of Molly of Denali, over 60 Alaska Native actors, writers, advisors, producers and musicians were involved across the production!), to the final casting and acting process (in our commitment to authentic representation, we cast and recast the lead character’s role in Hello Ninja in order to find the right fit: a pre-teen Japanese-American voice actor to play Wesley), to the make-up of our 1,000+ employees (our kids and family division is 40% female, 50% male, and 10% gender fluid).
The power and privilege that comes with creating and telling a good story simply cannot be understated. Stories can help us see a situation from a different perspective, and even shift our core beliefs.
So how do we ensure we are creating and telling stories that are a force for good and that not only entertains, but also empowers and inspires? Here are four practical takeaways that serve as key principles in my own life, that help guide me in my own journey as a mother and a leader on a mission of doing what I can to make the world a better place, and that I hope will help you, too:
Have an attitude of gratitude and good things will come your way.
I say this to my kids all the time. Who you surround yourself with is who you are, and you are personally accountable for everyone in your circle. For me, kindness and integrity are non-negotiable and I surround myself with people who align with these values. Telling stories of diversity and inclusivity are what matters at Thunderbird, which is why we have intentionally built a culture of people who align with this mission.
If you can see it, you can be it.
I was fortunate to have strong role models in both my parents. They empowered me to not only seek out the career I have today, but also to keep pushing myself to grow and achieve new milestones throughout the years. My parents taught that “you get what you put in” and I put this into practice in whatever I am doing. More importantly, they led by doing. My father was a CEO and my mother was a Clinical Research Director. As a result, I witnessed leadership. I also witnessed firsthand that details matter, and they often make the difference. From this, I adopted the “if you can see it, you can be it” mentality — and this bodes well for where my career has taken me — and my leadership role at Thunderbird. I want my children to know that they can earn a seat at the table through hard work and resilience, and have worked hard to demonstrate to them that a woman doesn’t have to choose between having a career and family. I also intentionally surround myself with other strong female leaders who are intelligent, capable, and inspire me every day to keep growing and learning as my career continues to evolve.
‘If you can see it, you can be it’ relates to what we see on the screen as well. Our industry is fortunate because it can make changes in real time through the stories we tell, and characters we cast. At Thunderbird, we strive to challenge stereotypes and to tell stories with diverse and authentic characters that serve as inspiring role models for the next generation of leaders, regardless of their background. This includes strong girls like Molly of Denali, a 10-year-old Athabascan girl that uplifts the diverse and traditional values of Alaska Native people in mainstream media by debunking stereotypes about their beautiful culture. This also includes characters like Japanese-American Wesley from Hello Ninja, the Asian-led cast of Kim’s Convenience, and Twin-Spirited Massey Whiteknife of Queen of the Oil Patch, an Aboriginal businessman in Northern Alberta’s oil sands by day and Iceis Rain, a free-spirited female recording artist by night.
You can’t truly relate and connect to a story if the story is never about you, and never an accurate portrayal of who you are and where you come from. People need to see themselves reflected in the media they consume in order to believe their stories matter and to achieve their goals, whatever they may be.
Your voice and influence matters.
As the CEO of a content creation company, I have a desire to change the lens through which we tackle representation and diversity, but also a social obligation to shift the paradigm. At Thunderbird, this means honouring the untold stories of underrepresented groups and telling them authentically and with intentionality. It means ‘walking the talk’ and using our platform as content creators to amplify the voices of those that have been historically untold by mainstream media.
I hope to set an example of strong female leadership for not just my own children, but children everywhere: to show them that the voices and stories of every child, regardless of their race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, and/or other differences, deserve to be heard. Molly of Denali may be the first nationally distributed children’s series in the United States to feature an Indigenous lead character, but she certainly won’t be the last.
People are always more important than the bottom line.
My passion for people is what led me to where I am today. Putting people first is what cultivates a happy workplace, it’s what draws the best talent to our company, and it’s what ultimately builds the billion-dollar company. The power of genuinely caring for people coupled with a ‘yes’ attitude is what I firmly believe is a recipe for success. I feel a deep sense of obligation to everyone on my team and their families, and it’s what drives me to show up every day and to do my best, and I will always strive to create a culture where my people are above the bottom line.
It’s up to us to change the narrative surrounding diversity and inclusivity. The more we all do our part to raise up new, diverse voices, the more amazing, inspiring, impactful stories will be told. People from all cultural backgrounds deserve to be seen and stories like Simu Liu’s and Massey Whiteknife’s not only deserve to be told, but enrich our communities when they are.
About Jennifer Twiner-McCarron
Jennifer Twiner-McCarron is the CEO of Vancouver-based Thunderbird Entertainment Group , a global multiplatform entertainment company creating award-winning programming for the world’s leading digital platforms and broadcasters. Jennifer is also an award-winning producer, and has led production on multiple popular titles including the Emmy-winning Beat Bugs for Netflix, Cupcake & Dino for eOne and 101 Dalmatian Street for Disney+.