Cartoon Network Studios Has Some New Ideas for Getting New Ideas

New animated shows in the works at Cartoon Network Studios include Jessica’s Big Little World, Driftwood, Invincible Fight Girl, and Unicorn Warriors Eternal. Video: Vulture/Cartoon Network

Sam Register wants something unique. It’s been 18 months since the 52-year-old president of Warner Bros. Animation was also handed the keys to another Warner Bros. Discovery division, Cartoon Network Studios. He’s a veteran in the animation space, having run two shows, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi and The Looney Tunes Show, and executive-produced a passel of others. And as someone who, as he put it during a call earlier this year, “used to bleed checkerboard” — a nod to Cartoon Network’s iconic black-and-white logo — Register is an ardent believer in the shop’s ability to innovate, and elevate innovators, in a way that’s unmatched by other studios. Now he just has to prove it.

When Register took over at CN Studios in the fall of 2020, a number of the outfit’s long-running hit series — OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes, We Bare Bears, and the Steven Universe coda series Steven Universe Future among them — were winding down, while the overall animation landscape was changing drastically: Pandemic delays in live-action filming prompted Hollywood to prioritize animated production, demand for adult animation and anime in the U.S. and worldwide was spiking, and streamers were increasing their investment in the medium. “Back when broadcast linear content was so strong, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon were the best,” Register says. “It’s become harder for original voices over the last few years, as streaming began to really ascend. Marketing new ideas is harder than marketing IP, and audiences have so many more choices of what, and where, to watch.”

Despite a rich (if niche) archive of its own, milking IP isn’t the backbone of CN Studios’ identity. Yes, it rebooted The Powerpuff Girls, but this is also the studio that produced Over the Garden Wall and Steven Universe and Infinity Train. Instead, CN Studios is doubling down on innovation: new shows and movies (Invincible Fight Girl and Driftwood headline the upcoming slate), new opportunities for creators across the Warner Bros. Discovery animation portfolio, even a new studio tagline, “Everything Original.” And then Register’s going to pump it all into the giant Warner Bros. Discovery machine to ensure people see it.

The big-picture play is for CN Studios to position itself as an appealing destination for creators of new work. Since Register runs both CN Studios and WB Animation, the studios are now signing creators to “cross-studio overall deals” — meaning a showrunner on one of WB Animation’s series can jump to CN Studios to create something new, or vice versa. Register’s pitch is that the combined CN-WB stable will be a better place for creators to land than the two studios were individually. “Having a suite of studios allows us to have a different strategy when we talk to talent: ‘Do you love Scooby-Doo? Do you love Looney Tunes? You can do that. Do you have your own original idea? Well, we have a studio for that, too.’”

The arrangement is already bearing fruit: Two WB Animation veterans — Aquaman: King of Atlantis co-showrunner Victor Courtwright and DC Super Hero Girls director Juston Gordon-Montgomery — recently brought their own ideas to CN Studios, where both are currently in production. Courtright’s is Driftwood, a feature-length space adventure starring a spacefaring mouse, while Gordon-Montgomery is working on Invincible Fight Girl, a half-hour comedy-adventure series about a girl who comes from an island where everyone is an accountant but wants to be a wrestler.

Other new programs in the works include a reboot of the anthology-shorts series Cartoon Cartoons, a successor to the seminal 1990s program that originated Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and more; Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, a forthcoming series by Genndy Tartakovsky, who remains the studio’s best case in point that keeping talent around for decades pays dividends; and two spinoffs of CN’s hit show Craig of the CreekCraig of the Creek: The Movie and Jessica’s Big Little World, headed up by Craig veteran Tiffany Ford, the first Black woman to run a CN series. All of these properties will run on Cartoon Network and stream on HBO Max.

“For a long time, Cartoon Network did only shows for kids — mostly boys — aged 6-11, mostly 11 minutes, with production mostly shipped overseas,” explains Register. “It made amazing content, but that alone doesn’t work in a streaming universe. So instead of just doing 6-11 kids’ content, we’re doing preschool content and adult content, and in different formats: making movies, making more YA content, bringing back shorts.”

He sees Cartoon Cartoons in particular as an opportunity to attract the industry’s best talent, regardless of whether those shorts become pilots for new hits. “The first thing I decided was to not just make a pilot program, but to celebrate animation by opening the aperture as much as we can, and by inking partnerships with groups that think outside the box — Exceptional Minds, Black Women Animate,” he says. “In a world where everything’s all about IP, IP, IP, we want to celebrate animation from all different kinds of creators. Even if a hit doesn’t come out of it, a hitmaker might.” And that can be just as, if not even more, valuable.

“Studios reflect the artists that inhabit them,” says Aminder Dhaliwal, who is one of the four members of the “creative council” that green-lights shorts for Cartoon Cartoons and serves as mentors for those shorts’ creators. “Having worked at Nickelodeon, I can say that it was a much louder studio. You could tell that it was the place that made SpongeBob. At Cartoon Network, the cartoonists are more introverted, kinda sweet. You can tell they just want to make something sensitive and sweet and share it with the world.”

The 2022 animation landscape will serve as quite the testing ground for both the studio’s ethos and Register’s strategy. The medium is in a boom time, and even with IP all the rage, new ideas abound. Titmouse is a perpetual powerhouse of independent animation. Amazon Studios’ Undone is as distinct an animated show as any released in recent years. Disney’s 20th Television, acquired alongside most of 21st Century Fox, has its own roster of established creators, from Bob’s Burgers mastermind Loren Bouchard to Amy Poehler, and Fox’s own Tubi streaming service is investing in animation and not exactly unwilling to get weird. (Its first animated original is literally called Freak Brothers.) Those outfits often focus on adult animation, but Disney Television Animation — in spite of its never-ending slew of Marvel and Star Wars content — has its share of creator-driven all-ages cartoons itself for Disney+, including Amphibia, The Ghost and Molly McGee, and The Owl House. (Although if it keeps pissing creators off with political missteps, that may not last.)

Then there’s Netflix. Although the streamer just canceled a handful of much-anticipated animated shows, including ones from its children’s cartoons programming slate, after a tough financial quarter, it had previously been throwing gobs of money into establishing its dominance in the medium, most recently by rescuing a long-anticipated film from Disney’s corporate merger scrap heap. The platform has a reputation for axing series in their prime (if not infancy), but it’s hard to argue that a company that distributed Big Mouth, BoJack Horseman, and City of Ghosts isn’t interested in thinking outside the box — even if Tuca & Bertie didn’t last more than a season before heading to Cartoon Network’s adult-programming block, Adult Swim.

Netflix’s recent woes seem, on the face, to be more about the company itself than the market for animation in the U.S., which otherwise continues to flourish. And tough competition may not be the worst thing for a studio intent on reasserting itself as a destination for innovative thinkers.

Register is very aware of IP’s place in the modern animation ecosystem. “I have great reverence for Warner Bros. Animation, and as soon as I got here, I immediately felt as though I had become the steward of all this amazing IP,” he says. “One of the first things I did when I came to the studio was go to the archives, find all these amazing crew pictures from MGM and Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and hang them all over.”

But the new shows must go on. “I feel the same reverence for Cartoon Network Studios, but it’s different,” he continues. “My responsibility is to the creators of the future.”

Cartoon Network Studios Has New Ideas for Getting New Ideas