In 2011, Squeeze was nothing more than a small animation studio based in Quebec City. Today, it plays in the big leagues thanks to the creation of Cracké, a 3D animation series for young children that the studio has self-distributed throughout the world. Denis Doré, one of the studio’s founders, explains to us the ingredients of this success story.
When Denis Doré and Patrick Beaulieu met in a coffee shop in November 2011 to discuss founding a 3D animation studio in Quebec City, they decided to focus on three axes: offering animation services to learn and eventually become one of the planet’s best studios, produce and distribute original content, and invest in workforce training to ensure the company’s long-term sustainability.
Almost seven years later, Squeeze today works with world-renowned studios such as Disney and Illumination, distributes its Cracké and Jax series internationally and uses its “Les Popettes” training program to discover and develop the best in 3D animation talent.
Offering services to produce original content
After having built up a solid reputation in the 3D animation service universe, the studio began producing original content. As explained by Denis Doré, the goal was to take greater risks in the hopes of reaping greater benefits with a little luck.
“For us, proposing our services was a means to gradually develop a revenue stream that would enable us to develop our team and the mastery of our art. Combining that with a product model, i.e., creating our own productions for use and distribution in the world, leads to something exponential if we have something of undeniable popularity. Revenue is up, as is productivity, and financial and outreach capacities become infinite. That’s when we can begin hitting home runs.”
That is what lead to the first season of Cracké, a series of 52 one-minute episodes for young children that follow the adventures of Ed, a father ostrich that is somewhat paranoid and takes any and all means possible to protect his progeny.
Using a winning formula to have a series travel
The short and silent format of Cracké was initially perceived as a good way to have the series travel across borders. “To us, the series would not be viable if it was not exportable outside of the local market,” explains Denis Doré. “We then said to ourselves that we had absolutely no reason not to think big when it came to exporting. We have no reason to believe that we are not able to export our know-how!”
“For us, the short format was something that we were able to produce. That is where we were at in our development. Then, by eliminating the vocal aspect, the context became perfectly adapted to forcing the animation performance onto the character in what is known as body mechanics. Of course, it was also a way to facilitate the series’ international export considering that humour transposed into such characters transcends borders.”
It was a winning strategy seeing as the Cracké series is today available in more than 200 countries—including China and India—and has been viewed a total of more than 150 million times.
Self-distribution to preserve one’s rights and develop one’s network of contacts
Although the success of Cracké is today a well-established reality, it results from a lengthy learning process undertaken by the Quebec start-up when it initially launched itself in the sale and distribution of original content. And the challenge was all that more daunting given it had decided not to resort to third parties.
“The logical continuation for us as for the whole of Quebec also consists of much better mastering the value chain that we are currently creating up to the distribution stage,” claims Denis Doré.
The founders therefore purchased plane tickets to attend MIPTV (the international television content market) in Cannes. Once on site, they quickly concluded not only that they were poorly prepared, but also that the venue offered the opportunity to understand how to sell a series.
With this experience in hand, they prepared themselves for MIPJunior, held a few months later. They returned to France along with their episodes and, that second time around, there was an undeniable interest for their project.
Instead of jumping on the first distribution offer, the Squeeze team decided to establish if it would be possible to distribute Cracké without intermediaries. Its work paid off, as a few months later, it sold the series to the Cartoon Network. This first sale had a snowball effect, with contracts later being signed with Teletoon, Disney, Nickelodeon, Indosiar, SVT and Tencent.
Beyond the retention of rights, this strategy also enabled the company to communicate directly with the industry’s major players. “Today, these contacts belong to us because they were established directly. They know our brands, the new brands that we are developing. We can learn directly from them what their expectations are for the future, what’s the strategic vision of the chain. And that’s worth its weight in gold for us as creators.”
These are the contacts that enabled Squeeze to premiere its new series Jax to Netflix, Amazon and Apple. So those initial plane tickets purchased to attend MIPTV in Cannes and the decision to self-explore the distribution universe really paid off.
Entering the Chinese market
If Cracké today boasts a total of more than 150 million views, it’s also because the series is available in one of the world’s largest markets, i.e., China. From the onset, entering this market of more than 1.3 billion people may appear difficult. How did Squeeze succeed in doing so? The studio conducted a host of verifications to make sure it dealt with a trustworthy distribution partner and then surrounded itself with excellent legal advisors.
The first contact with a Chinese distributor occurred at MIP, after which Squeeze sought input from its contacts to assess this potential partner. “We had our assessment validated by people in Quebec and internationally, as well as by a studio in Singapore that had created a lovely animation series with which we were familiar. We knew that we had to take into consideration two important factors: we needed to be able to trust them, to know that they were actually going to sell our series and help us in China; also, we needed the assurance that we would be paid.”
Outreach through talented employees: the “Popettes” strategy
Not surprisingly, the number of people employed by Squeeze increased sharply in the past years. There are now a little more than 110 employees and, since the beginning of the year, a second studio opened up in Montreal in addition to the one in Quebec City. However, yet another challenge comes with growth: recruiting qualified employees.
How did the young company go about it? Denis Doré explains that they focused on what makes the studio unique: “You need colour, you need to have something specific to go get. We are a small studio with strong growth and major ambitions and we have extraordinary people. It gives an opportunity to people of high quality, who have a lot of experience and have also worked for large studios, to come and make a difference with a [smaller] studio like ours.”
To make sure they recruit the finest employees possible, the founders created the “Les Popettes” talent accelerator from the very beginning of the studio. This program is not aimed at replacing specialized schools but rather serves as a springboard for promising students.
“In a classroom of 30 or 40, there are maybe 5 or 6 people who have extraordinary potential—as I say it all the time—to make it to the major leagues. We offer them a specialized program, a sort of boot camp to identify them and then we extend them the possibility to come with us and learn how to do professional animation.”
In light of the recent growth, the program has been put on ice, but the studio hopes to reinstigate it very shortly. Since the beginning, “Les Popettes” has trained some 20 or so animation artists, of which close to a third now work for Squeeze. The initiative has therefore helped both the studio and other Quebec companies.
“As entrepreneurs, we believe that we have a certain social responsibility to find, train and develop the best talents. I think that if every studio, and even the entire ecosystem, gave itself the means to multiply such efforts, we would have a good contribution and the industry would do even better.”