Take Risks, Retain IP and Befriend Zombies
Does everything Catherine Winder touches turn to gold? The Vancouver-based CEO of Wind Sun Sky Entertainment and Skybound North Entertainment has a CV that positively glitters: she’s been an executive at Hanna-Barbera, HBO and Rainmaker; she took the Star Wars brand into animation for Lucasfilm; she produced the Angry Birds films for Finland’s Rovio; she oversaw the production of Ice Age for Fox. At Skybound, home of The Walking Dead, she partners with creators to boldly take their properties into new and profitable territory. She’s also recently joined the CMPA’s board of directors. Through it all, she’s honed her unshakable professional philosophy: hold on to your rights, and put creators at the centre.
From our vantage point, your career has played out like a dream. Any lessons to share on how you got where you are?
Early on in my career, I just took risks. I put a backpack on and ended up in Tokyo, found my way to Disney, and learned all about the animation industry. I had a passion for filmmaking and I wanted to travel the world, so I went for it. It paid off, because the animation industry was just beginning to boom in Asia, with North American work being sent there.
As my career evolved, I took more strategic, calculated risks. I got myself to LA, which was my dream. I quickly moved up the executive ranks at Hanna- Barbera, because I was one of the few who understood the overseas studio system. Later, an opportunity came up to produce Aeon Flux at a small independent studio. I decided that while being part of a big iconic company was great, I needed to actually roll up my sleeves and understand every single job—what people did, why they did it, what worked, what didn’t. In some ways I had no right being the producer: I’d never done anything like it, but worked as hard as possible to ensure the project’s success and, most importantly, support the show’s incredibly passionate creator, Peter Chung, to realize his vision. From there, I found myself as a VP at HBO, and got back to a big company, this time a broadcaster, with a much deeper skill set. I adapted the comic book Spawn by Todd McFarlane, another strong creator, and produced a late-night Ralph Bakshi–created series entitled Spicy City.
It’s really critical to open yourself to opportunity. I was always willing to jump into something new, even if it seemed a little bit crazy. And I was never afraid to ask a question—I have no problem saying what I don’t know and look for talent that operates the same way. It shows confidence.
Your company, Skybound North, is the Canadian arm of Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and producer David Alpert’s multimedia company. How did you get involved?
Skybound was initially set up for The Walking Dead, and all these departments grew organically out of that, because it became such a massive hit. It started with the comic books, then it became a TV show, then it expanded into every form of content you can imagine—cruises, wine, games, events, merchandise. Through that experience, Robert and David wanted to use what they’d learned and put other creators in a position like Robert’s—that is, in control of their property. Robert had his finger in everything that he felt was important, and that helped The Walking Dead maintain its integrity throughout all of these extensions.
As I was finishing up Angry Birds, they approached me and said, “We love Canada. We want to figure out a way to work with you.” We set up Skybound North and Wind Sun Sky Entertainment (our Canadian content studio), and one of our first projects was a property of Robert’s called Super Dinosaur, a series we made with Canadian talent. We also produced a multimedia documentary series for AMC called Robert Kirkman’s History of Comics.
Say a creator approaches you with a property they’d like to extend. How do you decide where to take it and how?
At Skybound and our umbrella company Wind Sun Sky, we call our approach the “Wheel of Awesome.” All of our entrepreneurial units—our games division, events division, podcast division, traditional book division, comic book division, TV division, distribution arm—are spokes of the wheel. They’re there for the extension of content. And we put the creator in the centre of the wheel—just like Robert is with The Walking Dead—and help them identify which types of content make sense for their property, and in what order.
What’s really unique about our approach, I believe, is that we never look at any extension as a derivative version of the IP. Rather, it’s its own standalone business opportunity, integrated into the overall strategy.
There’s a lot of discussion in our industry around whether you should try to own your IP or just focus on getting paid for your services. What’s your take?
I have a really strong opinion on this, and it’s very much why I am in business with Robert and David. We believe in taking a long-term strategy with IP: we feel it’s better to hold on to your rights as best you can.
In general, we need to find ways for Canadians to keep their rights here. While it is an exciting time in our industry, Canada is at a crossroads in terms of the deals we’re making and the rights we’re surrendering. In the face of so much short-term profit, we need to be thinking about the long-term health of our industry. If not, we’re on the cusp of returning to being simply subcontractors versus positioning ourselves as the creative industry leaders we have the ability to be. Evolving government regulations and leveraging the benefits available to Canadian producers, such that resources find a way back into their own content and their own businesses, is critical to our long-term success.