Thunderbird shoots Hollywood-style sitcoms in Vancouver

Vancouver-based entertainment production and distribution company Thunderbird Films is changing the way Canada gets its laffs.

Already enjoying some success with dramas “Endgame” and “Intelligence,” Thunderbird joined forces with Dan Signer (“The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”) to create “Mr. Young,” a show about a 14-year-old child prodigy who, after completing college, goes back to high school as a science teacher.

The show was quickly sold to YTV, a Canadian youth-targeted channel, and, soon after, to Disney XD, which airs Signer’s “Ant Farm.”

“Mr. Young” has since been added to primetime, while also keeping its original timeslot. “So it airs a lot,” says Thunderbird’s president, Michael Shepard.

But its popularity tells only part of the show’s story. “Mr. Young” is the first multicamera comedy to shoot in B.C. in front of a live audience. Since there was no soundstage in Vancouver that could accommodate the production, Thunderbird built its own by converting a 70,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in Burnaby, B.C.

According to Shepard, Thunderbird wanted to emulate the American sitcom model, and budgeted the show similarly. “Our plan was always to sell (the show) to the U.S.,” he says.

Shepard attributes “Mr. Young’s” success largely to the immediate response of the live audience; if a joke isn’t working, it can be re-written on the spot.

“We’re all about the jokes,” he says. “A lot of kids’ shows are also about having an arc, and some relationship or moral — we have none of that. We’re just trying to be funny.”

A taping of the show, which is particularly popular with teenage girls, is a four-to-five-hour experience, and has become almost like a show within a show. The production serves audiences pizza, has a stand-up comedian perform between takes, and even hosts talent competitions. People come in costumes. Singers perform throughout.

“We’re hoping that we’ve created a new industry here,” says Thunderbird CEO Tim Gamble, “Sitcom is a proven commodity (in Canada).”

Thunderbird loves the format so much that it is intent on developing more laffers. Among them is a primetime multicamera show, “Package Deal,” an adult comedy about a successful younger brother who lives with and looks up to his two controlling older brothers. Thunderbird is partnering with writer-producer Andrew Orenstein (“3rd Rock From the Sun,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” “Malcolm in the Middle”) on the show, which will shoot in Vancouver, and aims to be similar in tone to “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.” “Packaged Deal,” too, is targeted to the U.S. as well as Canada.

The commitment to the sitcom format hasn’t kept Thunderbird from throwing its hat into the feature film ring. It recently invested in the underlying rights to “Blade Runner,” which Ridley Scott is set to direct either as a prequel or sequel for Alcon Entertainment. “For us it was an opportunity to be involved in holding a piece of that franchise,” Gamble says.

Shepard adds, “It’s a science fiction brand that means so much to so many people. From a longterm perspective it has value that is really attractive.”

However, Gamble maintains, “Our focus, really, is television. We’ve found a unique opportunity with this sitcom model. It employs a lot of people, it’s great work, it’s good business and we make people laugh.”

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