Not many companies can say they won an Academy Award with their first film. But Lion Forge Animation’s Carl Reed and David Steward II, who formed the U.S.’s only Black-owned animation studio last year to address a lack of representation in the genre, took home the hardware in February for the studio’s involvement in animated short “Hair Love.”
Reed, a former animator, is president of the company and chief creative officer of St. Louis-based parent media firm Polarity. Steward, whose background is in marketing and finance, is CEO of Polarity, the owner› of Lion Forge Comics, which the two men founded in 2011.
The Oscar was only the start for Lion Forge Animation. HBO Max just picked up the 12-part TV series “Young Love,” a spinoff of “Hair Love,” from director Matthew Cherry, which Reed and Steward will executive produce alongside Cherry and animation vet Carl Jones. The company has also signed a joint venture with China’s Starlight Media and a first-look deal with Imagine Kids+Family for a trio of projects.
When they hooked back up in 2011, Steward was working in private equity and consumer products and wanted to return to media. Reed, who had gotten his start with “The Animated Adventures of Bob and Doug McKenzie,” was looking for something meatier. Both he and Reed, who first met nearly a decade earlier, bemoaned the lack of inclusion in the comic book industry. Lion Forge Comics helped fill the void.
“When you look at comics, there’s not a lot of diversity, especially at the executive level,” Steward says. “We were the only Black publisher, and we wanted to produce books that were representative of everyone. Our motto was Comics for Everyone. To do that, we needed wide and diverse voices.”
Among the Lion Forge titles: “Lighter Than My Shadow,” about a young woman battling eating disorders, and “Mooncakes,” a Chinese American queer love story.
In 2019, with the success of live-action film “Black Panther” — a movie based on a Black comic book character — still fresh, the pair saw a chance to bring that kind of inclusiveness to the animation industry, which was still behind the curve, particularly concerning those working behind the camera.
“Companies are coming around to diversity, but there isn’t one way of doing it,” Steward says. “Having a main character that’s of color when none of the production team is of color might not be the best way to do it. We want to shake things up with Black animators and designers.”
Besides “Young Love,” projects in the Lion Forge Animation pipeline include “Journey to the West,” a feature film based on the classic Chinese novel, part of the joint venture with Starlight Media, in which all animation will be done stateside; and Hurricane Maria-themed anthology series “Puerto Rico Strong,” as part of the Image Kids+Family pact. Reed points to collaborations Lion Forge has in other parts of the world as well that focus on a wide range of perspectives. “We have a really strong connection with teams in South Korea, India and in Latin America,” he says. “We’re building content that’s coming from a different place.”
Steward says the mandate for the new company is to create first-rate fare by reaching out to overlooked talent. “We are focused on building a world-class production environment,” he says. “Our pipeline is very unique, and we’re constantly evolving it. We want this to feel like no other production team in animation.”