Since its founding in 2003, Rooster Teeth has built a large following for original shows like “Red vs. Blue” and “RWBY,” as well as other fan-direct content distributed across its own branded channels.
But the first season of the new “Transformers: War for Cybertron” trilogy — produced by Rooster Teeth Studios — will premiere on Netflix this Thursday, July 30. It’s officially the first project from Rooster Teeth Studios for a third-party platform.
After 17 years of catering to its sci-fi, gaming and animation fanbase, why did Rooster Teeth decide to make a big-budget entertainment property for someone else? According to Rooster Teeth general manager Jordan Levin, who joined the WarnerMedia-owned company last year, it boiled down to economics.
“From a pure cost standpoint, there’s only so much we can do within our current structure,” Levin said.
Rooster Teeth’s FIRST subscription service, which has provided members early access to RT-produced originals, “will never be, nor do we expect it to be, a scaled SVOD service,” Levin said. “We try and reward [FIRST members] as best we can. But the truth is, there’s only so much we can afford to do.”
For more ambitious projects like “Transformers: War for Cybertron,” the company formed Rooster Teeth Studios, headed by Ryan P. Hall, to develop and produce originals for other distributors. “The SVOD space is largely focused around scaled players,” Levin said. “For us, the production infrastructure that exists here in Austin, in live action and animation, has shown we can make premium, high-end content. Then we look at what kind of distribution platforms can support that.”
From a strategic standpoint, Rooster Teeth Studios’ productions for Netflix and others represent a chance to recruit and attract new audiences, Levin said. RT also is going to premiere “gen:Lock” Season 2, an animated mecha series starring Michael B. Jordan, on HBO Max (a WarnerMedia sibling) before it comes to Rooster Teeth’s FIRST. “The company at its core has always been about trying to create content our audience will love — and putting it where our audience is,” Levin added.
Netflix and Hasbro teamed with Rooster Teeth Studios to produce “War for Cybertron,” with Japan’s Polygon Pictures (“Knights of Sidonia”) serving as the animation studio. The three “chapters” of the anime series (which is unrelated to the video game of the same name) will comprise 18 episodes total. The trilogy (“Siege,” “Earthrise,” and “Kingdom”) tells the origin story of the Transformers — starting with the civil war between the Autobots and Decepticons. The show syncs up with a three-part toy line from Hasbro.
Scene from “Transformers: War for Cybertron” Trilogy Chapter 1 (“Siege”) Episode 1. Credit: Netflix
Helming the project as showrunner and executive producer is F.J. DeSanto, a Transformers veteran who worked on Machinima’s “Transformers: Titans Return” and “Transformers: Power of the Primes” before Warner Bros.-owned Machinima was folded into Rooster Teeth.
“I don’t want to speak ill of Machinima, but they weren’t an animation studio,” DeSanto said. Under the aegis of Rooster Teeth Studios, “I was dealing with an entire studio that could support the efforts of doing a sophisticated version of Transformers… which helped give it a foundation that we all wanted it to build off of.”
Added DeSanto, “I say this without any BS behind it: I felt like every party involved, Rooster Teeth, Hasbro and Netflix, were completely aligned on what this show is and how to market it. It’s playing to the strengths of everybody.”
Rooster Teeth Studios’ Hall explained that the formation of the studio division came after the realization that “from a storytelling standpoint, not everything makes sense for it to be under one roof.”
“As we’re putting together projects and finding partners on the development side, there are instances where we have to be creative about how we package things together,” Hall said. “It’s not just trying to make a buck and sell a show. It’s trying to tell a story in a way our fans want to see.”
That said, Rooster Teeth caused a backlash among some fans when it announced that “gen:Lock” S2 would be hitting HBO Max first — not Rooster Teeth’s own FIRST. In blog and vlog posts in February, co-founder Matt Hullum tried to calm the waters and explain where Rooster Teeth Studios fits in versus “Direct” projects, in which he said that FIRST can subsidize Direct content, whereas third parties will support the Studios projects.
There are other Rooster Teeth Studios productions in the pipeline: The group is in development on “Beauty of Horror,” an animated horror series inspired by the popular adult coloring books of the same name with Eric Heisserer and his production company Chronology and the author/illustrator of the book, Alan Robert. Rooster Teeth Studios also is in development with Boom! Studios for two graphic novel-inspired projects.
And Hall said Rooster Teeth Studios is creating podcasts as well, including “Beneath,” from writer/director Owen Egerton (“Blood Fest”). The scripted horror podcast explores “dark secrets inside the ocean’s most famous tomb, the Titanic.”
Last year, Rooster Teeth also produced YouTube original interactive show “A Heist With Markiplier” from popular YouTube game creator Mark “Markiplier” Fischbach. But RT provided only production services and wasn’t involved with the creative side, so the company didn’t brand the project as a Rooster Teeth Studios production.
As it ramps up projects, Rooster Teeth Studios has expanded the L.A.-based team, reporting to Hall. Recent hires include Dan Shorr, director of scripted at Rooster Teeth Studios, overseeing all key projects in animation and live-action across both feature and series development. Shorr previously spent almost five years at Marvel Entertainment, where he had been a manager in Marvel TV’s original programming group and worked on Netflix’s “Luke Cage” and FX’s “Legion” and was a co-producer on Netflix’s “The Punisher.”
Also joining Rooster Teeth Studios is Antonia “Toni” Gutierrez as manager of development. In that role, she sources and develops original and IP-based animated series and features in the adult, YA and kids’ spaces. Gutierrez most recently served as manager of animation at ViacomCBS’s Nickelodeon.
The full Rooster Teeth Studios team includes Austin-based development managers Cameron Malone and Allie Watson. Hall, who joined the company in 2016, previously served as head of development at Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s Roenberg Entertainment production company, where he oversaw multiple film and TV projects. Ryan also worked alongside the directing team on Netflix’s “Marco Polo” and Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.”