Michael Hirsch, children’s TV magnate and son of Holocaust survivors, credits his success in the field of animation to a simple motto: ‘Don’t look down’
By Robert Sarner, The Times of Israel, July 20, 2017
On a recent afternoon at the Toronto headquarters of Wow! Unlimited Media, CEO and visionary cartoon guru Michael Hirsh met with one of his top executives. The atmosphere was decidedly relaxed as he and the company’s President/COO, Neil Chakravarti, discussed their upcoming animated youth series Castlevania, a medieval fantasy inspired by a Japanese video game that will soon air on Netflix. Dressed casually all in black, as he often is, Hirsh was surprisingly mild-mannered for a showbiz mogul whose success spans the globe.
In explaining his attitude to life and business, Belgian-born Hirsh, 69, whose parents were both Holocaust survivors, cites the famous cartoon character Road Runner. Known for his trademark “beep-beep,” the fast-running bird would invariably make it across the ravine from above while his adversary, Wile E. Coyote, in hot pursuit, would look down at a certain point and then fall.
“Like Road Runner, don’t look down,” says Hirsh. “You have to believe in your goal and where you’re going and not focus on the difficulties of the voyage. There’s no business that doesn’t experience bumps along the way but you should simply deal with them as they come up and not get worried. I never freak out. I consider myself a highly rational person.”
Indeed, little seems to faze him.
“Michael’s context for calamity is impressive as he’s never given to panic,” says Chakravarti. “His views are more analytical than off the cuff. He has a natural proclivity to go for the solution instead of being obsessed by the problem.”
Over the past 45 years, Hirsh has found countless solutions in building an impressive body of work. In the pantheon of much-loved, global cartoon characters, his creations have pride of place. Having brought, among others, Care Bears, Babar, Inspector Gadget, Franklin, Rolie Polie Olie, Tintin, Beyblade, Little Bear and Doodlebops to life on big and small screens around the world, Hirsh is a major player in the entertainment industry. His productions have captured the hearts and imagination of millions of people, especially young kids, teens and their parents, to say nothing of helping launch the careers of thousands of employees and many hit brands.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hirsh shows few signs of slowing down. Often described as a Canadian mix of Warren Buffet and Walt Disney, he admits jokingly to still being committed to his longtime quest of “world domination through animation.” To that end, he recently founded a major new public venture, Wow! Unlimited Media Inc.
Wow! aims to become the leading next-generation global kids and youth multi-platform entertainment partner for big media and telecom companies that want programs like Bee and PuppyCat and ReBoot and soon-to-be announced other exclusive content for their web and smartphone offerings. Given Hirsh’s stellar track record, Wow!’s future looks bright.
In reporting its launch, Canada’s leading newspaper, The Globe and Mail, described Hirsh as “one of the most successful and influential figures in Canada’s showbiz history, having built and sold off two globally dominant animation companies.”
Adorning the walls of Wow!’s offices are large-format, digitally-painted photographs of flowers by Hirsh’s wife Elaine Waisglass, to whom he’s been married for 40 years. The couple has two children. She oversaw the renovation of the two-story, century-old building in which her studio is on the second-floor, near her husband’s office.
If Hirsh has built much of his career on tales of lovable, enchanted cartoon figures, they contrast sharply with the harrowing stories he heard early in life. As a young boy, his father often told him about his time in Auschwitz and other adversity he faced during the Holocaust.
“After the war, some Holocaust survivors spoke about their experiences, some didn’t,” says Hirsh. “My father talked about it almost every day, for at least the first 10 or 12 years of my life. I grew up hearing stories about the camps and war-time experiences.”
Hirsh regales in telling how his father was one of the few to cheat death at Auschwitz.
“When my father entered Auschwitz in 1942, somebody told him to say he was a tailor,” Hirsh explains. “He was in his early 20s and had never tailored anything although his own father was a tailor. Later, the Nazi commandant in the camp’s tailor shop advised him that if ever there was a request for volunteers for a work detail outside the camp, he should volunteer, saying it was the only chance for survival as inmates didn’t leave Auschwitz alive. So, my father volunteered and was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto after the uprising to take the rubble apart, brick by brick, to be shipped back to Germany.”
After that, he went from camp to camp until he was in one of the notorious death marches at the end of the war.
“My father’s description of that experience was similar to what I later saw in Empire of the Sun, the movie [Steven] Spielberg did about the Japanese at the end of the war.”
Unlike Hirsh’s father, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, his mother didn’t talk about her war-time experiences which included being hidden by nuns near Brussels. Hirsh’s Polish-born parents met after the war at a dance in Brussels, where Michael was born in 1948 before moving to Canada when he was 3. For him and his two younger sisters, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust had a lasting impact.
“First, it makes almost anything you hear, any atrocity, seem ordinary,” says Hirsh. “I grew up hearing these terrible stories almost every day, so when you see it on TV or read about it in a book or you meet people who’ve suffered it, you understand what they went through. It doesn’t surprise me. It’s very hard to shock me.”
The other influence is at work.
“In business, it’s given me the ability to not get swayed by a downturn, not to be negatively impacted by something going wrong because everything pales in comparison to my father’s experience,” says Hirsh. “So, in my mind, nothing I’m looking at seems so terrible. As a result, I can deal with it. I have a very good coping mechanism.”
This served Hirsh well early in his career when his first company almost collapsed.
In 1971, after attending York University in Toronto, dabbling in experimental movies, co-directing a semi-satirical film called Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec God? (Do You Want to Sleep with God), and co-writing a book on long-lost Canadian comics from the World War 2 era, he and two partners founded Nelvana, named after a Canadian comic book character. They launched it on a shoestring, hoping to build a film studio.
In 1977, Nelvana created a half-hour animated TV show, Cosmic Christmas, its first entirely animated production. It was broadcast in North America and later shown in 85 countries, leading the company into international animated film production. It also caught the eye of producer/director George Lucas.
In 1978, Lucas gave Nelvana a major boost when he asked them to create a 10-minute cartoon as part of his Star Wars franchise, which led to other Nelvana projects (Ewoks and Droids) for Lucas.
Staying focused on kids, Nelvana evolved with the times, adopting computer animation, eventually computerizing their 2D traditional animation before adding 3D. They started their own distribution company to retain rights to their properties and secured the rights to other sought-after properties.
In 2000, Corus Entertainment purchased Nelvana for $540 million (CDN) and kept Hirsh as CEO until 2002. A year later, he led a consortium which purchased Cinar Corporation, rebranding it Cookie Jar Entertainment. As CEO, Hirsh developed it into one of the world’s largest privately-held children’s entertainment companies. In 2012, DHX Media acquired Cookie Jar for $111 million (CDN), appointing Hirsh Executive Chairman and a board member. He stayed until late 2015.
Last fall, he launched Wow! Unlimited Media, formed through a merger of Rainmaker Entertainment, an animation studio in Vancouver; Frederator Networks, a New York-based digital animation network; and Ezrin Hirsh Entertainment.
Wow! produces primarily cartoons along with some live-action for kids, millennials and youth. Most of the material is featured on premium YouTube channels. Wow! is focused not just on making content but also delivering it, building other platforms for smart phones. The animated content is created mostly in its Vancouver studio, the rest in Los Angeles.
Some of Wow!’s productions are shown on TV but most is online attracting 600 million monthly views. Ultimately, it will generate a substantial revenue stream from online advertising, subscriptions (to a channel they’re creating) and video-on-demand. Competition is stiff, primarily from four US-based mega companies with global reach — Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Dreamworks.
A key player behind Wow! is Bob Ezrin, Hirsh’s longtime Toronto friend and legendary record producer, who is Vice-Chairman and developing several shows. Currently, Wow! is creating eight productions, each a series of 13 to 26 half-hour episodes.
In early June, Wow! and Canadian media conglomerate Bell Media announced a partnership for Wow! to acquire a specialty channel from Bell that’ll be rebranded as Wow!, ad-supported and focus on children and youth programming.
“The word ‘unlimited’ in Wow!’s full name refers to the almost endless amount of shelf space for our productions,” says Hirsh. “When you think of traditional TV in the US, particularly animation, there were a few hours on Saturday morning on three channels; so, around 12 hours a week of inventory you could fill. That was a very limited business. Then, Nickelodeon, YTV and the specialty channels came along. They had 24 hours, 7 days a week, or 168 hours a week. Since they didn’t buy new kids programs for the post-10 pm slot, they actually had about 80 hours. Now online, for example, Netflix runs tens of thousands of hours of programming for a sector. It’s unlimited. Likewise, YouTube is unlimited. From a producer’s point of view, it’s no longer how do I get on the air. It’s how do I attract an audience. You always had that but now a lot of the other problems have gone away.”
Hirsh still loves what he does. For all the changes the industry has undergone during his career, great plot lines and characters remain at the heart of his success.
“This is still a fun industry,” says Hirsh, who’s won numerous Gemini and Emmy Awards and in 2016 received the Animation Hall of Fame Award. “I’m fortunate to be working in a field I love and in which I enjoy all the different aspects of the business. I still believe in the power of animation to entertain and educate. I love the fact that I’ve been able to take books I read as a child and turn them into TV shows, like Babar.”
As a boy, Hirsh often went with his sister to a children’s library in downtown Toronto to listen to librarians read books and do puppet shows on Saturdays. He remembers fondly that after the reading of each story, staff would help him and his sister pick a book to take home.
Today, more than 60 years later, he’s in awe that his parents let him and his sister walk from their home to the library despite having to negotiate busy streets on their own.
“When I think about it now, I’m amazed that as a 6-year-old, I was allowed to go with my 4-year-old sister from our house to the library almost every Saturday morning and nothing happened. I still remember crossing a major intersection with traffic lights and each time it felt like a big event.”
In 1961, when Hirsh was 13, he moved with his family to New York. While in high school, he became interested in film, often went to underground movies, and got an 8mm camera to make shorts.
At age 18, he moved back to Toronto to go to university where he studied philosophy for three years but never graduated.
Hirsh is yet another example of Jewish success in the entertainment industry, which he believes is linked to the role of storytelling in Jewish tradition.
“One of the main reasons Jews have done so well in the entertainment field is due to their relationship with storytelling,” says Hirsh. “It includes a feeling for emotional storytelling, what we would say has schmaltz, it makes you cry, it makes you laugh. That kind of storytelling is part of Jewish tradition. We understand it and are naturally drawn to it. Let’s not forget the whole nature of how Judaism works with storytelling. If you went through Hebrew school, which I did, you learned the Bible stories and how to tell them to others. Think about the nature of the Passover seder and other holidays and events where we tell stories.”
In 2015, Hirsh went to Auschwitz for the 70th anniversary of its liberation, in large part due to the encouragement of his friend Eli Rubinstein, National Director of the March of the Living (Canada) program and spiritual leader at his synagogue, Congregation Habonim (which Hirsh readily admits he almost never attends).
“My father had always been negative about either himself going back to Auschwitz or going back with us or even one of his kids going because of him,” says Hirsh. “I know going there had a powerful effect on me because I felt sick for a few weeks after my visit there.
Since going to Israel for the first time 17 years ago, for a wedding, he hasn’t felt a need or desire to return there.
“I think it’s important Israel exists,” he says, “but that’s the level of importance it has for me.”
Israel’s existence figured prominently in a lively public debate Hirsh helped sponsor in late May at Habonim synagogue. Moderated by Rubinstein, well-known US Jewish writers J.J. Goldberg and Jonathan Tobin — one from the political left, the other on the right — tackled what each felt was the best way forward for Israel.
In the past, Hirsh has also hosted events in support of the Technion Institute and the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind.
Despite his lengthy absence from Israel, almost all of his productions have been shown there.
“The Israeli market has always been good for us as they’ve bought almost everything we’ve ever made,” says Hirsh. “It’s the only country in the Middle East that considers everything we do. The Muslim countries won’t buy any show that has a pig in it. So, if there’s even one character in a group of characters that’s a pig, that show won’t be bought in the Middle East except for Israel.”