Olivia Charmaine Bernardez’s Black Monarch Entertainment Is Embracing Art and Activism With Netflix Deal

Olivia Charmaine Bernardez doesn’t have your typical media career. A little over 10 years after she graduated from the Tisch School of Arts at NYU, Bernardez has worked everywhere from the top companies in media to the non-profit sector while also founding her own full-service production company and scoring a deal with Netflix. Despite her impressive growth, she has managed to climb the corporate ladder without forgetting to extend it back down to other creators and professionals of color in Hollywood.

“I see art as a form of activism,” Bernardez told TheWrap in an interview for our Office With a View series.

Following internships at Nickelodeon and DreamWorks, one of Bernardez’s first jobs was as the vice president and creative director for Sweet Blackberry, a nonprofit founded by Karyn Parsons dedicated to illustrating the stories of Black historical figures for children. That was followed by close to four years in original scripted series development for WarnerMedia, a period as the senior director for Kerry Washington’s production company Simpson Street and a stint as vice president of Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel’s production company Straight to Cards.

But with Black Monarch Entertainment’s production deal with Netflix, which positions Bernardez as an independent producer in feature animation development for the streamer, she has returned to where her career began: animation.

“Everything has changed, and that’s what’s drawing me back,” Bernardez said, explaining that she originally wanted to take a “step back” from the space to learn about the rest of the industry. In her current role, she focuses on developing children’s and family projects that are in the very early stages of development. Sometimes she only has a logline “that’s been kicked around for years” as a starting point.

“I make this joke at work all the time: The kids who are going to see the movies I’m working on might not have been born yet,” Bernardez said. “I’m grateful to have this perspective from outside of animation and be able to sort of bring some fresh eyes into what we’re doing.”

Over the course of her career, Bernardez has gone from a college kid who was never once assigned a film by a Black director to creating diverse and inclusive content for a whole new generation while empowering current artists through her production company.

As someone who’s in the animation space, how are you thinking about the industry right now? It feels like it’s in a precarious place between Warner Bros. Discovery shuttering projects and the Netflix layoffs that happened last year.

DreamWorks, Pixar, Nickelodeon — it’s definitely industry wide. I’ll also say there could be an IATSE strike, which would affect animation more than most other fields. So it’s definitely a tumultuous time. Outside of the mechanics and logistics of what’s going on, I’m looking at the system. What are the strategies in place that are causing this to be the case?

We talk a lot about how pendulums can swing the other direction or that creative is like a rubber band. That’s sort of what we’re seeing. When we look back to 2016 to 2018, we were really in an artistic Renaissance across the board, not just in animation. With the politics of the time, COVID and the [WGA and SAG-AFTRA] strikes, we’re sort of in a shrinking period. There’s a lot of playing scared. There’s a lot of taking the safe bet. How that really translates to animation, especially kids animation, is a lot of projects feel very generic or they feel overly simplified or like they’re for younger audiences, even if they say they’re for older audiences.

Your early jobs — Too Tall Productions and Sweet Blackberry — dealt heavily with animation. What keeps drawing you back to this space?

Those are two smaller, independently-run animation houses that most people haven’t heard of. I left DreamWorks to go to the smaller companies. We talk about purpose-driven work, mission-driven work, especially as someone who sits in a lot of marginalized communities. I’m a woman. I’m Black. I’m queer. I’m all these things. And so that’s what draws me back. When I had those other jobs almost 10 years ago, the conversations about DEI had not been as evolved. The technology conversation was also completely different.

To see 10 years later that we’re now having to talk about kids attention spans in terms of swipes? All of this technology has shifted absolutely everything. At the time, the idea of a pause [for the audience to respond in the show “Dora the Explorer”] was innovative. Now, interactivity is different. Everything has changed, and that’s what’s drawing me back.

We talk about animated movies as being something that your grandparent could have watched, your parent could have watched, you can watch and your kids can watch, and you return to it. How do you create that concept now at a time when there’s so much to watch and so many places to watch? And kids also love things on YouTube. So that is what I’m in the pursuit of. How can you still carve out lanes for something timeless, universal and emotional?

Wha really struck me about your career and Black Monarch Entertainment is that you’ve always extended the ladder. You’ve worked hard to make space for minority creators in this very white, male-driven industry. Can you talk about that about why that’s been so important to you from the beginning?

It’s honestly everything to me … So often we talk about inclusion programs, but how does that really tie into that larger system? Certain folks, if they’re on the executive track, they’ll get to a certain level, and it’s hard to jump from coordinator even to a manager and then they get stuck, right? We know all of these issues. As someone who didn’t have any ties to entertainment, didn’t have family here, didn’t have money, didn’t grow up in LA, there’s so much I had to learn in a vacuum.

I think the crabs in a barrel mentality is so super outdated. I also don’t want it to feel like it’s a transactional thing. There’s people who I will spend an hour pouring into them to help them in their career, and we never speak again. But if there’s one thing that I could leave them with that can help provide focus or context or refine their vision, that, to me, is why I do what I do. I want there to be more of people like me doing this work.

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?

The first thing that popped in my mind was my first ever mentor. His name is John Pepper, I’m always gonna say his name. I’m obsessed with him. He was the CEO for Procter & Gamble for some years but is also the sweetest person. When I was a junior in high school, he came to speak to my leadership class, and I was like, “I want his email.” We’ve been friends ever since.

One conversation he had with me really changed everything. When I walked into the room, I knew his resume. I knew what he had done, his projects and accomplishments. But the whole talk focused on family, faith and self-care. It absolutely had nothing to do with business. I go back to those things as my North Star more than anything because those are the things that will sustain you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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