LOS ANGELES — When Netflix’s animated show “The Dragon Prince” lands online Friday, Sept. 14, it’ll mark the beginning of what Utah native Justin Santistevan and his colleagues plan to be a fresh offering of smart and engaging storytelling that audiences young and old can enjoy together.
“It’s a co-watching experience,” Santistevan said. “We think it’s meaningful storytelling that can help kids and that is entertaining for adults.”
In our current “golden age” of television, high-level storytelling — shows with diverse characters, challenging themes and complex plots — are typically reserved for older audiences. And shows like “Stranger Things,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones,” while presenting riveting characters and ideas, also cross into realms of the uncomfortable — often filled with over-the-top gore, explicit sex scenes and inappropriate language.
That won’t be the case at Santistevan’s entertainment startup Wonderstorm, which he co-founded in Los Angeles with Aaron Ehasz, one of the head writers from Nickelodeon’s critically acclaimed “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and Justin Richmond, best known for his work on the “Uncharted” video game franchise. They see a gap in the entertainment industry, particularly when it comes to franchises that appeal to older kids.
“There’s reality shows, cooking shows, ninja warrior and other appropriate content,” he said. “But (when it comes to) great epic storytelling, if you look at fantasy, there’s some younger stuff and then they’re probably not ready for ‘Lord of the Rings’ and certainly not ready for ‘Game of Thrones.’”
Santistevan’s road to Wonderstorm has its roots in his childhood. Raised in Sandy, he fostered an appreciation for immersive storytelling through his love for video games. He planned to spend most of his career working in private equity and finance until, after starting his studies at Stanford Graduate School of Business, he considered entering the entertainment industry. It was there where he met Ehasz, his future business partner.
“We met on a playground with our kids a week before school started,” Santistevan said. “We didn’t know yet that we were going to become partners or even that we would work together. But we talked about what we wanted to do and the things we were interested in.”
The two went on to work at Riot Games — the studio that produced gaming hit “League of Legends” — where they met Richmond, who shared their interest of bringing high-quality storytelling to younger audiences. The three left Riot Games in 2015 to make their vision a reality.
Three years later, “The Dragon Prince” will be Wonderstorm’s maiden voyage.
The show, created by Ehasz and Richmond (Santistevan serves as an executive producer), is a fantasy-adventure story in the vein of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Beautifully detailed background art and establishment shots create the magical world of Xadia, filled with thick forests, high mountains and spectacular vistas. Humans inhabit Xadia, as do elves and — of course — dragons. But the humans’ discovery and use of dark magic put them at odds with the elves and dragons, setting them on a warpath. The story follows two human princes — Callum (Jack De Sena) and Ezran (Sasha Rojen) — as well as elven assassin Rayla (Paula Burrows), who discover a secret concerning the dragons that could put an end to the war.
Santistevan said the nine-episode series explores complex themes and comes packed with a roster of diverse and multi-layered characters. And they don’t intend to stop at television either. There’s a video game in the works set in the same world, slated for release in 2019. Wonderstorm hopes the world of “The Dragon Prince” will be just as immersive and deep as shows like “Game of Thrones” — but without the sex, language and violence.
“The early goal was: Could this be the audience’s first great epic fantasy?” Santistevan said. “Can we be ‘Game of Thrones’ before they’re watching ‘Game of Thrones?' Could we create a world that was more diverse and deeper than what they were getting on some of the kids' networks?”
And although the show has been made with young viewers in mind, Santistevan believes it will appeal to audiences of all ages. “The Dragon Prince” won’t hold back on difficult questions relevant to today’s world, but it will also encourage optimism and hope.
“This is a smart show with high stakes — a lot of drama, a lot of action, a lot of intrigue,” he said. “There’s a depth of storytelling and world-building that rewards you as you notice details and you learn about the characters and the backstory. Hopefully, that comes through.”
The advent of streaming has made it easier for stories like “The Dragon Prince” to exist, according to Santistevan. Television networks typically appeal to thinly sliced demographics rather than broader audiences. But Netflix’s model allows for flexibility. Santistevan believes that freedom is leading to high-quality content for all ages, and he plans for Wonderstorm to play a role in that movement.
“I think there is a group of people that are hoping to make meaningful content for this age group,” he said. “We’re hoping Wonderstorm plays there and our brand comes to represent meaningful content where kids and teens love it and the parents can trust that it’s great.”