Bruce Johnson started as a high school teacher in Chicago, then became an associate professor at Northwestern University. Now he's the chief executive of one of the largest privately held TV and film production and distribution companies in L.A. For longer than two decades, Johnson has amassed more than 500 producing credits including feature films, television movies, series and specials, plus educational films and documentaries. Johnson co-founded PorchLight Entertainment with William Baumann in 1995 to specialize in family productions. He has been producing television series such as "Secret Saturdays" for the Cartoon Network; "Tutenstein" for DiscoveryKids; and an award-winning CGI series called "Animalia" for PBS, Canadian television and Network Ten in Australia. In addition to its animation production, PorchLight produces four to five live-action movies a year and the company has a library of more than 1,000 episodes of children's programming and nearly 200 movies. Prior to forming PorchLight, Johnson was executive vice president and general manager of Hanna-Barbera Entertainment Co. In that role, he was a consultant on the creation of the Cartoon Network. The Business Journal sat down with Johnson in his Santa Monica office and talked about what makes him tick, his best days and his worst moments, and how he got into the business of family entertainment.


Question: Did you ever see yourself as a producer of family entertainment?
Answer: I had the ability as a writer but I was really headed for an academic career. Teaching as a professor and writing during my summer breaks and spending the rest of my life living in some small college town is what I had planned at the time.

Q: What did you do then?

A: After I earned my master's degree in English and was certified to teach, I became a teacher at a high school in suburban Chicago where I invented a film as literature course for sophomores and seniors. And the more that I learned about film and television the more I got the bug. I won a fellowship at Northwestern University and went there to continue exploring the worlds of film, television and teaching and how that they all could be combined into one.

Q: How did you go from teaching to producing television series and films?

A: I just had a passion for film and storytelling and blending that with teaching. While I was working on my master's in English at Northwestern, I began taking classes in film. So, I ended up taking classes in English, education and film. That launched me into a period after college when I was producing documentaries and that got me started moving farther away from my career goal as a teacher and moving closer toward film and television and eventually animation at Hanna-Barbera.

Q: How did you get the job there?

A: I think that it was the day that I met Joe Barbera. It was in October of 1984 and I met him at his offices on Cahuenga. The building was built in the 1960s, I believe, and had a certain quality about it. But Joe's office was really more like a den. You went past his secretary and around a corner, passed another desk and then into a large room with couches, a coffee table and a big, tinted glass window that he could look out of while sitting in this particular chair that he liked. He was just a really classy guy. I was hired that very day because Joe had wanted to start doing live action.

Q: What did you do at Hanna-Barbera?

A: They called me in to develop a show that was called "Stone Fox," based on a children's book. But within just a few weeks, they told me that they wanted me to work on "The Yogi Bear Show" and from then on I was swept up into the whole world of animation. And I had taken only one course at Northwestern in animation. That had been my only training at the time.

Q: When did you move from being mostly in a creative position at Hanna-Barbera to an executive one?

A: Turner Broadcasting acquired Hanna-Barbera in the early 1990s and we were trying to launch the Cartoon Network together. We had more than 5,000 titles in our library out here and Turner was in Atlanta. So, it was my role as executive vice president and general manager of Hanna-Barbera to integrate the two and get the network launched.

Q. How large of a role does your 10 years at Hanna-Barbera play in your position as chief executive of PorchLight?

A: I developed a very large group of creative talent in the area of animation and what we do at PorchLight is help them achieve their goals.

Q: Do you use your teaching background as a producer?

A: Our animated series "Animalia" has a literacy and language curriculum underneath it. If I were to sit you down and have you watch "Animalia," you'd just think it was an entertaining animated story about someone making a speech about why you shouldn't build condos in protected swampland. But if I showed it to an English teacher they'd say, wow, you really got it and the kids are going to get it, too, but they will never know that they're learning while they're watching it.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I am a big fan of Hemingway, because his writing was so sparse and clean; not a lot of wondering around with adverbs. I've always liked adventure stories so I enjoy Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, among many others. Early on, when I first came to California I read all the Raymond Chandler books to get a feel of the L.A. noir. I just wanted to soak up L.A. I liked Jack Smith's columns; not all of them but most of them. I was a visitor to L.A. when I first got here. My wife, Patty, was born and raised in Pasadena.

Q: How did you meet your wife?

A: Well, we were both going to Northwestern and I saw her riding a bicycle on campus and I said to myself, no matter what happens to me here I'm going to meet that girl, because she was just so beautiful. So, a few days later I had been playing touch football with some guys and three of us, all sweaty and dirty, went to this restaurant and she was our waitress. To this day she claims that I had left her a very small, small tip. I went back and asked her for her number. She gave it to me and I called to ask her out for a date.

Q: What was the date like?

A: She met me there and we went to get a Tab, at the student union. And I hate Tab but I drank it because I was too nervous to order anything other than what she had. Then we went to see the movie "The Way We Were." It was a great first date. But during the movie I reached over to put my arm around her and accidentally hit her in the head, and I didn't say anything. No apology, nothing. To this day she loves to tell people about that story and just how nervous I was.

Q: What is your typical day like?

A: Today, I got into the office at about 7:30 and made a couple calls back East and spoke with a few network executives. Then, I had a few overseas calls to make to the U.K. to talk to a writer and then to a German producer who has some children's films that we acquired and who is exploring financing from India and Singapore. We're in the middle of redesigning our Web site so I did some writing for that project. Then I spoke with an animation writer and an animation director at Nickelodeon. Then I had lunch with a writer from the U.K., who I've known for some time and who works in the sci-fi and family drama genres. I came back from lunch and sat down with my sales staff to ascertain the quality of a potential acquisition.

Q: What was your worst day as a producer?

A: Well, I had been working on this documentary project for months. I mean, I had done the filming, the editing, just about everything and this guy from the company that employed me for the project just let loose on me, saying that this wasn't right and that that wasn't right and I couldn't believe that he was kicking me off the project after all the work I had done. But, you know, I never really get down. I think that I inherited that from my mother, who never really had a bad day in her life. You just move on.

Q: Did you have a happy childhood?

A: Where I grew up in Minneapolis and across the street from our house was a big park with three baseball diamonds and I attended an elementary school on the far side of the park. In the winter they would flood the baseball fields and make a giant ice-skating and hockey rink out of them. So, after school I'd put on my hockey gear and go play out on the ice. And because our house was right next to the hockey rink, I could literally see my front porch from the rink. I would play until the porch light came on and that was the signal for me to come home.

Q: Is that where the name of the company comes from?

A: I would put my skate guards on and go clickie-click across the street and up to the porch that was warmly lit and all glowing and take my skates off and walk into the house where my mother always had a warm fire waiting for me. And that's how I got the name PorchLight.

Bruce Johnson

Title: Co-founder/Chief Executive

Company: PorchLight Entertainment

Born: 1949; Minneapolis

Most Influential People: Patty, his wife; Joe Barbera

Career Turning Point: Getting hired at Hanna-Barbera

Hobbies: Mountain climbing, writing and reading

Personal: Lives in Westlake Village with wife and son

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