Discussing animation in Annecy

by Isabella Weber

 

In the lively framework of the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Europa Distribution gathered some of its members to discuss about animation on two separate occasions. In the morning of June the 17th, an internal workshop conceived for a small group of distributors of the network took place. Later, on the same day, the distributors joined other key figures of the animation industry to discuss the state of play of European small budget animation during an open panel organized by Europa Distribution in partnership with the MIFA.

 

During the workshop, the members of Europa Distribution shared their experiences and exchanged views on the specificity of animation films in terms of distribution. The most common issues raised were the impact of dubbing costs on P&A budget and the importance of working with schools and theaters that have a specificity in targeting children. Annemie Degryse, from the Belgian arthouse company Lumière and Nille Elvin Stormoen from the Norwegian company Arthaus compared their experiences in the release of two of the last Studio Ghibli titles in their respective countries. For both distributors dubbing costs were out of reach. “We could not afford a good dubbing but luckily for The Wind Rises we could benefit from the French dubbing of the film made by Disney. This was an exceptional case and it really made a difference in the French-speaking part of Belgium” (Annemie). Arthaus, which could not benefit from any dubbing, was faced with the challenge to find an audience for animated films for adults, very rare in Norway. “Ghibli fans were our main target audience and The Wind Rises was targeted also to regular arthouse audience. In Norway the II World War is a topic of great interest so we tried to highlight this aspect of the plot. One type of audience we had underestimate in the case of Princess Kaguya were seniors who apparently really enjoyed the film. Possibly it has to do with the nostalgia of hand drawing and classic tales. The film also worked well with arthouse-parents with children from 7 years and older” explained Nille.

 

Grégoire Marchal, from the French distribution company KMBO, illustrated to his colleagues the successful strategy adopted by his company to create and distribute Short Animated programs. “Most of the shorts we select are silent which for an audience from 3 to 6 years old is really no problem and that solves the problem of dubbing. Over 80% of our admissions come from school matinées so most of our budget is dedicated to the creation of thoughtful pedagogical kits for the use of the teachers.” The numbers of KMBO short program prints, can vary as much as from 44 to 350 prints, according to the schools and cinemas demand. “We make our numbers in the course of several months and sometimes years.”

 

Taking a step back from the distributors point of view to look at the big picture, Europa Distribution co-hosted with the MIFA an open panel on low budget animation films in Europe. Thanks to the various backgrounds of the speakers, the panel could present an interesting perspective on the current situation and build a clear “narrative” of what happens in European animation from production to exhibition. Christophe Erbes who works since 2006 as international children media consultant and is a habitual host of the Festival of Annecy, moderated the panel.

 

The first case study taken into account was the production of the 3D animated feature Yellowbird, whose budget of 10 million euros puts the film on the extreme end of what can be considered low budget animation. To explain the factors who had contributed to the film’s success Guillaume Hellouin (TeamTo) went back to the very beginning of the production process. In 2006 the script was ready and the animation department started producing the first drafts of the main characters, getting the inspiration from specific types of birds. The cartoon style of the first pilot presented in 2009 progressively evolved into a more complex animation. This was possible also thanks to a large number of French and Belgian co-producers involved in the project from an early stage. “An essential step in our production process was the recording of the voices in 2012. We did it in Los Angeles and picked recognized voice talents for the English dubbing. This expense represented not such a big percentage on our budget and thanks to this we had the film pre-sold to over 20 countries.” stated Guillaume, stressing the importance of having an English dubbed version for animated films that have a potential for international audience. Yellowbird today has been sold all over the world (including Russia where it stayed in the Box Office Top 10 for 3 weeks and South Korea) and it undoubtedly represents a case of “small budget, big success” story in European animation.

Solveig Lengeland, founder of the International sales company Sola Media, is based in Germany but her company sells animated films around the world with a catalogue of over 700 titles. “From my experience I know that over 50% of European animation films have a budget of less than 5 million euros, you can’t treat them as they were Disney. In the last years the attention of the MEDIA program to animation has drastically decreased and this does not make things easier. The competition is huge and for this reason I think that the most important aspect to take into account when distributing a “small” animation film is a careful scheduling.” According to Solveig, the great potential of animation lays in its ability to travel across countries and cultures. “Animated films don’t have that certain “look” that immediately ties them to their country of origins and distributors really have the chance to make their release very local through dubbing and specific territorial marketing”. Looking at the production chain, Solveig remarks that, compare to producers and sales agents, it is really the distributors who take the bigger risks when buying a film so it is important to facilitate their work including some costs, such as English version in the production budget, and to make available marketing tools such as trailers, teasers and posters early in the pipe-line.

 

Adeline Margueron joined the conversation bringing to the table her point of view of Belgian distributor with an expertise on animation. Her company, Le Parc Distribution, is quite young and is part of the cultural center Les Grignoux who manages 8 screens in the francophone part of Belgium. Before opening their distribution company, Les Grignoux had already set up a film educational project called “Écran large sur tableau noir” (Wide screen on blackboard) bringing the schools to their cinemas through a quality program of school matinées.  As distribution company, Le Parc has specialized in animation films for toddlers. “We distribute 7 to 8 films per year and we are the only ones in Belgium working with short animation programs. The cinemas’ network allows us to reach the schools and guarantees a strong base. It is quite rare we have films which are not taken in the schools’ program. This gives to the films the second run that they would otherwise not have in Belgium. Being part of school program can really give a second life to our catalogue: a 3 years old audience gets renewed every… 3 years”. Partnerships with festivals, organization of special events and involvement of associations related with the films’ themes and of course careful scheduling are all part of Le Parc usual strategies to make their releases “local”, but none of them can guarantee the success of a release. “Sometimes a bad result comes from elements you could not foresee. Last year we had My Mummy is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill. The film had good press, we had the author of the book for some events, good partnerships and so on but the release was a painful flop. Apparently the word-of-mouth scared parents because during the film it is revealed that (spoiler alert!) Santa Claus does not exist”.

 

To complete the picture of the European animation landscape, Marco Gentil, French exhibitor from Cinéma Le Méliès in Grenoble offered his perspective on the theme. “As exhibitors to us the most important thing is to create a relationship with the audience and that relationship is based on trust. This means that sometimes people come to Le Méliès and bring their children without knowing much about the film programmed: they rely on our choice. This is of course a big responsibility towards the audience but we also feel a responsibility towards the films we select. It is important to remember that small budget animated films can’t be treated the same way as big productions. These films need time to find their audience. For this reason, when we believe in a film we easily engage with the distributors to have it for 4, 6 or 7 weeks. If the films work they can be in our cinema even for months.”

 

The discussion touched all the key aspects of the animation market and the importance of keeping a strong collaboration amongst all the protagonists of the pipe line was highlighted by the four speakers. Distribution especially came off as the needed link for films to reach their audience. The success of the early partnership with Haut et Court for TeamTo, the suggestion to support marketing and dubbing costs proposed by Sola Media and the commitment to their films’ distributors guaranteed by the cinema Le Méliès: all these examples point out the vital role of distributors and the importance of building and maintaining an active relation with them in the delicate business of releasing animation films in Europe.

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