By Jesús Silva
While the number of animation titles has increased within the catalogues of independent distributors in recent years, finding the right target audience and appropriate tools when promoting these kinds of films remains one of the greatest challenges for publishers, considering we are dealing with cultural products which are still widely regarded as for children, but where decision-making relies most times on families and schools. In the framework of the 25th edition of Cartoon Movie (Bordeaux, 7-9 March 2023), Europa Distribution organised a new workshop which focused on the release of European animated features. Over twenty members of the association got together for a private session where they analysed various case studies of animation films released over the last year in their respective territories, aiming to discuss with their foreign colleagues the specific obstacles and opportunities for these releases, evaluating the outcome of different strategies to learn from their successes and missteps.
Lotte Serjersted, from Selmer Media, got the ball rolling by offering an overview of the Norwegian release of Even Mice Belong in Heaven, a stop-motion animation by Czech directors Denisa Grimmova & Jan Dubenicek. The key strategic objective of their release was to position the film as a “high-quality, unique animated title”, more in line with Studio Ghibli or the films by Wes Anderson. “We looked through all the available marketing materials, and we decided to change the whole layout of the campaign to reach our target audience”, explained Serjersted, who deems this one of the major factors for their success. Apart from adapting the title in the Norwegian translation, Selmer Media created an entirely new trailer and artwork which could speak to the audience in a more emotional way by focusing on the friendship element, while toning down the theme of death. Most P&A (Prints & Advertisement, the release budget) efforts were done on social media, targeting two main groups: a more traditional “popcorn family audience” spread all over the country, and parents in the bigger cities interested in high-end culture, theatre and art, with children 6-10. While acknowledging it was very heavy on the P&A to redo all the materials, Serjersted revealed that they had access to local selective support for these costs, which was crucial for producing the new trailer. In addition, some territories bought their trailer afterwards, which helped them to partially recoup the investment. “We feel like the key art and the trailer are the most important assets”, in her own words. The film was released theatrically in Norway on January 21, avoiding competition with other children’s films premiering around the same time and exceeding all their initial expectations, with a large percentage of the admissions obtained in Oslo.
Before delving into the specific release strategy for Little Nicolas by Amandin Fredon & Benjamin Massoubre, Alexis Hofmann, Head of Acquisitions at French outfit BAC Films, underlined the importance of this “patrimonial” character in France, which was created in the 50s by writer René Goscinny and cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé. The stories of Le petit Nicolas have been previously adapted into different live-action films, and even an animated TV series, but the feature by Fredon and Massoubre is the first animated film produced about the character, using the original designs by Sempé. The film was selected for Cannes and Annecy, where it won the Crystal for Best Feature Film in the international competition, before touring France through an extensive circuit of avant-premières in smaller towns. It was released on 12 October with more than 500 prints, making it one of the biggest releases for the French distributor, partially thanks to the support from AFCAE (Association Française des Cinémas d’Art et d’Essai), which ensured the film was booked in a significant number of arthouse cinemas around the country. BAC Films made a big investment in terms of P&A, establishing strong partnerships with major media outlets (Allociné, Bleu, Le Figaro, Télérama), as well as with big brands (such as Nicolas, a boutique brand which inspired the name of the character, or AirFrance, which supported the film during its production). “We did a lot of advertising using the artwork and materials created in collaboration with the director, who is a designer”, explained Hofmann, who also admitted that, although the brand is hugely popular in the country, the film suffered from the fact that there were already many previous cultural products based on the character, so despite the important promotional efforts, the numbers are still below the original expectations.
Offering an interesting contrast with Hoffman’s presentation, coming from a territory where the character is not as inbred in national culture, Beata Mrazikova from Aerofilms shared their release strategy for the same film in the Czech Republic. Using the same artwork and trailer as BAC Films, the Czech distributor decided to change the original title in the translation to emphasise the storyline of the friendship between René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé, which mirrors the friendship between Nicholas and his friends (Mikulášovy patálie: Jak to celé začalo, which translates to Little Nicholas: How it all began, instead of Little Nicholas: Happy as can be). Regarding the timing, the premiere took place during the French Film Festival in Prague, where the film was screened in its original version with subtitles and introduced by one of the co-directors, Amandin Fredon, who also took part in the promotion: “She was on the national radio, TV and the big dailies, which really helped to spread the word about the film among the expat community and French lovers”, praised Mrazikova. On 6 December, St. Nicholas Day, Aerofilms organised a big celebration in one of the cinemas they operate in Prague, with screenings and activities around the film that gathered a considerable audience. While trying to build on the nostalgia element of the film, one of the main concerns of the Czech film publisher was that kids would no longer know the character, so the campaign had to target their parents. However, during their research, it came out that the character is still very relevant and widely known by younger audiences in the country. “Everybody in Czechia knows Le petit Nicolas because it is among the mandatory books in primary school”, according to Mrazikova. Beyond media partnerships, other significant collaborations included screenings organised within the network of public libraries, the involvement of famous voice actors in the dubbing and the work with influencers targeting specific audience groups. Together with Aeroškola, their “sister company” working on film education, the Czech distributor also produced pedagogical materials for teachers.
Next up was Milica Joksimovic, from Serbia’s MCF Megacom, who opened up about their release of The Black Pharaoh, the Savage and the Princess by French director Michel Ocelot. After premiering at the KIDS FEST, the only specialised film festival for children in Serbia and a popular destination for organised school visits, the film was released in 10 cinemas across the country at the end of January 2023, avoiding competition with big Christmas titles and blockbusters. A partnership deal with a local dubbing studio, which works on most of the films screened at the cited festival, helped reduce the initial P&A costs. Regarding the PR and social media strategy, the Serbian publisher focused on two key elements: on one hand, the reputation of the director in the country, where one of his previous films, Kirikou et la sorcière, became a massive hit back in 2000, becoming the first officially dubbed film released in local cinemas. On the other hand, the publisher focused on the three different styles of animation showcased in the film. As for the target audience, Joksimovic revealed that their campaign was aimed mainly at “the parents who were kids back then and enjoyed the previous film”. Apart from their long-term media partnerships, maintained on a monthly basis to ensure regular exposure for their films, the Serbian distributor worked more actively on social media for this release, particularly TikTok and Instagram. “We had two paid campaigns that achieved excellent numbers, but we also enjoyed a good organic reach”. Concerning the next steps, the film will be soon released on MOJOFF.NET, a streaming platform run by MCF Megacom, available in Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and North Macedonia.
Rose-Marie Strand, from Swedish outfit Folklets Bio, started off by offering some context on the situation of their local market. Despite being the biggest and most populated country in Scandinavia, Strand claims that Sweden still falls behind in terms of admissions compared to other territories in the region, especially when it comes to animation titles: “And COVID-19 really made things worse. […] We are at 70% of the admissions that we had in 2019”. Strand went on to analyse their release of Titina by Kajsa Næss, a Norwegian production based on a true story about explorers Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile, who embarked on an airship expedition to the North Pole in 1926, accompanied by the titular dog. Folklets Bio bought the rights directly from the Norwegian producer and released the film just one week after their neighbours, which meant a very tight schedule in terms of exploiting the promotional materials: “The trailer was finished just two or three weeks before the release”, said Strand. Considering the characters and the story are not that well-known in the country, the main goal of the campaign was to raise awareness among the Swedish audience. The film was released in the biggest multiplex chain in Sweden, Filmstaden, and one of the main marketing tools consisted of setting up banners on their landing page, which turned out to have a low conversion rate into tickets sold. Among other promotional activities, the Swedish publisher organised a competition for children to win a trip on an air balloon, produced a huge number of booklets and merchandise, and hosted a gala screening with live music. Finally, Strand also called attention to a few particularities about the Swedish market which are important to consider when evaluating the release of children’s films: it is forbidden to count the school screenings within the admissions, resulting in lower official figures. Additionally, the media hardly ever reviews these titles, limiting the scope of their promotion.
Wrapping up the session, Belgian distributor Adeline Margueron (Le Parc Distribution) presented their experience with Yuku and the Himalayan Flower by Arnaud Demuynck & Rémi Durin. The film was released in French-speaking Belgium on 19 October, facing strong competition from other animation titles (including Little Nicholas and The Black Pharaoh, the Savage and the Princess). Convinced of the film’s potential, Le Parc allocated a considerable budget for the release, coming both from public funds and their own private capital. Margueron highlighted the creation of a comprehensive and dedicated website, including complete information on the film, multiple materials, access to the original soundtrack, an updated screening schedule and direct links to purchase tickets. “It represented a big fraction of the P&A cost because we developed everything”. Although the digital campaign organised to encourage purchases led to numerous visits to the website, it showed a modest conversion rate. In terms of materials, like in previous examples, the distributor had the opportunity to work closely with the filmmaker when producing the visuals. Through their Cinépilou project, the Belgian publisher also created leaflets with activities and even YouTube tutorials for parents and cinemas to help children engage with the film. Due to the limitation imposed by the French release date, Le Parc couldn’t organise avant-premières, “which are really important for the word of mouth”, laments Margueron. However, they did host many after-the-release events, with different musical activities and concerts. Another crucial element of the campaign was the exposure reached by the trailer, which was shown in multiplexes during the summer season thanks to the public subsidy.
During the rest of their stay in Bordeaux, the members of the association attended the different pitching sessions and activities organised by Cartoon Movie, determined to continue expanding and improving their work with animation films. As in previous gatherings led by Europa Distribution, the thorough dissection of case studies proved truly insightful for its members, creating a safe space for discussion among distributors. By analysing a broad range of strategies and marketing approaches for the release of animation films in Europe, the session stimulated debate, raised important topics and nurtured a more profound understanding of the multiple obstacles faced by independent distributors when dealing with these particular types of films, while bringing new ideas to the table. Likewise, some effective strategies and potential solutions emerged during the discussion, such as the need for dedicated local support for dubbing, producing and adapting the artwork for local audiences. The activities of the network will continue in upcoming gatherings such as Sofia Meetings and Karlovy Vary.