Europa Distribution’s Case Studies at Cartoon Movie 2024

By Jesús Silva

Releasing independent animated films remains one of the most enduring challenges for publishers across Europe, primarily due to the complexities of identifying and engaging the appropriate target audience while dealing with unbalanced competition from major American productions. Collaboration between distributors is essential to address these obstacles and develop effective marketing strategies for these releases. Renewing its long and fruitful partnerships with Cartoon Movie, Europa Distribution organised a new workshop during the 26th edition of Europe’s most prominent market and pitching event for animation, held in Bordeaux from 5 to 7 March. More than thirty distributors convened for a closed-door session in the framework of the French gathering, where several members from the international network of film publishers presented a series of case studies focusing on their recent animated film releases. They aimed to share experiences, insights, best practices, and mistakes learned in the process, inspiring and alerting colleagues from other territories.

Daniel Melamed, CEO of New Cinema (Israel), broke the ice with a presentation on their release of the Oscar-nominated Robot Dreams, an animated drama directed by Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger. A moving tale about friendship, the film premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival to considerable buzz. Robot Dreams marked only the company’s second venture into animation, following Even Mice Belong in Heaven the previous year. “Traditionally, Israel is not a market for arthouse animation, neither among children nor adults,” remarked Melamed. To better understand the film’s potential and target audience, the Israeli distributor arranged various preview screenings aimed at press members and children, seeking valuable feedback to work on the proper positioning for the film. Since September 2023, it enjoyed a successful run of avant-premieres at several local festivals, such as the Haifa International Film Festival and the Arava International Film Festival, as well as private screenings at cinematheques across the country. Following a three-month hiatus due to the ongoing war in the region, the film premiered on 2 March 2024 amidst solid competition, including Dune: Part Two. Still, it managed to attract significant press attention. “We secured coverage from 14 different media outlets in Israel, the most extensive coverage we’ve had for an arthouse film in the past ten years,” Melamed affirmed. Despite modest initial results during the opening weekend, the Israeli distributor remained optimistic: “What worked in our favour was time”, he noted, anticipating growth in the following weeks thanks to positive word-of-mouth and reviews.

Before delving into the specific release strategy for The Amazing Maurice by Toby Genkel, Ioanna Panagiotidou, Managing Director at Rosebud. 21 (Greece) provided an overview of her company’s history with animations. Until four years ago, the Greek distributor had limited experience with family films, apart from the Asterix and Obelix franchise and releasing two out of three live-action films based on Le petit Nicolas. “We did some tests with arthouse animations, like Dilili in Paris, but these were not as successful”, Panagiotidou noted. Faced with fierce competition in the independent and arthouse segments, the company explored alternative commercial paths other distributors in the country were not following. Noticing that European animation was becoming a big market with many exciting options, they invested and built an audience for these titles through targeted publicity, emphasising their values and positioning them as preferable options for children compared to major American films. Nowadays, the company boasts a line-up of over 40 animation titles, which have become a significant part of their business, so much so that they are on the verge of launching a private label, Rose Buddies, dedicated to managing these films.

Regarding their work on The Amazing Maurice, Panagiotidou highlighted both its strengths and challenges. Despite being a well-established brand in the UK, based on a Terry Pratchett character and featuring an accredited production team (responsible for titles like Shrek and Ratatouille), the film faced certain obstacles in Greece. The original book was never released in the country, and parents were mostly unfamiliar with Terry Pratchett or Maurice. “Another big problem for us was that it was not suitable for children under six years old”, remarked Panagiotidou. However, regardless of these barriers, Rosebud.21 believed in the film’s production value and decided to invest in high-quality dubbing, chase publicity and find the appropriate release date and circuit of theatres. Even though summer was challenging in 2023 because of the stiff competition (Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible, Barbie, Oppenheimer), they decided to release the film on August 3. The promotion in theatres started a month before with posters, trailers and customised banners. Additionally, they launched radio campaigns on Greece’s sole kids’ radio station and television campaigns on Nickelodeon. “As for digital promotion, we invested in our own social media, where we have built a loyal community”, said Panagiotidou. She also commented on organising a special avant-premiere for kids and working closely with ‘mom influencers’, contributing to the film’s success.

Next up, four different distributors compared their release strategies for one of the most notable animated films of the year, The Boy and the Heron, by the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. Sabine Hofmann, CEO of Austrian outfit Polyfilm, got the ball rolling by outlining their approach to the film’s release. The company boasts a longstanding tradition with Studio Ghibli titles, regularly organising screenings of Miyazaki classics in their arthouse theatres in Vienna. Polyfilm sublicensed only the theatrical rights for The Boy and the Heron from a German distributor, a common practice in Austria, securing both dubbed and subtitled versions and eventually obtaining English subtitles. “We didn’t have a huge P&A, but we tried to make the best out of it because it’s not a MEDIA-fundable film”, Hofmann noted, describing the various partnerships they established, including collaborations with local events like Comic Con, sushi restaurants, and the regional cinema chain Star Movie, which contributed to the promotional efforts. The film premiered at the Viennale, Austria’s largest audience festival, with the theatrical release scheduled for January 4, complemented by a Miyazaki retrospective from Polyfilm‘s catalogue. Beyond the campaign, Hofmann discussed the recent implementation of nonstop Kino, a flat-rate system akin to Cineville in the Netherlands, where subscribers can attend screenings at participating cinemas as often as they wish. “It turned out to be a considerable partner for our box office”, said Hoffman, “especially in attracting younger audiences”. On this note, they organised a sneak preview of The Boy and the Heron only for nonstop Kino subscribers. Eventually, it was proven that the late start and positive international reviews helped the film, along with an established Miyazaki fan community in Austria, leading to “the most successful Ghibli release ever” for Polyfilm.

Offering an exciting contrast to Hoffman’s presentation, Sandra Sankat from Romania’s Bad Unicorn stepped forward to share their experience. Unlike their Austrian colleague, the Romanian distributor has a relatively short history of releasing Japanese animation. They started with Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle only two years ago, marking the first wide anime release in Romania. For Miyazaki’s latest masterpiece, Bad Unicorn collaborated with another independent distributor in the country, Independența Film, to acquire the title. “We outlined a collaboration in which we would each contribute 50% of the P&A. This helped us have a more solid budget. We brought our experience with our previous animations, and they acquired the rights”, explained Sankat. They released the film on December 15, under a strict agreement with Ghibli, granting them a four-month exclusive theatrical window before its release on Netflix. Their target audience comprised anime enthusiasts, Miyazaki fans, and their families, with general arthouse cinema-goers and Japanese culture enthusiasts as secondary targets. The Romanian distributor also emphasised their partnership with the Izanagi Japanese Film Festival, an annual event that hosts Miyazaki retrospectives and anime screenings. “They’ve been gaining a lot of traction in Romania among younger audiences, and they helped us a lot on social media by targeting the main audience”, Sankat noted. In terms of marketing channels, they went “all out” in cinemas (with trailers, backlit screens in lobbies, LED screens, standees, and posters), outdoors (bus stops in Bucharest, banners at various arthouse venues, LED spots in the subway), and partnered with bookshops and Japanese-themed stores, among others. They also activated a pre-sale with Cinema City, the largest multiplex chain in Romania. They organised Anime Day in all their venues, screening The Boy and the Heron as an avant-premiere two days before the official release. Concerning the results, the film ranked 4th in the opening weekend, exceeding their initial expectations. As for drawbacks, the Romanian distributor acknowledged that the film was too complex for younger children, despite their efforts to include them in their campaign.

Natalie Čulkova, Marketing Specialist at Aerofilms (Czech Republic), also presented an intriguing comparison with their campaign for The Boy and the Heron. Rather than following the lead of some of their counterparts in other territories, the Czech company opted for an earlier release on 23 November. “It was less of a marathon, more of a sprint campaign,” in Čulkova’s words, who explained that the competition that week was mainly targeted at different audiences (Napoleon, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, Photophobia…), presenting a window of opportunity for Miyazaki’s film. Aerofilms also worked on quality dubbing, producing behind-the-scenes videos for their social media. About partnerships, they also collaborated with the local branch of Cinema City, organising giveaways and special preview screenings before the actual premiere, which helped make the film more approachable for a mainstream audience. Coincidentally, the book Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art was released in the country around the same time as the film, which created an opportunity for joint PR efforts with the publisher and numerous bookshops. The film also garnered a vast media presence and generated word-of-mouth among social media users and the country’s committed fan base of Studio Ghibli enthusiasts. Considering the challenge of conveying the film’s message and themes to younger demographics, they decided to use straightforward claims in their campaign, focusing on the “adventure” and “magical” elements. The results in terms of admissions were satisfactory, showing a gradual growth since its release. Regarding its VOD future, the film will be available on Aerofilms’ platform after a holdback of six months following the Netflix release. Meanwhile, the Czech company is working on releasing the Ghibli collection this year, divided into different thematic batches, while preparing educational materials for distribution in schools.

Wrapping up the session on an inspiring note, Emil Simeonov, co-founder and General Manager of Bulgaria’s Pro Films, opened up about their journey with The Boy and the Heron. He began by providing some context: “I’ve been trying to release Studio Ghibli films in Bulgaria since 2005, but I never succeeded because commercial cinemas always declined,” Simeonov disclosed, pointing out that Sony had tried with Suzume a few years earlier, investing a lot of money into P&A but with disappointing results. “Cinemas don’t want anime films because they can do ten times more with any Disney title”, added the Bulgarian distributor. When it came to Miyazaki’s newest and possibly last work, Simeonov decided to try it as a “passion project”, even though he thought it wouldn’t be profitable. They acquired the film at the end of October 2023 and set the release date for December 8, leaving them less than six weeks to develop the campaign. First, Pro Films persuaded cinemas to book the film by offering it as a package deal alongside Masha and the Bear: Twice the Fun, the latest instalment of an extremely popular franchise in Bulgaria. They immediately announced the release on social media, framing it as an extraordinary event with the claim: ‘The first time a Studio Ghibli film will be shown on the big screen in Bulgaria’. “The moment we made this initial announcement, something unexpected occurred… Usually, when we announce something on our social media, we receive around 100 responses. However, in this case, we received over 2,000 responses in less than 24 hours. That was the first time we actually believed it could work,” recounted Simeonov. Establishing partnerships was challenging due to the limited time. However, the Bulgarian outfit still worked on high-quality dubbing with local stars, an extensive online and offline campaign, and a red carpet premiere during the Kinomania Film Festival, which sold out in less than hours. They invited influencers, TV personalities, famous actors, and cosplayers from the local Ghibli fanbase community. A few weeks after the release, they doubled the number of expected admissions and recouped the significant investment in marketing. “Initially, everybody thought we would lose money. Now, everyone believes it’s something worth continuing,” concluded Simeonov.

Once again, the event led by Europa Distribution proved immensely valuable for its participants, leading to engaging discussions and offering diverse perspectives and opportunities in navigating the distribution of feature film animations across various European territories. The market for animated films has increased lately, emerging as a crucial part of many independent distributors’ catalogues. Therefore, it remains essential to continually reflect on this trend and facilitate communication channels among publishers to exchange insights and learn from each other’s experiences. As part of the collaboration with Cartoon Movie, association members actively engaged in various pitching sessions and activities throughout their stay in Bordeaux, demonstrating their dedication to expanding their engagement in the animated film industry.

Europa Distribution‘s think-tank activities will continue at upcoming events like the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and their online Green Distribution Lab.