Iain Harvey traveled to Cannes to experience the yearly hubbub of MIPCOM and MIPCOM Jr., a major stop on the global television sales circuit.
For two weeks each May, Cannes is the centre of the film world. At the International Film Festival, almost all of its energies are devoted to live-action, as anyone who has tried to hawk their animated feature there will have learnt. Animation long ago slipped off to hold its bi-annual (now annual) festival in Annecy. The contrast between these two French spas neatly illustrates the divide: one bold, brash, loud and self-confident, the other reserved, discreet and restrained. I'll leave you to decide which is which! Everywhere Animation But then, for a week in October, and similarly in April, the media world descends upon Cannes again. This time the emphasis is very much on television -- and television is a hungry beast, needing constant sustenance. At these markets, animation becomes a far more dominant force; indeed at first sight it might seem the dominant force.
Here, in the notorious bunker by the harbour, are gathered all the broadcasters, programme distributors, video companies and major production companies in the world. Everybody is here, seemingly, to sell. Presumably, there must be buyers to complete the process. Of course there are, and they dart from stand to stand, or, if more important, lodge in the lounge of a comfortable hotel or aboard one of the fancy boats moored in the harbour, to ensure that MIPCOM, together with MIP-TV in the spring, are the largest and most successful television programme markets in the world.
An animation producer descending upon the market will be greatly encouraged by the considerable visual emphasis on animation. Posters and brochures everywhere proclaim the latest animated series: "just arrived," "now available," or more optimistically "now in production." Wandering the market, TV screens at every stand seemingly run non-stop animation. Of course there are other stands and focuses of attention -- drama, documentary, natural history and sport abound -- but the overwhelming impression is the prevalence of animated productions.
The reasons are varied and, on reflection, predictable. By its very nature, animation is the most international of all genres in its appeal. It can attract the eye quickly, whether through design or characterisation. It appeals to the child in all of us. It is relatively cheap to develop, and often cheap to run. Other television genres take time to present -- apart from sex scenes, car chases and fights, how do you present drama quickly to the international audience passing your stand? There were a surprising number of feature animations present as well.
As MIPCOM follows immediately after MIPCOM JUNIOR, there is a further natural link, as the statistics demonstrate the overwhelming dominance of animation in that more focused environment for children. At MIPCOM JUNIOR, animation, with 494 titles (itself up 21% from last year), took nearly 75% of the programmes on offer and a dominant 80% of those actually screened (i.e. viewed by potential buyers).
Increasing Difficulties But what are the realities facing individual producers? Amidst this abundance of options, what chance do new projects have of achieving an impact? Increasingly, I suspect, the difficulties mount. First, many of the leading European based distributors, like HIT, Itel, Em-TV, focus on their own shows, developed with their resources in-house. This is logical; if you are successful in selling a series, it is better to ensure you own and control all rights. As the aforementioned companies consolidate their position in the market, the chances of independent producers establishing their own financial package, especially on a series, diminish.
Further the proliferation of potential outlets is not an advantage for independents: broadcasters and other buyers naturally have greater difficulty in contracting with an individual producer, no matter how solidly financed, whereas dealing with the specialist distributors across a package of programmes is all part of the process. Finally, of course, budgets per minute of broadcast time continue to shrink. For all these reasons, independent European producers have a great advantage with the now well established CARTOON FORUM, held this year in Spain. New projects can be presented in an exclusive environment to a wide cross-section of Europe's broadcasters and financial partners. An independent with a solid project and the right supporting materials can mold a financial base to their new programme, and perhaps have a choice of financial (and other) partners -- even negotiating options. Of course the above commentary pre-supposes it is best to remain the owner, or majority stake-holder, in projects. Many producers might well take the view that their priority is achieving a profitable (i.e. financially viable) production, not worrying about the copyright or even the back-end. Especially at the beginning, this makes great sense. Yet, as day follows night, a producer with a consistent track record will desire more control and ownership.
The key to so much of this is co-production. Producers cross borders and even continents, working together to improve the financial base and international appeal of their programmes. Animation has always found co-production a natural method of both producing and financing projects, and it is here that such markets as MIPCOM come into their own. One example easily demonstrates this process: an animated series based on the Marx Brothers. It would be difficult, it would seem, to devise a more American oriented project. The reality is different: developed in France by 2A Productions from scripts written in Hollywood, where the lead writer is Englishman Steve Roberts (Max Headroom, Men in Black), and pen and inked in Poland, with post-production in Paris, The Marx Brothers Show sums up the realities of animated co-productions. Of course, the flow can be either way: the very English (at least in origin) Watership Down has just been developed into an animated series by Decode Entertainment in Toronto, complete with title music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Overall, there has been strong growth in the interest in animation, as the statistics from MIPCOM JUNIOR demonstrate. One impression was that there were too many programmes chasing the pre-school slots. This is a further example of the programme-maker following the market, as new channels continuously announce themselves. This leads to the questioning undertone of my perceptions: all too often, one feels, innovation and imagination are not given the priority they deserve. Design might be good, but rarely do the scripts follow. The new technologies available to producers do not encourage any emphasis on this. As the market expands, and the budget per minute produced shrinks, who has the time to actually develop and consider the story content when all the emphasis is on first impressions? One thing you can be sure of at MIPCOM -- nobody has time to read the books frequently displayed, behind glass cases, on the stands. Iain Harvey of The Illuminated Film Company is an independent producer who first visited MIP-TV in the early 1980s when trying (successfully) to sell The Snowman. His most recent productions are T.R.A.N.S.I.T, directed by Piet Kroon, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Stories, directed by Andrew Goff. He is currently developing an animated feature.
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