Buzz Potamkin tells us how the much-awaited first annual Annecy International Animated Film Festival faired.
Annecy this year was, je n'est sais pas--how do you Americans put it?--you know, well, just different. It didn't feel like Annecy (not crowded enough), it didn't work like Annecy (in other words, it was actually efficient for the most part), and with the absence of any unified give-away T-shirt, it didn't really look like Annecy (although, in the ages-old European tradition of the great unwashed mass of citoyens, it did smell like Annecy). In fact, I think anyone who entered the Bonlieu Theater or Imperial Hotel this year was whisked away to another location, far from those dazzling memories of yesteryear; all the way to a Festival and MIFA that will forever be changed by becoming the centerpiece for the creation of the Euro-Studio.
Before I left New York for this trip, I had a chance discussion with an old friend about the Annecy he knew 25 years ago or so. An Annecy that was a window on the quirky world of animation, an Annecy that brought together every other year the tightly knit but loosely organized artistes d'animation for a chaotic week of film watching, gossip and good living. (His most vivid memory is of being crushed as the then communist--and starved for luxuries--Eastern Europeans stampeded over him to devour the capitalist canapes at the annual picnic on an island in Lac d'Annecy.) That Annecy is gone.
The marketplace--MIFA (acronym for the French version of International Market for Animated Film)--has taken over. It is MIFA that has pushed Annecy to be an annual, even at the cost of the festival's ASIFA International accreditation. Before I am accused of being a hidebound conservative of the worst kind, let me say that being an annual is not all bad. It cuts down to 12 months the time it takes me to catch up with people who live a few blocks or a cheap phone call away, it allows me to ascertain more quickly which of the horde of shows "in production" one year were never actually started, and it perks up my diet with Savoyard cooking on a more regular schedule. And, not the least, it underscores the way in which the center of the international animation business has moved to Europe.
Those of you who remember my thoughts on Annecy `97 (AWM, 7/97) will not be surprised to read that my thoughts on Annecy `98 reflect the continuation of this trend to Euro-Animation. The lower-than-last-year attendance of Americans only underscored the obvious nature of MIFA as an Euro-Event, and the focus on co-production within Europe became the main theme of the conversations that surrounded every table in the bar and on the terrace (when the weather allowed) at the Imperial Hotel, not to forget the $100 a plate lunches and dinners at the haute cuisine restaurants lining the lake between Annecy and Talloires. (However, it is ironic that these conversations did take place predominantly in English, even among Europeans, or at least that's true for most of those I witnessed.)
And these conversations were more to-the-point than in previous years, as the producers and distributors present at MIFA got down to the serious discussion of picking each others' pockets (or thepockets of each others' governments in most cases). And there as the problem.
Here is a composite of several conversations I had with dismayed French producers: "Our European Community market is bigger than the U.S., our advertisers have money to spend, but the constant contention between our national authorities over local content and production location makes it very difficult to mount a pan-European show. We may make a French-content show in France, with a Spanish co-distributor providing finance, and have it be very successful in the ratings in France, but what does that mean to someone watching the show in Spain? Plus the Spanish may make a Spanish-content show that rates well there, and even have an English co-producer, but what does that do for an audience in England? Our market is big, but your market in the States is really the only `single market,' that the press and politicians keep promising us here. We can make a show that is a success in one country, or even two or three, but we still have to discover how to create a show that will be a true European show in the way that your American shows satisfy your large market in the States."
Which brings us back to the festival, and the search for creative content. And this year it was a search. The annualization of the Festival may not have caused a drop in the number of entries, but the quality was not up to the standard of last year or `95. The Commercialization of the European animation industry has removed many of the better minds and hands from the independent film arena, and the selection this year was the proof of that pudding. However, this trend should now reverse, and I for one have great hopes for the Festival next year (or perhaps the year after).
And why should that trend reverse? Most American studios were not only absent from MIFA, they have even abandoned for the most part the frenzied search of previous festivals for Euro-talent to fill the no longer empty chairs in Burbank, Phoenix and Florida. There is now a chance for Euro-talent to stay in Europe, and make shows for the home market, even to aim for the "single market" Euro-Show that is this year's Holy Grail. The Euro-Show is a strong contender for the future of animation.
After many years of talent loss to this side of the Atlantic, the drain is slowing, even reversing. The Euro-Studio can now become a reality, with strong creative and production skills honed on the past decade's experience of sub-contracting and co-producing with North American partners. The Euro-Exhibitors, even those owned by US media conglomerates (Nick, Fox Kids, Cartoon Network, etc.), are responding to the possibility of a pan-European creative synthesis, and spend a fair amount of time and energy looking for Euro-Shows. "We're Europeans, the Network is European, we program for Europeans," says Finn Arnesen, Cartoon Network's London-based VP Programming and Development, "and we're out there looking for cartoons that have the unique flair and style of European humor."
Mark my words. Before too long, the creative, audience and marketing success that gets the cover of Time and Newsweek will be the Euro-Show. While it is not an Euro-Show (it has solely English roots), and it isn't animated, Teletubbies isn't far off the mark. But the next South Park may well be Parc du Sud.
A list of this year's festival winners is also included in this issue.
Buzz Potamkin is an award-winning independent producer, best known for The Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss. Before he escaped L.A. for New York, he had been president of Southern Star Prods and then executive vice president of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.