Heikki Jokinen gives us the real facts from the 2001 Cartoon Forum, where Europe meets to make deals and find the financing for tomorrow's television and Web productions.
This year's co-production event, Cartoon Forum, was bigger than ever. The European animation industry gathered September 19 22, 2001 beneath the Alps in Garmish-Partenkirchen in the German southern state of Bavaria. Since the first annual Cartoon Forum in Lanzarote, Spain in 1990, the number of participants has steadily grown. More than 700 people participated in this year's edition; 103 of them from TV channels and 162 were distributors or other investors.
This reflects the changes in the European TV market. The expansion of new TV channels has been rapid in the last ten years and is still going on with the brave new world of digital television to come. With more and more channels, there is a more and more precisely targeted audience for each -- at least in the hopes of the TV companies. Even though the amount of airtime for animation has been growing rapidly, the production revenues haven't. In other words: more screenings but less money per screening.
Markets are split between the primary market of big channels with generally sufficient compensation and the secondary market of mainly cable and satellite channels with very low price levels. One producer told me how he sometimes refuses to sell to this secondary market. The payment promised does not even cover the price of the office work needed to sell and transport the programme. When a programme has received some European or other public support, every sale has to be reported, which again means more paper work to complete.
Producers have to be much more aware of the complex situation in the animation market, especially due to growing feature animation production. As GEO Gert Müntefering from German Bavaria Kinder channel said in a panel discussion about the German TV market: "We have to be realists in the market; one can loose nice money with feature animation or earn lousy money with TV serials."
Longer Series Are Here
Projects were also longer than ever. One-time TV specials have given way for bigger and longer series. The 79 projects presented had a total length of 499 hours and 50 minutes, some 63 hours more than last year's Visby Cartoon Forum. The figures, however, are only numbers. "The Soviet Union also had impressive figures -- steel production was growing year by year," said one participant. "The European Union seems to have the same kind of love for growth, at least on paper to show the politicians."
In recent years, the role of the German animation industry has been growing significantly. This trend was clear in Garmish-Partenkirchen. German companies presented 18 projects and were involved in 17 others. Though British and French companies still presented more projects, the Germans are coming. The reason is simply the volume of the German TV market. It is the major market in Europe and needs a lot of new animation. There is also a lot of national money available through the Film Funds on the state level.
In previous years many of the projects were based on comics or children's books. This time there were not too many such projects, even though these are still important sources for TV animation. Many of the best known European comics are already used for animation (e.g. Tintin, Blake and Mortimer, Corto Maltese, Das Kleine Arschloch, Werner, Loisel's Peter Pan) and even more of the children's books.
The need for original ideas is therefore bigger than ever, because the existing European animation machine has to be fed. The problem is that not all of the new original ideas are on the same level as those taken from comics or children's books, where both the story and visuals have already been thoroughly developed and made a breakthrough in the market. Now we are seeing too many "uncut" stories and ideas, which are still in need of further development.
What Did You Learn In Forum Today?
And what did we see in Garmish-Partenkirchen? Many fine and interesting projects. British Iain Harvey from The Illuminated Film Company presented War Boy, a story about a small boy during WWII in Britain. It is based on the well-known picture book by Michael Foreman, and is a collection of memories from his childhood.
The film is supposed to be a 28-minute TV special, not a series, and appears to capture the intimate and personal touch of Foreman's book by being based on his graphic style. Harvey has already produced one film, War Games, on another one of Foreman's books and is planning to do a third, called After The War Was Over.
"In the UK these films are used to teach history to children," explains Harvey when asked to describe his motive. "My goal is to make animation that lasts."
Another completely different type of film was the Belgian Paniques. It shows plastic figures -- like those I played with in my childhood and my son is playing with now having various wild adventures. The planned series will have 20 four-minute episodes, with the main figures being Cowboy, Indian and Horse. The pilot, Le gâteau, directed by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, won this year's Grand Prize in Annecy for Best TV Animation Programme.
It is a completely crazy film. Horse prepares a cake, but Cowboy and Indian try to steal it from the fridge. At the same time a bear is trying to get into their house. The fascination of the film lies in the clash between children's imaginative play and adult humour. The use of plastic toy figures with their stiff movements remind us of our childhood, but the contrasting adult dialogue just leads to absolute absurd hilarity.
The producers were seeking the missing 340,000 euro of their total budget of 880,000 euro. Judging the response from the TV channels this might happen. The pitch was attended by 94 Forum participants, including 34 persons from TV channels and 25 other investors. Paniques' per minute price of 11,000 euro is around the average price of the productions presented at Cartoon Forum. Usually 26-part 26-minute series are created with a budget around seven million euro, which is 10,000 13,000 euro/minute.
One of the major projects presented was Arabian Nights, a 26 x 22 minute series produced by Germany's Hahn Film. According to the producers it is based on the untold stories of The Tales of 1001 Nights. Sherazad, "a modern teenage girl, witty and brave, a role model," meets a lot of heroes and villains and has a small ghost to help her. Along the way, humour is not forgotten. For instance, there is a man who has something better than the usual flying carpet -- a flying sofa!
Visually the series is well done. The Arabian-style backgrounds are combined with good quality character animation. Hahn Film has a branch in Saigon, where part of the work is done. The series is expected to be done in roughly 20 months; seeking the finance will take until the end of the year and production 18 months, "plus the usual two month delay," one of the presenters realistically added.
Windows For The Web
WebWindoW is a Cartoon Forum special section, which gives pitching opportunities to Web animation. It started at last year's Cartoon Forum. This year it included eight projects. Many of these were Web productions to support existing TV series -- part of the package -- but now France's Millimages Online's Gotchaaa is a project done primarily for the Internet.
The concept is simple: each of the 31 Webisodes includes two 30-second black humor stories where "shit happens" to some of the characters. Every story has different characters and surroundings. This kind of animation is somewhere in between daily comic strips and television; it has to be sharp, short and reach the punch line with very few images.
President Serge Ewenczyk from Millimages Online says that because his company is part of larger animation producer Millimages, they do not have to do TV programmes. "Our task is to develop new concepts," he explains.
"Our emphasis is the Web. We have to keep it always in mind. The animation we are doing has to load quickly, but it also has to possibly screen on television." Millimages Online develops animation for the Web, but they try to sell it for television as well. "We choose simple visual design that works also on television," Ewenczyk says.
This means that the story is the most important part: "We tell the artist that there are not big possibilities for [animation] details, he has to work on the story." Ewenczyk takes South Park as an example, "It's simple animation, but the story is strong. It would work any place."
Web animation is done using Macromedia Flash. "It's universal, cheap and 90-95 percent of Internet-users have the Flash plug-in," says Ewenczyk. "Basically, it's the same to do animation in Flash. It's very simple. It's vector-based and much lighter than pixel-based animation. It's also easy to enlarge." This part is true! Flash animations work on screens bigger than just your computer. When screened in larger formats, Flash animations yield surprisingly good results. Plus, every episode has a maximum size of 200 - 300 kb.
However, the key question is money, which is now running away from e-businesses, after camping out for several years. "One has to adapt to this reality and know the market," thinks Ewenczyk. "We started last December, but only after we had real customers. We researched and got the customers before we started."
"The Internet is here forever, only the frenzy has stopped and the hype is over. The problem with some e-companies was that basically they just wasted money; they did programmes which were too expensive and didn't earn the money back."
Millimages Online does not start a project before they have at least one buyer. France Telecom was involved in their two previous projects. "But we do not need 100 percent of our financing beforehand either, because the financial risk is so small. We can do the serial though 40 percent is missing. This is not possible with a seven million euro TV series." The budget for all Millimages Online series is around 110,000 euro, one third of the price for a similar TV animation.
Serge Ewenczyk doesn't see the global nature of the Internet as a problem when it comes to selling Web animation. "Internet users are looking at national pages. French people do not read German pages. The content and language make the difference, though pages in English are an exception." He believes that even when a series is already on French Web pages, it doesn't make it an obstacle to sell elsewhere.
The next Cartoon Forum will take place in Wales in the city of Eriry, the Welsh name for Snowdonia, September 18 22, 2002. But before that, the European animation industry will gather to pitch feature animations in Potsdam, near Berlin in Germany, March 14 - 17, 2002.
Heikki Jokinen is a freelance journalist based in Helsinki, Finland and specializing in short film, animation, documentary film and comics. He is also a board member of ASIFA International and president of the Finnish Association of Art Critics. Heikki has participated in every Cartoon Forum since 1993.