Ron Diamond and Iain Harvey attend Cartoon Movie, reporting back about the growing revolution in animated features that has begun in Europe.
There is a quiet revolution proceeding in Europe with respect to animated features. It has not yet registered on the radar screen, except perhaps with such ambitious companies as M6 of France, The Weinstein Company and Warner Bros. Germany. But the facts are beginning to speak for themselves.
Cartoon Movie is the best place to observe this. Set, as always, in Potsdam, a mere 20 minutes from Berlin, the capital of Germany, delegates were treated to a near continuous but thankfully gentle fall of snow throughout its three days. It did not cool the fervor of the business in hand.
Open to all European producers, and distributors and financiers worldwide unlike the more peripatetic Cartoon Forum, which concentrates on TV series 10 European animated features were screened. All were new. The list of films screened did not include two of the most successful recently produced European features, Oscar winner Wallace And Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Tim Burtons The Corpse Bride (mostly made in London), as both had been released last year.
The opening night movie was the impressive new Asterix and the Vikings animated feature (i.e., not featuring Gerald Depardieu). It is the most expensive European financed animated movie to date, with a budget of some $30 million. This is small by U.S. standards, where some made-for-DVD features have had larger budgets. Nevertheless it marks a significant stepping-up of the ambitions of European producers. Taking what was perceived as a tired franchise, it is rare for financiers again, at least in Europe to attempt to stop the rot by bumping up the budget and re-thinking the aims and ambitions of the production. Full credit to M6, a French broadcaster and a part of the Bertelsmann Group. If the film is a commercial success, and reactions were generally favorable, then European producers can hopefully raise their aspirations further.
Not that there is a shortage of ambition. Asterix and the Vikings is a formidable co-production involving three studios, of which the lead animation studio is A. Film A/S, undoubtedly one of Europes most successful and ambitious. This studio, again working with a consortium of co-producers across Europe, also presented sequences from The Ugly Duckling and Me, now in post-production. As Karsten Killerich, its lead producer observed, this long awaited feature has had more presentations than can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In fact it has almost become a highlight of each years Cartoon Movie which presentation will people go to next to be sure of being entertained by instead?
Normally such an extended development cycle suggests scripting or development problems. Judging by the scenes we saw that will not be the case here - the film has the potential to be the forerunner of a new Ice Age style franchise: genuinely comic, with stunning use of CGI. One scene in particular left its mark with me, when the two heroes, crossing a frozen pond, are attacked by a formidable pike not quite Jaws, but enough to excite any five year old.
A. Film A/S is within the confines of being based in a city (Copenhagen) of less than one million inhabitants, in a country of less than six million (Denmark) an example of all that the European MEDIA program stands for. Well-managed, careful about not over-extending itself (hence all those co-production credits), it produces an impressive range of features (another recent success, wholly produced in-house, was Terkel in Trouble) and television series. It operates across borders seemingly seamlessly and if it progresses as well over the next five years as it has over the past five years, it will no doubt be courted by ambitious American studies.
In some ways even more impressive than the success of A. Film A/S is the fast rise of the Spanish animation houses such as Filmax (which screened Gisaku) and Dyga (Midsummer Dream, a loose adaptation of Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream).
Working on very low budgets, but very high ambitions, they have progressed relentlessly over the last five years. Most of their productions might only have worked in a few territories, but each marks a step-forward in the learning curve. Being involved in more than one feature production on a continuous basis gives producers and their crew far deeper layers of production experience, judgment and business contacts than any one budget would support. In other words they whether consciously or not, I dont know are operating to a business plan. And the results are beginning to show. One ambitious new project is Nocturna, where some striking designs left their mark.
France is a key territory for all European producers. It has a thriving set of producers, well supported by broadcasters (as with Asterix) and a unique system for recycling box office and television revenues to support feature film production. Consequently and boosted no doubt by such recent successes as Kirikou and the Sorceress and Belleville Rendezvous French producers presented nearly one third of all new projects, including the sequel Kirikou and the Wild Beasts (sold already to more than 40 countries) and a new adaptation of Jack Londons White Fang.
Probably the biggest powerhouse is Germany. Like France it has a good production support system and a strong theatrical market for animated features. The sequel to The Little Polar Bear (Cartoon Film/Warners), a big success in Europe some four years ago, entitled The Mysterious Island was amongst the films screened.
Cartoon Movie is a strange conglomeration. At the same venue, producers can screen their latest feature or at the other extreme spend ten minutes to a full house pitching their new idea for a movie. The fact that each year it draws an increasing range of financiers and distributors suggests it has its value, even if only as a networking venue. Further, the simple fact of the number of animated films now being made in Europe cannot be ignored. One or more each year are breaking out beyond Europe, justifying the whole exercise. Even if that were not the case, the sheer energy of the industry offers encouragement to those stepping up their ambitions within animation.
Readers of a perceptive nature might have noticed my lack of reference to the U.K. animation industry. In a year when the U.K., through Aardman Animation, had an animation feature opening at number one in the U.S. box office (never before achieved by a non-American studio) and won the animation Oscar, as well as being the center for production of the aforementioned The Corpse Bride, there was no repeat no British studio presentation at Cartoon Movie. In a country that likes to think it is at the center of European animation, this is a sad reflection of current economic realities facing U.K. film producers, unless they make the inevitable trip across the Atlantic which of course Aardman has achieved in such a unique manner. For the rest, with no production support, unlike the benefits available to, say, German and French studios, and a new tax regime, still being finalized, that utterly fails to take account of the very strengths of building an animation industry, such as meaningful co-production (vide A. Film A/S, etc.), U.K. producers wishing to follow an independent path are facing a long and difficult path to competing on an even footing with their European colleagues. Given the depths of talent available in the U.K., that is a sad indictment of policy and a bitter reflection of the lack of vision of strategic planners in the U.K.s media business.
Following a career in publishing, Iain Harvey entered the world of animation as exec producer on The Snowman. In 1993, he formed The Illuminated Film Co., and produced such award-winning projects as The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Stories, T.R.A.N.S.I.T., Christmas Carol The Movie and War Game. Illuminated is in production on an animated series, Little Princess, which will be broadcast on Channel Five in the U.K. this autumn. Iain is the vp of the European association of animated film (CARTOON), an initiative under the MEDIA program. He is also chair of the BAFTA Short Animation Jury. The views expressed in this story are purely personal and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CARTOON or BAFTA as an organization.
Ron Diamond is the president of AWN and the owner of animation production house, Acme Filmworks.