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Cartoons on the Bay -- The Opera

In which Russell Bekins reports on the animated activities taking place in and around Salerno, both on- and off-screen.

Prelude: The Movida -- in which the young citizens gather festively, unaware of what is occurring in the castle

Cartoons on the Bay was marked by a series of unfortunate events, including a political dust-up over Pulcinella winner Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in the World. © Logo.

Salerno is a town of the real south of Italy, with barber shops and stationery stores unaltered since the '30s, tiny alleys strewn with absurd balconies trimmed in wrought iron and strung with laundry. All of this is readily available if you step off the main seaside drag and into the old quarter.

Oddly, few at the festival do, caught up as they are in the events up on the hill at Lloyds Bahia hotel, or in running to catch a screening at the retro modern theater in the center of town.

On Saturday night, however, teens from all up and down Campania suddenly appeared, filling the alleys and streets with laughter, movement and even song. It is called the "Movida," the movement, kids in search of fun.

Fun was to be had in Salerno, but the kids in the street saw little of the festival type. Due to a perfect storm of entirely Italian snafus, this year's Cartoons on the Bay was a kind of out-of-the-body experience for the city of Salerno. In an operatic Italian fashion, tragedy has a way of transforming itself into a comedy, so let us here recite the story in four acts.

Act I: Lord Raitrade's Challenge -- in which the political appointee shoots the festival in the foot

Cartoons on the Bay is organized by RAI Trade, the sales arm of the Italian public broadcasting colossus. The bosses at the top of RAI Trade were busy taking gratuitous moralistic potshots at the competition. Carlo Nardello, the managing director of RAI Trade, intoned his dislike for two of the festival's entries before the start of the festival, distancing himself politically from the "inappropriate" stop-motion Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in the World episode in competition. He also had words for the Spanish series Friends and Chips: The New Pope. "As to the cartoon with the theme of a future pope, I find it offensive and wrong-headed."

So the managing director of RAI Trade created a political brouhaha. He would later be forced to eat his words, as the former series won the Pulcinella for best series of the year on flat-out merit: Rick and Steve had simply the best-written script at the festival.

"What is it about the show he finds so offensive?" puzzled Adam Shaheen, executive producer of Cuppa Coffee Studios, the series' producer. "We've sold the show everywhere, to major networks that have nothing to do with the gay and lesbian community… " As to the quality, Shaheen points to the fact that Cuppa Coffee has won twice and been a finalist once in the last few years of Cartoons on the Bay. "He's entitled to his opinion," Shaheen shrugs. "Series two is on the way."

Well, most everyone else shrugged as well. A tempest in a teapot. But that was not the worst that the RAI Trade management had in store for the festival.

RAI Fiction took home awards for Gladiators (l), set in ancient Rome, and Water and Bubbles, a domestic comedy starring two fish in an aquarium. Courtesy of RAI Trade.

Act II: Triumph of the Knights of RAI Fiction -- in which the heroes of Italian (oh yes, and international) animation are recognized

And so the festival commenced, with heavy action in the press conferences, and the producers and artists making their case to the galleries as the judges scrutinized their works. The producing arm of RAI, RAI Fiction, always plays on their home court at Cartoons on the Bay. This year they garnered six nominations and took home prizes for best action series with Gladiators, set in ancient Rome, and won best series for all ages with Water and Bubbles, a domestic comedy starring two fish in an aquarium.

Gladiators vindicates Italian production house Mondo TV's long tradition of investing in this genre and improving their quality of product. "We're very happy about this," admits Gian Claudio Galatoli, director of production at Mondo TV. "It's the first international recognition of our staff of layout artists, character designers and musicians who have worked so hard on this project." He also points to the fact that Mondo has been hiring top Italian directors such as Maurizio Forestieri (Gladiators) and Giuseppe Lagana (Sandokan, Kim) as a part of their strategy. Mondo has undergone a unique expansion recently, buying a company in Hamburg to form "Mondo Eagle," and opening branches in France and Spain as well.

Water and Bubbles won on the basis of strong direction and character design by Guido Manuli, who has given the two fish protagonists extremely expressive eyes. It also shows the chops of up-and-coming Italian production house Maga Animation Studio, justifying their investment in 3D. We also got a look at their new series work with Bruno Bozzetto, PsychoVip, based on Bozzetto's 1968 spoof The SuperVips. In this series, Bozzetto's runt superhero recounts his daily humiliations to a psychologist who seems bent on... humiliating him.

The great surprise of the Pulcinella Awards this year was the small German Studio Film Bilder, who walked off with two awards. No Room for Gerold, a wacky kitchen table argument between an alligator, a rhinoceros, a wildebeest and a hippopotamus, walked away with the most memorable character award. The Bunjies, a 3D project featuring teen glam rock bunny rabbits, dry British dialogue, and South Park-style blocking, took home the prize for the best pilot of a series.

We also must mention that the winning ways continue for the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia's animation department. A team from the school won the award for best direction with A Bicycle Trip, in which Dr. Albert Hoffman, inventor of LSD, discovers just what his drug is all about while commuting on a bicycle.

Studio Film Bilder was the surprise winner this year for two projects, No Room for Gerold (l) and The Bunjies. © Studio Bilder.

ACT III: The Elders Meet to Set the Code -- in which a group of well-spoken men and women confront their cartoon shock

The very problem of "cartoon shock" -- in which politicians like Nardello find themselves flabbergasted by cartoons which speak to (or spoof to) a more mature audience -- was anticipated by festival director Alfio Bastiancich. He invited the Commission of the Application of the Television Code for Minors to a meeting/debate at the festival this year, with the idea of allowing a dialogue between cartoon makers and the commission.

This official organization, under the Ministry of Communication, is a "self-governing" body (meaning that it is formed of members of broadcast media) involved in censorship in Italy. It normally handles grievances from viewers, analyzing them and publishing a formal complaint in which the broadcaster is required to castigate itself on the air during a time of "good ratings." Generally these are read at the end of a news segment via an incredibly fast voice-over, like warnings on prescription medicine ads. No wonder the group, as a whole, seems a little bitter.

To a certain extent, the Committee for the Application of the Television Code and Minors signalled their perplexity when they took Mediaset to task in September 2006 for airing Family Guy in a time slot when only children would be watching it. Family Guy (known as The Griffins here), and also The Simpsons (mentioned in the same complaint), are examples of shows which are often aired during co-viewing time slots in the United States, and can serve as a springboard for dialogue between generations. Unfortunately, in Italy, there are no cartoons in dedicated co-viewing time slots; hence "cartoon shock."

Is Italy ready for Robot Chicken? Courtesy of Turner/Adult Swim.

Within a few weeks, the commission will vote on a color-keyed rating system. We hope they bear in mind the following:

Ratings systems concentrate an enormous amount of power in the hands of those who are doing the ratings.

Ratings have unintended consequences. Because kids are aspirational, a program with a red rating will become more attractive.

Ratings groups have a huge temptation to expand their mission -- defining, for example, what a production company may or may not do. Here is where the bluenoses do the most damage.

Listen, commission, if you must rate, emphasize co-viewing, which child psychologists and media experts all heartily recommend.

Yet one must rightly ask why the committee is concerned about cartoons at all. After all, of the 37 officially published complaints last year, only one related to a cartoon. This was an episode of Dragon Ball, which aired on Mediaset station Italia 1 in August. Sadly, the representative of Mediaset who was supposed to attend the conference got stuck at the airport in Milan in another in the series of unfortunate events that dogged the festival this year.

Now, as if in direct response to all this brouhaha, Luca Magnani, senior marketing director of Turner Italia, unveiled the product Adult Swim, with its stars Robot Chicken and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. We will see how these series play among the teens outside in The Movida. One gets the feeling that executives who fear putting on cartoons with more adult themes should take a walk outside in Salerno on a Saturday night.

Disney's VP of Global Original Programming in London Steve Aranguren (l) and Beth Gardner of Disney Playhouse. Photo credit: Russell Bekins.

ACT IV: The Duke of Disney and Earl of Turner Ride to the Rescue -- in which the hungry squires of Italian animation clamor for bread and hear good news

"We're open for business," declared Disney's VP of Global Original Programming in London Steve Aranguren, who joined Disney Playhouse's Beth Gardner in giving a face to the mouse on the bay. Aranguren invited submissions of new and local content, emphasizing comedy, character and connection with the audience. He also asked the audience to bear in mind the content pipeline: any project will take two years to get off the ground, so they need to be ahead of the curve. Any particular genre? "We change our minds a lot," he laughed.

As if to put an exclamation point on the issue, Patricia Hidalgo, executive director of programming for Walt Disney TV Italia and one of the festival judges this year, presented Marty's World, a pilot they produced through Maga Animation Studio with Italian master cartoonist Bruno Bozzetto directing. A bit of Calvin and Hobbes a la Bozzetto, the pilot uses a boy's relationship with his wooden duck as a springboard to mayhem. Will it go on to a series? The jury is still out.

While much less forward about it, Turner executives seemed to be implying that Cartoon Network and Adult Swim will be looking at local projects as well, as a way of local branding. So why all the fuss about local product? Because there are laws on the books regarding local content and production in the European market, and protectionism is always a political theme of concern. But this is Italy, where the law is sometimes relative. Take the case of children's programming time on public broadcaster RAI.

Bruno Bozzetto and Disney offered a peek at pilot Marty's World. © Walt Disney TV Italia.

"The law is clear," says Sergio Manfio, cartoon producer and director, whose Gruppo Alcuni shows are a staple on RAI. "Each station of RAI (there are three) should be broadcasting 93 minutes of children's programming each day. No one comes close."

Manfio is the new president of Cartoon Italy, the lobby group for the major Italian production companies working in animation. "We have chosen not to push this," Manfio says. A man literally bursting with energy, he is sweating on a cold day, but his strategy is nuanced. "Frontal confrontations in Italy don't go anywhere." Similarly, the strategy with Mediaset is to convince them that co-production has its advantages, such as derivative products and selling them to their other stations in Spain. Mediaset has finally begun to commission cartoon series after years of being a buyer only.

ACT V: The Slaying of the Garbage Monster -- in which the festival confronts the triple curse of Italian politics

In its new location and with a new format, the festival has identified itself as a premiere forum for the creators of top international TV series. It manages to get top-level talent to participate, to explain their creative process and shed light on how they structured their production deals. It is easy to argue that this is an atmosphere much more conducive to creating new co-productions than even MIP, where sales predominate and it is hard to get a clear idea of who the players are.

This year, Cartoons on the Bay suffered a triple curse: new RAI Trade directors were named in September, the festival was held right before general elections, and Naples had its garbage crisis.

Now let us make one thing perfectly clear: Salerno is not Naples. The local government is run quite well, and it never had a garbage crisis. The mere perception among the sponsors of being associated with piles of garbage, however, was enough to keep some of them away. Nickelodeon/Viacom was missing in action. Sky, Jetix and Fox were also conspicuously absent. The greatest missing ingredient, however, was RAI's competitor Mediaset. Guys, it's not just that sponsorship is 30% of the budget for the festival, it's also about your on-again, off-again promises to develop local content. Festivals happen even when you're not launching a product.

Garbage crisis? We'll ask around if you really need one... Photo credit: Russell Bekins.

Regarding the first curse: A new slate of directors was named at RAI Trade in September. As the garbage crisis played itself out nightly on television, the Italian military proudly toting away the piles, discussions raged as to whether to move the festival to Napoli, let it remain in Salerno, or even take it as far away as Genoa. After the decision was finally made, the heroic festival staff had to pull everything together in something like 10 weeks.

The final curse this year was that, at the time of the festival, the electoral campaign, eventually won by Mediaset owner Silvio Bersusconi, was in full swing. Local funding (another 30%) arrived late (a consequence of the dithering about the location), so many of the traditional events and parties were scaled back. This was also felt in and about Salerno, where the sense of hospitality was a bit parsimonious: events were being hosted around the city, but for locals only. Particularly sad was the cancellation of the children's animation workshop, a traditional fixture of the festival, and something which ties it strongly to the local community. "The politicians are thinking about something else," sighed festival diector Bastiancich.

For those of us who watch the festival year after year, it was disheartening how much the world of politics intruded into this year's festival in a negative way. We hope that the community within RAI in general recognizes the value of the institution and gives it the latitude it needs to grow and justify the investment, not just in terms of marketing, but in terms of its cultural and social benefit.

Epilogue -- in which the author suggests a novel way of bringing the festival back to the community

Here's a suggestion for next year: Light up the Movida with cartoons projected on the sides of buildings on Saturday night. Make the closing of the festival a party for everyone.

Russell Bekins has served time in story and project development for Creative Artists Agency and Disney. He now lives in Bologna, Italy, where he specializes in concept design for theme park, aquarium and museum installations.