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European Animated Features — Back to the Future

Philippe Moins takes a look at the animated features coming out of Europe in the recent past and the upcoming future.

Wide distribution is still a major roadblock for European animated features. A rare exception is last years The Triplets of Bellville. © 2003 Sony Pictures Ent. Inc.

Wide distribution is still a major roadblock for European animated features. A rare exception is last years The Triplets of Bellville. © 2003 Sony Pictures Ent. Inc.

A year after a first panorama of the European animated feature landscape, AWN asked us to look into whats happened since. A year is not a long time to evaluate the possible sea of changes in this business, but whats happened in the last 12 months appears to reinforce the impressions we had a year ago.

That said, new productions are not wanting and European animation seems to have finally embraced CGI.

A Recurring Problem

While Europe continues to produce more animated features than the United States or Japan, distribution remains a problem. Very few of them get distributed outside of Europe and only rarely are successful, even in their own countries. In the past few years with the exception of Chicken Run from Aardman Animation, a unique case only such films as Help, Im a Fish or The Triplets of Belleville have had anything approaching wide distribution, both distributed in a significant number of European territories. The majority of European animated films do 90% of their box office in their home territory, not to mention those that dont even manage to muster local interest. It would be masochistic to list them here, but the reality is that there were more failures than successes in 2004.

Obviously, this situation is troubling to the profession: besides the rather mediocre films, this was also the case for some very good and, at times, very ambitious films, which could give the already small number of investors cold feet. Or, worse, scare off other potential investors.

Many European projects suffer from an artisan approach, which prevents a constant flow of product from being created. A recent example is Raining Cats and Dogs. © Folimage 2002.

Many European projects suffer from an artisan approach, which prevents a constant flow of product from being created. A recent example is Raining Cats and Dogs. © Folimage 2002.

Multiple Sources of Financing

Our preceding article spoke about government funding and broadcaster involvement in many projects which simply wouldnt have seen the light of day without this aid. At the end of the day, though, budgets remain extremely modest compared to American films, which could attract investment from outside Europe if any of these films should ever break out to become big box offices successes. Warner Bros. Ent. Gmbh, a German subsidiary of the Warner Bros. Group, is a good example of private investment from outside the European animation industry. Although an expansion of this type of investment in Europe could encounter obstacles as a result of the existing financing structure for European animated films.

The brouhaha surrounding the live-action film, A Very Long Engagement, by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and also produced by a subsidiary of Warner Bros., illustrates the difficulty in France: the Union of Independent Producers (Syndicat des Producteurs Indépendants or S.P.I.) decided that Jeunets film, even though he used a French technical and artistic team, was an American production and that the substantial subsidies awarded by the C.N.C. (a French government organism that provides funding to national cinematography) to this very large project meant that much of a loss for the French movie industry. The crucial question concerning the diversification of European film financing has been raised as a result and the answer, highly anticipated, is to be provided by the French justice system where the Union has taken their complaint.

The success so far of Laura Star is an encouraging sign for the European market. © 2004 Rothkirch/Carton-Film Warner Bros. Ent. GmbH/Cometfilm GmbH/MaBo-Investitions GmbH. Developed with the support of the MEDIA Programm of the Europe.

The success so far of Laura Star is an encouraging sign for the European market. © 2004 Rothkirch/Carton-Film Warner Bros. Ent. GmbH/Cometfilm GmbH/MaBo-Investitions GmbH. Developed with the support of the MEDIA Programm of the Europe.

Specifics

Another European peculiarity is the fact that certain feature projects are the direct result of an artistic collaboration between a small group of people who more or less view the financial aspects as a necessary evil. Generally, they are ex-studio independents with little or no means and no structural ties with industrial groups or financiers. Artisans, in a word. There are some success stories like the million tickets sold in France for Raining Cats and Frogs from Jacques-Rémy Girerd, entirely done at the Folimage studio and strongly subsidized by both the government and the French TV channels.

But, even in their case, the morning after is sometimes quite painful, not for the film but for the structure itself. Folimage invested the lions share of its energy into making that film and today the team that made it is likely to have to wait a certain amount of time for the following film, which is only at the writing stage. The continuity of production is very certainly a major problem for many studios who want to keep experienced personnel, not to mention the artistic affinity that is essential to them.

An analysis of the content of European films reveals a reluctance sometimes to address niche markets, such as pre-schoolers or adolescents. This policy corresponds no doubt to the fact that European producers coming as they do for the most part out of television for a long time were concerned primarily with the video and DVD market, cinema releases being seen mostly as a tool for notoriety. In spite of the success of The Triplets of Belleville, the latest big European export, others have not followed suit. And its going to be necessary in order to lend credibility to an argument (not without reason) for quality, talent and diversity.

Reasons to Hope

Is the picture dismal? Encouraging signs must also be taken into account, says Corinne Jenart, one of the organizers of Cartoon Movie (which takes place each year in Berlin under the aegis of CARTOON, the animation platform for the European Unions Media II program.) Little Polar Bear, a film produced by Warner Bros. Gmbh and Cartoon Film, made in Germany by the German Thilo Graf Rothkirch and the Belgian Piet Derycker, sold 2,500,000 tickets two years ago in Germany and Austria.

If we mention this film at this time, its because its about to get a second life in France, where the independent distributor Gébêka, Kirikous distributor (specializing in animation ever since), is preparing to release it in theaters in December. Without a doubt, it is the first time Warner Bros. has allowed a theatrical independent to distribute one of its films outside of its original territory. At the time of this writing, a new production, Laura Star, by the same producers, has sold some one million tickets in Germany in three weeks. This confirmed second success could give other European distributors some ideas.

Another homegrown success, which looks to jump its borders is The Three Wise Men from Antonio Navarro, an Animagic/Carrère Group production, which sold 450,000 tickets in Spain and comes out shortly in France. Whats more, adds Corinne Jenart, El Cid (500,000 tickets in Spain) is looking at international video distribution. As for Raining Cats and Dogs from Jacques-Rémy Girerd, which came out last year in France, it will soon be seen in Germany, Italy and China.

Its still not yet the big time, but up until now films just plain and simply werent getting seen outside of their home territories, either on film or video.

A simultaneous release in all of the European countries would appear to be the Holy Grail, then, seeing as how it has never been done to date.

The Shrek Effect?

The latest trend in European animation CGI appears to be rapidly and firmly taking hold of the market. The Spanish studio Dygrafilm was one of the pioneers with The Living Forest, the first entirely 3D European feature. Since then, everyone else has joined the party. The Danish film, Terkle in Trouble, opted for a fairly basic approach (the graphics closer to Jimmy Neutron than The Incredibles), and features humor that appears to have brought smiles to the notoriously difficult target audience faces, adolescents. Result: 300,000 tickets sold in Denmark alone.

Shrek has spawned a CGI movement in Europe. From top to bottom: Midsummer Dream, P3K: Pinocchio 3000 and Terkel in Trouble. © Dygra Films, 2004; © 2002 Ciné-Groupe Pinocchio 3001; © 2004 Nordisk Films

Shrek has spawned a CGI movement in Europe. From top to bottom: Midsummer Dream, P3K: Pinocchio 3000 and Terkel in Trouble. © Dygra Films, 2004; © 2002 Ciné-Groupe Pinocchio 3001; © 2004 Nordisk Films

Today, everyone is scrambling to make a 3D feature, as if the success of the two Shrek movies convinced European filmmakers that it was no longer necessary to attain the sophistication of a John Lasseter in order to get eyeballs. P3K: Pinocchio 3000 from Daniel Robichaud (France/Canada), Sprung!: The Magic Roundabout from Dave Borthwick, (France/U.K.), Back to Gaya from Lenard F. Krawinkel and Holger Tappe (Germany) and a new film from Dygrafilm, Midsummer Dream, by Angel de la Cruz and Manolo Gomez (Spain) are all CGI features and in the can.

Of course, the refinement that is so often associated with the Europeans is not necessarily evident in all of these productions. For that, were going to have to wait, no doubt, for the return of the big guns, like Nick Park and Peter Lord whose Wallace & Gromit opens in 2005, not to mention Yannik Hastrup and Frenchmen Michel Ocelot, Jean-François Laguionie (The Painting), Jérôme Boulbès (Nuages), Jean-Luc Fromental (Why I Did (Not) Eat My Dad), Jacques-Rémy Girerd (Mia et le Migou) and Francis Nielsen, all of whom are at various stages on new feature animated projects.

European animation continues to look ahead without any problems, but everyones wishing that its present was a little more financially secure.

Special thanks to Corinne Jenart.

Some new European releases announced:

Laura Star from Thilo Graf Rothkirch and Piet Derycker Like Little Polar Bear from the same producers or Charley and Mimmo from Les Armateurs/Carrère Group, this film targets pre-school. Opens in Germany in December 2004.

The Three Wise Men from Antonio Navarro Classically animated film for this classic story. Opens in France in December 2004.

Sprung: The Magic Roundabout from Dioave Borthwick (France/U.K.) The famous French TV series of the sixties, subsequently made famous by the BBC viewers, is now a CGI feature directed by one of the Bolex Brothers. Opens in the U.K./France in February 2005.

Wallace & Grommit, the Movie from Peter Lord and David Sproxton Wallace and Gromits much anticipated return, produced by Aardman Animation and distributed by DreamWorks. Opens worldwide in October 2005.

Philippe Moins is a writer and teacher in Belgium, and also the co-director of Anima 2003.

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