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The Long Shadow Over The Atlantic

Heikki Jokinen relates the current feature animation scene in Europe, from distribution problems to help from Cartoon.

The flood of feature animation is not a phenomenon limited to the United States. Europe produces a lot of feature animation and the pace is even accelerating. The difference is that the European films hardly ever cross their own national borders. Europe has the creative talent; seven out of ten recent animation Oscars were given to European filmmakers. However, not even major domestic success guarantees the distribution of an animated feature in other European countries.

Werner III, Volles Rooäää!!!, which premiered September 16, 1999, reached 2.1 million spectators in the first three weeks. © and courtesy of Brösell/Achterbahn AG.

For example, in Germany Werner I (1990) and Werner II (1996) both collected 5.5 million spectators. Werner III, Volles Rooäää!!!, which premiered September 16, 1999, reached 2.1 million spectators in the first three weeks. But even these films are not screened in the rest of Europe. Moreover, the reason is not due to that infamous German humour! The fascinating Italian children's feature La Freccia Azzurra (The Blue Arrow) by Enzo d'Alo was only occasionally shown in the cinemas of other European countries.

In the United States European animated features are totally unknown, because the US cinema market is in general one of the most protected and closed markets in the world. The percentage of foreign films in US cinemas is more comparable with North Korea than Europe.

The new feature by D'Alo, La Gabbianella e il Gatto (Lucky and Zorba), premiered in Italy at the end of last year, around the same time as Mulan and The Prince of Egypt, both of which were accompanied by an expensive marketing campaign. By February of 1999 though, only La Gabbianella e il Gatto was on the list of top 15 box office hits in Italy.

In Norway a domestic animated feature was the major hit of the year. Ludvik, Solan og Gurin med reverompa (Gurin with Foxtail) by Nille Tystad and John M. Jacobsen attracted 700,000 spectators into Norwegian cinemas, which placed it second in spectator statistics, shadowed only by Titanic. The absolute all-time winner of Norwegian cinema spectator statistics is also an animation, Flåklypa Grand Prix (The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix, 1975) by Ivo Caprino. Its total audience was over five million, which is not bad in a country of four million people!

Zorba the Cat from Lucky and Zorba. © Lantera Magica.

Cartoon Now Does Movies

Cartoon, the European Union's animation platform, recently decided to take action. It organized the first Cartoon Movie in February at the historical Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, near the German capital of Berlin. The idea was to collect financiers and distributors together for three days to extend national distribution into international success.

The three day event included screenings of seven completed films, presentations of 27 projects in development and nine films in production. Cartoon was happy with the results and has already announced that the next Cartoon Movie will be held in Potsdam in March 2000. The aim is to create a European network in the field of feature animation and this equals a lot of work.

"The fact that the animation is 85 minutes long, is not enough to get distribution," said a British producer Allan Rudoff from Index Entertainment at the Cartoon Movie seminar on the animation feature market. "For a distributor animation has risks that other films do not have. Cinemas are spoiled with huge campaigns run by the big US companies. Also the audience is spoiled with very expensive movies. Animated features are often made for children, and the screenings are often restricted to school holidays and afternoons. Even the ticket prices for children are lower."

British producer Robin Lyons confirms: "When I spoke about a new feature with a big distributor, the first thing they asked was about the budget. When I answered 3 - 4 million British pounds, they told me they were not interested unless the budget was 30 40 million pounds, because every film competes with Disney."

A typical European animated feature costs between 3 and 5 million euro. (The euro is the new European currency, which is at the moment almost equivalent with the US dollar.) This budget already includes the marketing promotion.

In the promotional field, Europeans are often poor amateurs in comparison with highly professional US companies. US animation producers are paying journalists, even from my far away home town of Helsinki, to see screenings in California or New York. Many European producers are not even supplying press photos of their films despite repeated demands. Know Your Audience Werner Schaack, director of the German Werner films, supposes the reason for his success is making films for an audience that already likes cartoonist Brösel's Werner comics. Werner is a major hit. The comics have sold over 10 million copies. "We will fail if we try to make Disney films. They do it better." Schaack's company has adapted another popular German comic as an animated feature, Walter Moers' black satire Kleine Arschloch (Little Asshole, 1997). It gathered "only" 3.3 million spectators. "I know that German humor does not easily cross the borders, that's why we did the films for Germans," Schaack says. Surprisingly the same strategy might also work in a small country. "For an international success you first need success in our own country," believes the Norwegian producer John M. Jacobsen. "See for instance Thomas Vinterberg's Festen (Party). It ran well first in Denmark, and then everywhere else." There is no point in trying to make an international film, Jacobsen says. Even though his film Gurin and Foxtail was a colossal hit in Norway, it has difficulties in traveling abroad, even to the neighbouring Nordic countries which are culturally, mentally and partially linguistically close to each other. "There is a high threshold for a Norwegian film to be distributed abroad," Jacobsen says. "But," he continues, summing up the possibilities for a feature from a small country to travel abroad, "If the producer has good personal relations abroad, a Norwegian film has the same potential as, say, any Dutch or Belgian film. A British or French film is in a better starting position every time. This business depends on personal relationships. I've been working for a long time already and do have some credibility." While Gurin and Foxtail is his first animation, Jacobsen began as a producer in 1983 and already had a career as a distributor.

In a small country the support of the ticket buying audience is not enough. "One cannot do a feature in Norway without public support," says Jacobsen. Out of the total budget of 42 million Norwegian crowns (US$5.4 million), the public, i.e. government, support covered 15 million crowns. "5 6 million crowns went for learning. This was our first animated feature, we made some mistakes," Jacobsen says. "For marketing, we used perhaps some 2.5 million crowns." The target audience? The entire population. "In a country of four million people you cannot make it for a certain group or you will be bankrupt. That might work in a country of 40 million people, but not in Norway. The most difficult task was to convince people that Norwegian animation succeeds when it's made professionally. We need understanding that this is a professional business, filmmaking."

Kirikou et la sorciere, released in France last December, has reached the one million spectator mark in France. Courtesy of Les Armateurs.

The "C" Word

In most cases thinking only about the home market is not a working solution. Most European producers favour co-operation, which is not always easy. Stewe Walsh produced A Monkey's Tale, a brand new film by Frenchman Jean-François Laguionie. The budget was collected from Germany, France, Britain and Hungary. "We had 21 sources of money altogether," Walsh counts. "We didn't want a US financier; their demands were too different for us. When I showed the film to a US distributor, they first asked who was singing the songs. Every time the song is on the radio it is free advertising for the film." A Monkey's Tale will have quite a comprehensive distribution in Europe, it started with 65 prints in France and is now running with 100 prints. The story of the monkey king and his country has already been sold to many countries as well.

A true European success is Kirikou et la sorciere by Frenchman Michel Ocelot. It is a beautifully drawn fairy tale about a small boy Kirikou and the witch who rules his village. It is far removed from the sweet style we see in many Disney productions; images are simple but powerful. The small budget was even turned into a source of power. The animation by the Rija Studio in Latvia's capital of Riga is good work, and attractive music was added thanks to Youssou N'Dour.

Kirikou was released in France last December and has reached the one million spectators mark in France. I spoke to the director Michel Ocelot at the Annecy Festival in June and he believed that Kirikou will be among the top ten box office hits in France this year. The film has also been exported to several countries in Europe and other corners of the world.

Expanding the Horizon

The little giant of feature animation is Denmark, a country of 5 million inhabitants. Due to their good public support system of the cinema, Denmark has produced several animated features through the years. Films like Jannik Hastrup's Samson and Sally (1984) or Subway to Paradise (1987) were aimed mostly at children. International distribution usually covers the Nordic countries and central Europe. Last year the veteran director Hastrup made the first Danish animated feature for adults, H.C. Andersen og den skæve skygge (Hans Christian Andersen and the Long Shadow). It is an intelligent story about the man behind the reputation of the well known fairy tale writer. Ever since his early childhood, H.C. Andersen has had the feeling of being different, and he soon discovers he has a mean shadow that takes over from him. The shadow makes a fool of him, steals his loved one Jenny and promises his soul to the devil. Throughout all of this, Andersen carries his pet duck along! The Long Shadow is a challenging film for a mature audience, and plays with the idea of a famous man and his inevitable shadow. The animation is beautiful -- simple and strong in colour -- and the different pieces of the script fit well together. Producer Marie Bro explains that films like this would not be possible without public funding. One third of the 4.6 million euros came from public support. The Long Shadow is a demanding film, and while the "reviews were good, it got only some twenty thousand spectators in Danish cinemas," Bro reveals. However the film has been bought by several TV channels and was also distributed in French cinemas. Europe is waiting for a big international success, and many professionals are sure it will happen soon. In the field of feature animation it is not only a matter of a good film, but also good distribution and marketing. The safe bet for success is Chicken Run by Nick Park and Peter Lord of Aardman Animations in Bristol, Britain. The film will be finished next year. Nick Park is the creator of Wallace and Gromit and a master of clay animation. The film has a US producer in DreamWorks SKG and this guarantees vital access to the large US market. If the film keeps - and exceeds - the expected level of Park's and Lord's previous work it could and will become a real global hit. Heikki Jokinen is a freelance critic and journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He specializes in comics, short film and animation. He is chairman of the Finnish Art Critics' Association and the former president of ASIFA Nordic, the ASIFA regional body for the five Nordic and three Baltic countries.