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Zagreb Film's New Beginning

While everyone knows of Zagreb Film's prestigious past, not everyone knows about the current rebirth happening at the studio under the helm of its new general manager Damir Demonja. Heather Kenyon sat down with Damir to talk about the future of Zagreb Film.

Damir Demonja. All images © AWN, Inc.

Damir Demonja. All images © AWN, Inc.

Centered in the heart of the Croatian capital, the once mighty and influential Zagreb Film has fallen into the doldrums. The once creative hotspot and winner of an Oscar for 1961's Substitute (Surogat, Dusan Vukotic), Zagreb Film was a victim of not only the Balkan crisis but also over the past twenty or so years a general petering out or loss of energy. Well, enter Damir Demonja, Zagreb Film's new 35 year-old general manager, who took his post in December of 2001 and is bringing sweeping changes to the sleepy organization. Not afraid of work, Demonja has a list of projects both economic and cultural for the studio. While in Zagreb for the International Film Festival, I toured the studio and sat down with Damir to discuss his plans for the future and his already significant actions. It was a hectic week for the Zagreb Film team who are, of course, very involved in the festival, all the while holding tours and meetings with the visiting professionals.

Officially founded in 1956, Zagreb Film pulled together a team of artists that would go on to make the small studio an international award-winning powerhouse and be known as the Zagreb School of design and style. Beginning in the early Fifties these artists made films however they could, developing a limited animation technique that saved time and money in order to complete their films. They however combined this technique with a very stylized design sense, much in the fashion of the U.S.' UPA studio, to create striking shorts that captured the animation world's attention. However this great spark slowly grew less bright until Zagreb Film completely collapsed after finishing the production of Little Flying Bears with Canada's Cinegroupe.

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The gates leading to Zagreb Film's newer building. The school on Zagreb Film's property which teaches a new generation animation.

Zagreb Film is currently owned by the city of Zagreb, where it is one of thirty such companies that even includes the local public transportation! While the company is supported by the city and Ministry of Culture currently, within the next four years the studio must be privatized. It is now Demonja's difficult job to steer the studio toward co-productions, commercial and other service work, and the full exploitation of Zagreb's significant film library, in order to carve a niche in the crowded animation marketplace. While commercials will play a key role in earning the studio money, short art films will remain on Zagreb's production slate. As Demonja explains, "You have to diversify. It is necessary if you want to stay in business, but we have a history," he says pointing to the Oscar in the glass case behind his desk, "that we cannot forget."

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Progress Made

Even in his short few months Demonja has had a significant impact. He has a unique background which is a mix of art history and distribution. His first move was to license the beloved Professor Balthazar cartoons to Croatian Airlines. The Professor is to the Balkan region what Bugs Bunny is to the U.S. Everyone in the region knows and loves the character. Again capitalizing on Zagreb's amazing library of films, his next move was to strike a deal with Issa Film & Video, a regional distributor (Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia) that also handles Warner Bros. products. "Now Professor Balthazar will be on the same shelf as Scooby Doo and available in the markets that he is best known," Demonja explains. Internally, he has started a marketing and promotions department and, while the company began to delve into CG two years ago, a new media department has been added which is charged with adding Flash to the company's repertoire. Zagreb Film has long worked on everything from artistic shorts, to advertisements, to service work, but now it is a goal of Demonja's to make sure they can take on projects in all of these areas using a number of different animation tools. "We are revitalizing our staff," Demonja goes on to say, "We will be making a number of changes in the coming months." Demonja is focused on bringing in new, young, educated and creative staff members that can match his energy.

The famous Zagreb Film building. The gabled windows at the top feed light to the animation staff.

The famous Zagreb Film building. The gabled windows at the top feed light to the animation staff.

Over the course of our tour, Damir outlined his plan for Zagreb Film's rebirth: "I have to increase production, keep up good, strong relations with the Ministry of Culture, international festivals, ASIFA and international companies, and find new ways of revenue growth by concentrating on new media, new animators and new ideas." To these ends Demonja is hitting the international markets to establish connections to not only get involved in co-productions but also to license the library and increase Zagreb Film's profile. To begin to build business, Demonja attended the American Film Market in Santa Monica, California in February, then went to Budapest's DISCOP in June. Of course, MIPTV and MIPCOM are on his schedule as well as a special trip to this month's Hiroshima Animation Festival. "I am very honored to be screening our work at Hiroshima," says Demonja. "I was very surprised and happy when Sayoko Kinoshita, the festival director, contacted me." At the festival eleven animated films were screened as well as a presentation by Demonja about the animated films which were shown, their authors, the Zagreb School of Animated Films' history and the studio's new direction. Over one thousand people attended and he was even interviewed by the Japanese press, including NHK!

A Platform to Build From

Zagreb Films owns a massive library that includes its shorts and series but also the educational films of Filmoteka 16. Assumed in 1996, these educational, government sponsored films from the former Yugoslavia, are distributed to Croatian speaking populations around the globe. "Sure, Canada, Australia -- Croatians are spread far and wide," Demonja replies when I ask him about the demand for such product. The archive is kept in one of Zagreb Film's two buildings in the center of the city. In addition to the archive, this "newer" building, houses the administrative offices, animation school, editing bays and production facilities, while the older, larger building is Zagreb Film's complete production facility complete with cameras and screening rooms. In this older building is where history was made.

The dates of major renovations of the oldest Zagreb Film building, where the original Zagreb team made history.

The dates of major renovations of the oldest Zagreb Film building, where the original Zagreb team made history.

While walking the creaking wooden floors of this building, Demonja unveils another project: "Yes, this building will be renovated. We have already started." He then takes me to the screening room and describes his plan for a new 100 seat theater with Dolby Digital sound, which will be an art cinema and present special screenings in association with ASIFA's very active local chapter. Currently in conjunction with ASIFA, public animation screenings are being held, but with this new theater, and a museum, which is also in the planning stages, an animation center will be created. Not only a fitting spot for such a facility, paying homage to the past, but also to increase awareness of animation and promote it among the public. Behind the building, in a nice shaded grassy yard, a meeting place will be built, complete with snacks and refreshments, so that the venue will be fitting for all sorts of public events. Vesna Dovnikovic helms the local ASIFA chapter, serves as vice president on the ASIFA International board and is also providing Demonja with consulting services regarding the rejuvenation of the studio. "She has been a great help," he says.

With all this taking momentum, Demonja's goals remain clear cut. The studio currently employs 32 full-time employees that are working on a television co-production, several commercials and art films. In 2002, nine short films will have been made and numerous commercials. Many of these commercials are for the biggest Croatian companies, selling such staples as fruit juice and milk. The television series co-production, Lilos Lesewelt, is with the Austrian company Helbling and is a series of 26 X 5-minute episodes teaching pre-schoolers German. A crew of twelve is currently working on the series, which is on episode number 16. All production steps are done in-house using Toonz and editing is done on a Matrox DigiSuite system.

"I want everyone to know that Zagreb Film is alive!" he finishes, standing in front of the first, original building. "It is going to take some work, but we have a lot of directions to take and a lot to work with."

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Four artists at work on Zagreb Film's current television production. While a lot of the studio's editorial equipment was in use at the festival, editing continued.

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Digital ink and paint at Zagreb Film. A stop-motion set being used for the short film Iskupljenje (Redemption), by Davor Medurecan.

Special thanks to Zdravko Virovec, a Zagreb Film animator/director, for driving me on my tour and fearlessly double parking in the narrow streets of Zagreb!

Heather Kenyon is editor in chief of Animation World Network. After graduating magna cum laude with a BFA from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television, Heather began her career in animation at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, where she became manager of the Production Communications department. She has contributed a chapter to the book, Animation in Asia published by John Libbey & Company, Ltd. Heather is also vice president of Women In Animation International and on the Board of Trustees of Trees for Life.

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