Animation Festivals: A Year of Proliferation and Change

by Irene Kotlarz

A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a couple of people in a crummy room with a projector, the caption a pun on the name of a well-known arty film festival. Recent events in our own world of animation suggest we should ask ourselves whether there is some truth in the joke and whether festivals are indeed any more than a small bunch of people in empty rooms talking only to each other. A panel discussion at Ottawa this fall on the subject of the future of festivals, according to one panel member, attracted very small attendance, which he presumed was due to lack of interest. Another festival director present said he was dismayed by the gloom and doom and negativity expressed by independent animators. A law of diminishing returns seems to be resulting from the plethora of festivals on offer, although as the New Yorker cartoon would suggest, this is more widespread than just animation, with almost every town which can muster a projector -- and more importantly, a projectionist -- putting on a film festival.

The Demise of Cardiff
Evidently a radical reappraisal is called for. In the November 11, 1998 issue of Variety , Wendy Jackson described the struggle for survival between competing old and new animation festivals as Darwinian. One event which has succumbed is The Festival Formerly Known as Cardiff, which this year, with misplaced optimism, renamed itself `Vital.' Let me immediately declare my interest in that I was director of this festival in its earlier incarnations from 1985 to 1992, during which time we moved it from Cambridge to Bristol to Cardiff. I directed four festivals in all, and each move to a new city was prompted by pressure for bigger venues to accommodate the festival's rapidly growing audience. I was surprised by the festival's sudden demise, given the continuing roll that British animation is on, and decided to make a few phone calls.

The consensus seemed to be that the festival had lost its direction and hence, its audience. Since I left there have been three different directors, one for each festival since 1994. It has really been the Board who, in the words of member Bob Godfrey, have `run the show.' Another Board member, Aardman Animations producer Michael Rose, said he felt the festival had become top heavy and had run out of steam; it was time to call it a day and leave it to others to start something fresh.

Precisely what finally tipped the festival over the edge was a debt incurred apparently by the failure of box office returns to meet their target. The exact size of the debt is unclear; when the Board of Directors closed the organization in August it was around £25,000 ($40,000), but this figure has reputedly soared to £95,000 ($150,000) and some say it is even higher. Several Board members I spoke to were amazed to hear this, but at the time they last met and decided to declare the company insolvent -- in August -- not all monies owed to the festival, nor all the bills, were in. Also, when a creditors meeting was subsequently called by the liquidators, only one Board member reportedly attended. What has undoubtedly upped the scale of debt is that the majority of creditors are based in Cardiff, and they were not happy with the London-based liquidator appointed by the Board, so have appointed their own in Wales. This has meant two sets of liquidators fees will have been added to the list of creditors. Any financial assets remaining will be distributed between the creditors, but obviously the more of them there are, the less each will get.

The Board, like the festival organization as a whole, no longer officially exists. The legal constitution of the festival was that of a Company Limited by Guarantee, which means the financial liability of each Board member is limited to £1 -- so long as they do not knowingly incur debts they cannot repay. The Company was also a registered charity, for which it received tax breaks and in return for which its prime mission had to be to inform and educate the public -- as opposed, for instance, to being mainly concerned with trade-oriented exhibitions or events.

Contributing Factors
Chairperson of the Board, Joan Lofts, was unwilling to comment when I asked her about the departure of this year's director, Jane Williams, or the size of the festival's debts. Lofts stood by the festival's decision to eliminate day passes this year, saying the animation industry should have been willing to support its own event by paying the full delegate fee, which she felt was inexpensive compared to trade events like the World Summit of Children's Television. The timing of the latter was one of the factors named by Lofts in her press release contributing to the loss of the festival's audience, which she believed to be mainly TV broadcasters, and leading to its bankruptcy.

Some other Board members are more inclined to self-criticism. With hindsight, one said, the abolition of day passes was one of two big mistakes. The other was the advance commitment to very expensive facilities for the `Expo' trade exhibition, which in the event stood pretty much empty. The Hollywood studios that had taken stands two years before during their frantic recruiting drive, now long-since over and replaced by lay-offs, failed to show interest this year -- a problem apparently not anticipated by the festival. Nevertheless `Vital' had a very respectable sponsorship base, a substantial amount of it from Welsh sources, which gave it a budget of nearly half a million pounds ($800,000). What tipped it over the edge at the end of the day despite this healthy level of income was it additionally banked on box office returns of £50,000 ($80,000) -- a very high figure from my experience. So we come back irresistibly to the spectacle of a festival in search of an audience.

One attendee in Cardiff was U.S.-based Marty MacNamara, who was surprised by the absence of British filmmakers -- as well as the presence of some American ones, plus the large numbers of students. MacNamara had chosen Cardiff in favor of the two other major animation festivals on offer in Europe over the same period -- Annecy and Zagreb. He was chagrined at having to make such tough choices, and feels all festivals lose out as a result. Annecy's decision to become an annual event this year was another factor named by Cardiff as contributing to its losses, although Annecy seems undaunted by charges of unsporting behavior. `Vital' seems to have come adrift from what for many years was the British event's slot in the international calendar, in the autumn of alternate years from Ottawa, and found its way into the summer, a notoriously difficult time for cinema events in Britain, although the Board has blamed a number of factors beyond their control for this decision as well.

The World Animation Celebration returns in 1999 albeit with a new director, dates and format.

An Older Regime
I can see good reasons for festivals to become annual; in many ways it makes fundraising easier, as well as maintaining a continuity of staff and visibility. Terry Thoren, Chairman of the Los Angeles World Animation Celebration, also an annual event, takes an upbeat view. His festival, held for the last two years in Pasadena, will relocate in 1999 to a new venue in Hollywood, with a new director, new format, and new dates. He wouldn't commit to exact timing but said, `The sun would be shining.' He feels that the major international festivals such as Annecy, Ottawa and Hiroshima are secure in their places. Many of the smaller, newer festivals are aimed more at an enthusiastic local audience, to whom the organizers want to show the best of world animation with maybe a few guests. They are not, however, in competition as major meeting places for the international business. With the huge box office success of Antz, A Bug's Life, and The Rugrats Movie, he feels animation cannot help but be on a high, but that the business is different now and festivals must reflect this.

There are some I spoke to who regret what they feel is the takeover of festivals by big business. It seems likely that the imperative to hold the MIFA trade show annually was a factor in Annecy's decision. It is true that ever since MIFA's arrival on the scene it has required considerable mental gymnastics to try to make sense of its cultural relationship with the rest of the festival. The festival is still largely and traditionally devoted to the concept of animation as `art,' with the competition still hiving off `commissioned films' into separate and, one can't help feeling, less prestigious categories.

The concept of `art' here tends to be equated with truth or beauty, transcending national or cultural boundaries, language or the interests of politics or business. This was the zeitgeist at the time Annecy, and the international animation association ASIFA which supported it, were both formed in 1960. Actually, as can be easily demonstrated by art historians or anthropologists, art is not timeless but very specific to historical moments and cultures. Therefore it is worth describing the prevailing thinking in that formative time of 1960, which still influences the thinking of ASIFA and many festivals.

Annecy's newest edition will take place May 31 to June 5, 1999, despite Jean-Luc Xiberras' passing.

Rethinking the Festival Circuit's Role
International `art-house' cinema, as well as the Cold War, were at their height, and Hollywood was in decline. The fashion in film criticism was the theory Francois Truffaut named in 1954 La politique des auteurs, embraced by many directors of the French New Wave as well as in other countries, and by critics in Europe and America. It proposed the appreciation of film mainly as a means of personal expression by an individual, usually the director. They were an `author' because their creative sensibility was so distinctive it could be inscribed in the collective process of film-making just as clearly as in a poem or novel. As has often been pointed out, it owed a great deal to the nineteenth century Romantic ideal of the artist or poet, and as such, `art' was seen in terms such as truth and transcendence. In the context of the Cold War it was helpful to appeal to an idea of art which was universal and humanist, crossing national and linguistic boundaries, and it was the search for this quality, and the identification of auteurs, which was the mission of critics and festivals.

Annecy was created with ASIFA support from the feeling that the emergent artform of animation was not getting a fair deal at live-action film festivals like Cannes. It was organized on the principle of recognizing animation auteurs or Great Masters and their work through awards and retrospectives. Other international competitive festivals followed under the patronage of ASIFA, including Zagreb, Varna, Ottawa, and Hiroshima, on the same model and all sharing the same philosophy of art, as well as humanist values like promoting international understanding. The idea of art as transcending nationality was expressed in the emphasis on the importance of international juries, and ASIFA's role was, among other things, to monitor festivals for these values.

ASIFA withdrew their sanctioning of Annecy in protest over its treatment of sister festival Zagreb.

Now ASIFA's role vis-a-vis festivals, as well as its general philosophy, are under revision. Ottawa has withdrawn unilaterally from ASIFA support, and ASIFA has withdrawn from Annecy in protest over its treatment of sister festival Zagreb. The current proposal is for ASIFA to maintain an arms-length role in its patronage of festivals; those wishing to inform themselves of the debate can find it on the ASIFA website through the AWN Village. The need to modernize ASIFA International has long been recognized, but is hampered by the infrequency of board meetings and lack of funds. In fact, festivals supported by ASIFA had to pay for the privilege by covering the accommodation expenses of board members attending the festival.

While creating a supportive environment for animators was and is a very important aspect of ASIFA's and the festivals' work, adopting exclusively auteurist principles of personal expression as selection or judging criteria, while valuable, is not adequate to assessing the wider complexities of the medium, especially today. This approach has never allowed for other more radical or modernist concepts of art which take as their subject not the artist's temperament but the material of film itself. Therefore, as an example, such important avant-garde artists as Harry Smith or Robert Breer have remained out in the cold.

Changes for a New Time
Also, the imperatives of business and commerce are considered the enemy of art -- at best the artist might overcome them in order to express him or herself. An alternative view would be to consider the animated film as the text in which not only the creative personality of the director, but also a variety of cultural and technological forces are at play, such as the confluence of high art and popular culture, the political and social context, and the mode of production. Hugely popular phenomena like The Simpsons and other recent TV animation, sectors where art and commerce meet like MTV, as well as commercials, feature films, and the influence of new technologies, remain more or less undigested elements in many competitive festivals.

Ottawa is planning to gear future festivals more towards independent animation and student films.

One option in the face of confusion is to specialize. Ottawa, I am told, is planning to concentrate on independent animation (whatever that is these days) and student films. The idea of the smaller, boutique-type festival, (ideally in a nice place, like the ever-popular live-action festival Telluride in the Colorado Rockies, which has been run by the same two people since it began twenty-five years ago) has a lot going for it. To my way of thinking, the film and animation festivals curated by one or two accountable individuals are still the most interesting. On the other hand, taking a broader view, the long predicted impact of computers and new technologies on animation is now irrevocable. New formats like IMAX, high-definition television and 3D on which much new work is being generated, as well as the ubiquitous digital tape, will challenge the projection capabilities of any festival which wants to keep up with developments in the twenty-first century. Festivals in large cities like Los Angeles might, in this regard, have the edge.

One final option is for festivals to reconsider the whole concept of competition and judging altogether in favor of non-competitive events presenting as wide range of material as possible, each with their own merits and refraining from the value-judgments of prizes. Again I should declare my interest since the festival I directed and programmed for seven years was non-competitive, which allowed for greater flexibility of programming by theme as well as by artist. The festival had been set up that way in Cambridge in 1965 for various practical reasons, but also reflecting the reality that British animators have always had to earn their living in commercials and television. Their commercial work was not rubbish, and they were also able to maintain their identity as independents -- which is probably one reason we have the unique phenomenon of Channel 4.

The Cambridge, Bristol and Cardiff festivals celebrated as wide a spectrum of work and interests as possible, but it was a fine balance. Perhaps in the lead up to the festival's demise this balance was destroyed. At the 1996 Cardiff festival Chairperson Joan Lofts said that in order to survive `the festival had to become more commercial,' but it seems in the process over the last two festivals the organizers lost touch with the audience. Recent meetings with the animation communities in Cardiff and London to consider what might replace the festival have resulted in plans for various smaller and more specialized events. Cardiff is hoping to stage an international event, possibly with awards and in association with the Welsh Film Festival, in the autumn of 1999. A rumored plan for a new Bristol festival is unlikely to materialize. The biennial British Animation Awards, which have taken place twice in London, may expand to include more screenings. Furthermore, the independent producers' association PACT is planning to host industry-based seminars and events. It seems unlikely Britain will see another broad-based international animation festival any time soon.

Irene Kotlarz is a Los Angeles-based freelance producer and animation consultant. Kotlarz was the director of the Cardiff/Bristol/Cambridge festival from 1985 to 1992. She has taught animation history and theory at West Surrey College, Royal College of Arts and the National Film and Television School in the U.K. and was a producer at Speedy Films from 1993 to 1997.

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