The massive increase in European animated feature film production over recent years has opened the doors to a whole new strand of the European Union Cartoon programs Cartoon Masters professional training program. Following on from the success of Cartoon Movie its annual animated feature pitching market in Potsdam the new event kicked off for the first time in late October in the Bavarian city of Munich.
And as the first of its kind, it was already breaking records on the first morning with a staggering 140 animation producers from all over Europe signing up for the inside story on feature financing. The program took in presentations from successful producers, distributors, lawyers and related practitioners from Europe, the USA and Asia.
Three days of solid information got off to a good start with an overview of the sector from Tim Westcott currently senior analyst with Screen Digest in London and previously a member of the European Audiovisual Observatory in Strasbourg. His previous publications include European Feature Animation (for Cartoon) and The Business of Childrens Television (for Screen Digest).
Westcott pointed out that one of the main goals of the next phase of the European Unions MEDIA program (currently under discussion prior to implementation in 2007) will be to double the penetration of European films outside their country of origin partly by setting up new pan-European distribution structures. So theres likely to be a great deal of financial support for distribution of up-coming movies. And by the look of things, theyre going to need it!
Sure enough, there are more animated features being produced in Europe than ever before 15 had a theatrical release last year but they are mostly made on a low budget and enjoy only limited distribution. The only major exception to this rule in recent years was Aardman Animations Chicken Run but this was very much a DreamWorks movie and so enjoyed all the advantages of the backing of a major U.S. studio.
Westcott gave a dramatic indication of the difference in scale between successful American and European movies and of the mountain that still has to be climbed by European producers. Shrek 2 had an estimated production budget of $70m, took $438m at the U.S. box office plus $80m in the U.K. and $34m each in Germany and Spain and Shrek has already chalked up more than 5.5m DVD sales. Contrast that with one of the biggest European success stories Kirikou and the Sorceress. The budget was 3.8m, with a gross European box office of 6m, with 10,000 DVDs and 300,000 VHS sales in France. Thats quite a difference in scale.
Consultant Catherine Winder added that the three essential elements for any feature were concept, character and story. Now that might seem like a straightforward enough recipe but the truth is that so many European offerings have previously been let down by poor scripts. That has to change if there is to be any hope for the future.
Like Westcott, she added that there will also need to be an increased appetite for big budget productions if the Europeans are going to really take on American dominance in the sector especially given the popularity of 3D CGI films. Out of 72 animated movies produced in America from 1991 to 2003, just 11 were CGI. In just two years, 2004 to 2005, that leaps to 11 out of 15. Its a trend that means higher costs that the Europeans will have to match.
The practicalities of budgeting were clearly set out by Anne-Sophie Vanhollebeke from Italian studio Lanterna Magica, who divided the market between low budget (below 4m and purely for national distribution), medium budget (4-10m for European distribution) and high budget (over 10m for worldwide distribution).
Further budgeting know-how was provided by Michael Rose of Magic Light Pictures in London. He was previously with Aardman Animations, where he was exec producer of Chicken Run. He confirmed that the budget for this movie was well above European averages starting out at $35m and finally coming in at $50m.
We made our half-hour TV special of A Close Shave as a trial run for Chicken Run, using the same kind of production techniques that we would use for the feature, and the budget for that was $2.5m, he said.
But you have to expand the budget many times over if you want to go on to make a feature. You need more animators, more support crew, a bigger studio everything increases in scale. Theres also an impact on your whole business and costs always go up rather than down.
Being Europe, there were plenty of contributions from various organizations responsible for state subsidies and tax benefits. The truth is that most European productions only get made as a result of such programs, which successfully draw investment and employment to their own target regions. Probably the most effective schemes are the German regional film funds, the national French CNC system funded from a tax on all cinema admissions and the British and Irish tax relief systems.
But its one thing to make an animated movie and quite another to successfully create an audience for it. So everyone was keenly aware of the key role that has to be played by distributors in both funding and marketing. And there were plenty of insiders from that sector on hand to share their insights.
Is the distribution of an animated film influenced by its production and should it be? asked UIPs Camille Trumer, in a plea to separate distribution strategies from financial necessities.
The answer, brutal as it may seem, is a very firm NO. The only possible meeting of the two activities is when the budget is being put together. At this stage, a distributor acquiring the cinema or video and TV distribution rights is a part of the formula for financing the project and is helping it to take shape.
This presupposes that the script has been convincing and/or that the character or story is sufficiently well-known or attractive to persuade the distributor concerned to take a risk on it. In this case, the distributor pays the producer a minimum guarantee and is thus associated with the project from its very origins.
The worst possible solution is to plan an animated films release or not on the basis of the production budget. The commercial potential of a film cannot and must not be considered until the film has been viewed and not as a function of production cost.
Even if the message being handed out was sometimes a little tough on European producers, the event was undoubtedly a big success. Judging by the positive response of participants, Cartoon Feature is here to stay alongside the existing Masters of Cartoon Finance, Cartoon Creativity and Cartoon Future.
Bob Swain is an animation scriptwriter for both television and theatrical features. He is based in Brighton, England.