Invariably, when people discuss animation festivals, one name comes up most often – Annecy. In conversations large and small, where moments of great enjoyment are recounted alongside moments of sheer frustration, talk of Annecy is different from talk about any other event. Those lucky enough to attend on a regular basis murmur in hushed tones about shared joys and perceived indignities like neighbors reminiscing about riding out a tornado crammed into their storm cellars. Those that have never attended hope one day they’ll get there – those that have attended begrudgingly yearn for the day they’ll return.
Standing front and center, in the crosshairs of the industry’s gaze, for the past 14 years, has been artistic director Serge Bromberg. No one else embodies the triumphs and tribulations of the festival more than Serge. He has been the central artistic voice, the person who puts himself out there, without flinching, without breaking, doing his best to satisfy and properly represent a vocal, moody, conflicted and often terribly annoying community of artists, studio execs, producers, distributors, educators, government officials and rowdy-ass disaffected French youth.
He brought the festival kicking and screaming into the modern age of entertainment, integrating a variety of drastically needed and critically important commercial segments while still embracing, at its core, the celebration of the magical art and craft of animation. Not an easy job. Often a thankless job. And always a vitally important job.
After 14 years at the helm, this past June, Serge announced he was stepping down as director. Former NFB producer Marcel Jean, himself a well-respected industry pro, has taken over. I got a chance to speak to Serge the day before the news became public. He shared his reasons for leaving, his future plans and the impact his efforts have had on the festival.
Dan Sarto: It’s a tough job being a festival director.
Serge Bromberg: No, it’s not tough.
DS: It’s demanding?
SB: No. I would say it’s like being a tight-rope walker. As long as you don’t realize that there is emptiness underneath you, it’s just walking.
But then, there are so many responsibilities, so many issues to deal with that, at some point, you feel that the only way to deal with all those things is to apply rules, to apply strategies, techniques. And after 14 years, you realize that even though you’re changing the festival every year, doing different things every year and are still enthusiastic, you’re using the same techniques to do it.
It’s like somebody who does sun-painting, and he loves sun-painting and people say, “Oh, that’s great, you’re sun-painting.” And after 10 years, he’s done 10 years of sun-painting and thinking well, what should I do now, what can I invent? I think that at some point in life, you decide that there are other people, younger or from different areas of animation, that would be better or would bring new ideas, new dynamics. Probably you don’t know when but at some moment, you feel it inside, that the moment has come.
I’m not leaving. I will be there next year. I will be doing different things, but I will be very, very active in the festival. This is a love story. I’m not quitting the festival, I’m not angry in any way. On the contrary, I love this festival. I think it’s a fabulous festival. But my successor [Marcel Jean, who hadn’t been announced at that point] will certainly bring fresh air, and if they need a face to represent the festival, I’ll still be there.
DS: What are your plans now? What’s next for you?
SB: Well, something unexpected happened over the last five years. I directed two feature films, documentaries, but one of them [Inferno] has actors. Bérénice Bejo is in the first one. She actually climbed the stairs of the Cannes Film Festival for the first time for my film, which was an official selection in Cannes in 2009. Last year I did a feature film about A Trip to the Moon restoration that took 12 years of my life.
So, I would like to do another film. All filmmakers know how much energy it takes to make a film. There is very little room for anything else. But besides that I have my shows. I’m touring throughout the world with silent films, playing the piano. My company, Lobster Films, produces TV shows in France, documentaries for television, short-films. Plus I write books. And I have three kids. So, it’s enough to fill a lifetime.
And there is a moment when well, you feel, it’s now, it’s now. But here again, I may regret it [stepping down]. No doubt, I will regret it when I see what my successor will do. No doubt, I will think, “Oh I would not have done this,” or “What a great idea. I wish I had that idea before.” I’m very optimistic. I’m acting here for the best of the festival. And if there is any problem of course, I’ll always be there.
The festival started for me in 1998. I was hosting the Award Ceremony. No one knew me, I was just here as the host. But I was adopted like a son of Annecy. This is my family.
DS: Do you think that you have helped the festival evolve and grow in ways that will last after you leave? Can you point to anything you’ve accomplished that makes you feel especially proud?
SB: Yes, I’m awfully proud. And I must tell you this. Dominique Puthod, the President, made a very bold choice when he hired me in 1999, right after the 1998 ceremony. He said, well, at that time I was hosting a two-hour daily TV show on public television in France with animation for kids. I was the French Mr. Rogers, but much, much, much funnier. I think I was funny. I mean, the kids loved me and it lasted for eight years, so probably it was funny.
And so they brought me here. And the first thing I realized is that the DNA of Annecy, the notion that we regard the festival as anti-studio, didn't make any sense. From the beginning, the organizers did not speak very good English, probably they were a bit scared of negotiating with big studios. Probably. I don’t know for sure. But in an event, keeping the industry away simply did not make any sense. How can you tell the story of animation without Snow White, Chuck Jones, to name a few? It was just impossible.
DS: You can't.
SB: You just can’t, it’s just ridiculous. So, I said to Dominique and Tiziana [Tiziana Loschi, the festival’s managing director], that, I would join on the condition that Roy Disney would be the next honorary president, John Lasseter would be in the jury and that would be the start of a total global change of the festival. I think it literally changed. It was the thing to do. There was no other way. Otherwise, we would be one of the many animation film festivals where you see very interesting stuff…”
DS: That festival by the lake…
SB: Yes. I’m proud of the size the festival has reached now. I think the MIFA, the mix between the MIFA and the festival is much, much nicer today. It’s not MIFA anti festival. These days are over. We all know how tough it is to find money. So, we need distributors, we need television programs, we need schools, we need technology. It’s a global world! For my real first edition as a decision maker, I made that choice and I’m very proud I could do it. I mean, the Annecy people thought it was high-risk.
DS: That’s interesting that they thought it was high-risk.
SB: Of course, of course, I speak fluent English. I go to the United States all the time. I used to host shows, buy programs, sell programs, produce programs with my own company, Lobster Films. So, basically I was one from the MIFA and one from the festival at the same time. And that gives a difference of perspective. I hope my successor will share the same feeling.
DS: Any highlights, any things that you look back on and say, “I’m glad I got a chance to meet this person or be involved with this?”
SB: So many that naming one would be an offense to all the others. So, I will not name the big names and forget about the small names. I will say the members of the festival crews have been really amazing. I must say that the best moments, maybe not the best but the richest moments are not during the craze of the festival, that week where things are moving so fast, that you cannot stop, even if you met the woman of your dreams, you would kiss her and leave because you have another appointment.
But during the pre-selection process, we would spend two weeks, three weeks with people from all around the world, watching films, discussing films, sharing good and bad moments. Those are the richest moments. Besides that, I mean, I’ve had so much, I’m so spoiled by this festival. Everything one would wish to have, I’ve had. Except that my wife, on my second festival in 2000, told me, “Listen, when you’re here, I’m with you, but you’re so crazy running everywhere, I don’t even see you. So, I’d rather stay home.” So since 2001, she just does not show up in Annecy during the festival because she feels it’s not her place. Besides that, only good moments. And lots of animation. I loved animation before. I grew into loving it even more, if that is even possible.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.