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Beyond The Majors: Independent Animation Feature Production

As technologies improve and the market for animated features becomes more broad and active, animated feature production outside of the major U.S. studios is on the rise. Here we discuss funding, distribution and more with four studios currently taking the plunge.

As technologies improve and the market for animated features becomes more broad and active, animated feature production outside of the major U.S. studios is on the rise. Let's hear from four independent studios taking the plunge and creating animated features. How are they tackling such hurdles as staffing, funding and distribution? Read on...

© Castelao Productions.

© Castelao Productions.

El Cid: The Legend

Paco Rodríguez, Head of International Sales and Co-Productions Filmax Animation

The Filmax Group, through its production arm Castelao Productions in co-production with Bren Entertainment and Toon Factory, is producing the new animated feature film: El Cid: The Legend. Based on a Spanish literature classic, El Cid was brought to the screen in the past by Hollywood (El Cid with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren). El Cid is like Cleopatra or Napoleon, a 100% historical character that can be easily dramatised since it has been done for centuries. The most famous, El Cantar Del Mio Cid, the first masterwork of Spanish literature, was written by an anonymous minstrel of Medina Celli or from San Esteban de Gormaz in the XII century and was composed of 3750 verses. El Cid: The Legend depicts a time of feuding warlords, unscrupulous princelings, robber barons and marauding invaders. A time when courage had few principles, when ambition tore apart families, where loyalty bowed to the biggest bidder. A time when half the world was the battleground in the struggle between Christianity and Islam.

We think the project is a good bet because it involves a few strong ingredients:

  • A great hero such as Sir Lancelot, Robin Hood or Richard the Lion Hearted.
  • Adventures that shape civilisations, humour, the deep universal values of family, honour, love and friendship.
  • A journey from hero to legend, which is a classic and historical story.
  • It has national and international appeal.
  • The strength of the historical facts (900 years later the story is repeated with the arrival to the Iberian Peninsula of a great number of Muslims from the northern part of Africa), where Spain has to be tolerant and support once again a religious and cultural co-existence and foster mutual respect. This is very much a message for today; we have to transmit to the new, upcoming generation that are going to live with this in the short and long term.
  • The quality of the graphic designs and the strength of the characters.
  • Plus, it is a children's/family feature film.

The pre-production studio is based at our headquarters in Barcelona, Spain. The work is shipped to our main studio in Valencia, Spain, where the production is centered. From there we feed other studios, such as Time Lapse, Monigotes, Accio and Canuk, the animation work. No animation has been done in Asia so far. We aim to produce an animated feature film totally produced in Europe with European artists. Around 10% of the film will be done in 3D in our 3D studio Bren Entertainment, based in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

It is a very ambitious project for Spanish production standards. The production budget is $US 5.1 million. It is currently in production with most production being done in Spain with Spanish artists. Delivery is planned for December 2002. The funding for the film comes mostly from Spanish TV presales, Spanish subsidies (ICAA and the regional government of Valencia), a loan with the Instituto Catalan de Finanzas (against international presales) and proper resources from our production company Castelao and our 3D studio Bren Entertainment.

The film has already been presold for theatrical release to France & French speaking countries, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Turkey, Arabic countries, Greece, Argentina and others. Deals are on the way with the U.S., Germany, Scandinavia and the U.K. We hope to be able to close a U.S. deal and have the film released first in the U.S. Then we aim to release the film in the second, third and fourth quarters of 2003 in Europe depending on the strategy of our partners in these territories. The film will be shown at the following markets: NATPE, AFM, MIPTV, Cannes Film Festival, MIPCOM and MIFED in 2002 where more presales will be done.

indie02.gif Delgo in action. © 2002 Fathom Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Delgo A Hero's Journey

Marc F. Adler, Producer/Executive Producer, and Jason F. Maurer, Director, Co-Writer Fathom Studios

Marc F. Adler: Delgo is largely the result of the right people coming together at the right time with the right technology. We've spent a decade honing our skills and processes in animation with broadcast and commercial work. We've pulled together talent from around the globe from varying disciplines. And, we've developed software uniquely catered to our needs.

Most importantly, Jason and I have worked with our writer, Scott Biear, to create a unique fantasy epic story that will engage the imaginations of young and old audiences alike. In addition, we've teamed with industry insiders for strategic counsel and have recruited a strong ensemble cast. It's as much a daily education as it is an adventure.

Jason F. Maurer: Delgo is a fully-financed feature produced for theatrical release. By putting together our own funding and maintaining our independence, we've enjoyed many creative freedoms and it shows in the story and look of our film. Throughout the process, the Fathom Studios team works closely together, each person touching many aspects of the production and not limiting their talents to one area.

We are creating this feature using Maya and Deep Paint 3D. Because collaboration is key for a project like this, we've created newsgroups for animation, reference, story, music (for the composer), tips and tricks and the major one, Digital Dailies, which we've opened up to the public via our Website, Using the newsgroups, everyone on staff can post an image or a movie of their work and get instant feedback from others, with the added bonus of the feedback being documented for later reference. This gives us the liberty to be anywhere at anytime and see what is happening with the film.

MFA: It's been a goal of mine to make a feature film since I was a teenager. I had planned to attempt it much earlier in my career, but was sidetracked by other opportunities and, instead, formed an interactive agency called Macquarium Intelligent Communications, which today focuses on business solutions employing Internet, CD-ROM/DVD and wireless technologies. However, I never lost sight of my filmmaking goals and one fateful day in 1996 when viewing a CG animation test produced by Jason, who was then the head of our broadcast group (later to be named Fathom Studios), the idea for our CG fantasy epic was born.

indie03.gif © 2002 Fathom Studios. All Rights Reserved.

JFM: We came up with a general concept and plot points and conducted anthropological and sociology research to ensure the world we created was as logical as it was fantastical. Our art directors, Mark Jackson and Jang Chol Lee, began designing the world: the characters, creatures, structures, flora and fauna, etc. Scott Biear and I wrote the script while the Fathom team spent many months developing a ninety second proof-of-concept, which we took to Hollywood for industry feedback. The reaction was positive, so Marc gave us a green light to expand our staff while he put our financing in place. We hired additional talent and started pre-production. Fathom Studios and Macquarium Intelligent Communications are based in Atlanta, Georgia.

MFA: We knew we wanted to tell an epic, action-packed fantasy adventure through computer animation and agreed that it should also provide strong moral virtues, so we developed an original story about a world's struggle for unity. We've spent years refining the script and the look of the characters and environments and today are in the process of final animation. While Jason is working on completing the film, I have been exploring ancillary channels to expand Delgo's reach. We are all very excited to see the fruits of our labor on the silver screen.

JFM: Marc is a high-tech business leader with many successes under his belt. He is known as the guy to call when you need things done particularly anything that merges creativity and technology. Years ago, before we embarked on the making of this film, Marc pulled together financing from a number of investors who believe in the project. It is with this funding and company earnings from past projects that we are able to bring Delgo to life.

MFA: I'm reluctant to reveal our marketing and distribution strategy in advance of our execution, however, I can tell you we've developed a strong following via our Website and the Digital Dailies, which enable our fans to follow the making of Delgo as it happens. Whether a fan is an industry professional, student, parent or child, we want them to be able to be a part of every facet of Delgo's production.

To aid us in achieving our goals for the Delgo project, we are employing many outside resources including a diverse cast composed of some of Hollywood's most respected and beloved actors, remarkable, multi-platinum musicians from different genres creating original works for the soundtrack, and Macquarium, which is working on the next iteration of the Delgo site and interactive components of the DVD and CD-ROM. In addition, we are exploring book and comic deals as well as videogames and other ancillary products tied to the film.

indie04.gif A shot from the highly anticipated The Frog's Prophecy. © Folimage.

The Frog's Prophecy

Patrick Eveno, Executive Producer Folimage

The Frog's Prophecy project started four years ago. It has been in production for two years. Jacques-Rémy Girerd (Charlie's Christmas Cartoon d'Or 1998), Antoine Lanciaux and Iouri Tcherenkov (The Great Migration) are co-writers of the script for The Frog's Prophecy.

Originally, the idea was to make a 52' TV special. But during the development phase (script writing and character development), it became obvious that we had in hand the material and strength to make a feature film. In addition, the environment in France was extremely favourable after the success of Michel Ocelot's Kirikou et La Sorciere, and we decided to step into the adventure. Gathering both the funding, and the creative talent, has been a major challenge. But solid partners have joined us and, so far, about 130 people have been working on this project.

The feature film was developed at Folimage Studio in Valence in the south of France. It is also being produced at Folimage Studio. In fact, the feature film is being produced 100% at Folimage Studio, from pre-production to post-production. This situation is unique in France. It has not happened for twenty years. For Folimage, this is an extension of 15 years of our 'home made' production policy. The Frog's Prophecy is benefiting from a strong artistic environment, inherited from Folimage's experience of producing 100% of its TV series and short animated films in its own studio.

Vivendi-Universal, through StudioCanal France and Canal +, is our main financial partner. It was also the first one to jump in. The CNC (Centre National de la Cinematographie), Rhône-Alpes Cinema and France 2 Cinema quickly stepped in to complete the funding. The production budget is € 5,640,000.

From a marketing standpoint, we trust the know-how and power of Vivendi-Universal. StudioCanal France is handling the international sales, which will start with Cannes Festival 2002. The film will be released in France in November 2003 with Bac Distribution as the distributor. Universal will be in charge of the video sales. We believe that good results at the French box office will reflect on the international box office. The current come back of the French cinema industry and the growing success of animation films make us hope we will recoup our investment relatively quickly.


indie05.gif Adventurer Marco Polo promises he will return to Xanadu. © 2001 The Tooniversal Company. All Rights Reserved.

Marco Polo - Return to Xanadu

Ron Merk, Director The Tooniversal Company

How are we producing our feature film? One frame at a time. I don't mean to be flippant, but to point out that an animated feature is a long-term commitment, and literally has thousands of details which must be carefully considered. This means starting with a strong script and production design -- before the animation process begins. I've seen too many animated films with great technique and poor story development. Making a film means telling a good story.

The Tooniversal Company is an independent company which makes its films "outside the system." By this, I mean that we are not relying on normal studio financing, pre-sales and other financial commitments in order to get our films underway. Once we're ready, we start the project, and somehow find the necessary resources to get to the finish line.

Many years ago The Tooniversal Company purchased a book and film property made by Sheldon Moldoff, a well-known comic book illustrator during the golden age of comics. He created Hawkman and "ghosted" the drawing of Batman comics for 20 years. We originally were going to put a new sound track on the old film and then re-release it, but it just didn't work, and then we found that the original negative had deteriorated so badly that it was not useable. So, we essentially started from scratch, utilizing some basic story concepts and designs from the old project, but expanded it exponentially. It's a much more "today" kind of film, very much like the epic journey of Luke Skywalker. Young Marco is on a quest not his own, finds friends and allies along the way, makes enemies, and ultimately makes the quest his own.

We worked in six studios, each in a different country. Our basic unit was housed in Woodland Hills, California. We did planning, layout, design and basic pre-production, as well as some key animation. Then the work went to studios in China, Korea, Canada and Slovakia for completion. We had two great animation/art directors, Arne Wong from Los Angeles, and Jaroslav Baran from Bratislava, Slovakia. They kept the design and animation on course over the long production period. The three producers of the film, Igor Meglic, Chris Holter and myself, kept the organization of the work and financing together. Chris Holter, Sheldon Moldoff and I wrote and re-wrote the script, until we had our final ADR script last year. All the post sound and editing work was done in Los Angeles at our studio. This was definitely a "hands across the sea" project, if ever there was one. Luckily all those hands worked well together, after a getting-to-know-you phase.

A large part of the money came from Tooniversal and its President, Igor Meglic. Igor really believed in the idea, and when I came to him with the project, he said, "Let's do it." The company made great deals with all the suppliers and contributors, and this also helped, since we got a lot of bang for our bucks. We had a co-production with a Chinese company, Afanti International, and a Slovak company, Interline. In addition, there was a financing group out of Slovenia (Igor's place of birth) which did the "cash flowing" of the project when it was needed, or when Tooniversal simply didn't have the cash to continue. We actually stopped the production a few times to re-group, both financially and artistically. While many folks might be bothered by these delays, we took advantage by using the time to re-think, re-write and re-design things that weren't working. As a result, I think the film turned out better than if we had done it in one pass.

What is our strategy for marketing and releasing the film, i.e., recouping our investment? Therein lies the rub. Finishing the film is only part one of this journey. Getting proper and effective distribution is another matter entirely. In fact, it's a real problem, especially in the U.S., where distribution costs are so high. I've been in the production and distribution business for 34 years, and the landscape has definitely changed for the worse. There used to be distribution companies of all sizes, small, medium and large. What's gone wrong with the business is that the medium size companies, for the most part, are gone. A film like ours really needs a domestic theatrical release in order to have the visibility and recognizability needed to do well in video, TV and the ancillary markets. The big studios are in the business of big films with big ad budgets seeking a $100 milllion plus home run. So, our film is not for them. The small distributors can't afford the moderate print and ad budget that our film needs for a successful theatrical run. And since there are practically no "middle size" distribution companies (they were acquired by the big guys or went bankrupt), we're in a bit of a conundrum. So, we're looking for prints and ad money, and we'll probably take the film out there ourselves.

Part of our domestic sales strategy was qualifying for the first Best Animated Feature Academy Award. We opened in Los Angeles, for one week only, at Laemmle's Fallbrook 7 Theatres, in West Hills, California. The film screened daily at 11:15 am and we ran from December 28, 2001 through January 3, 2002. We've also entered in three other categories: Best Original Song ("When Your Heart Has Wings"), Best Music Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Being a contender is a great way to get lots of press attention we could never afford to pay for in the way of trade ads.

Internationally, it's a bit more encouraging. After interviewing more than 100 distributors, we decided to go with a Park City, Utah company called Koan, Inc. They specialize in family and children's films, and we felt not only comfortable with the people at Koan, but also the films in their library. It was just a great match. They starting selling the film at MIPCOM and MIFED, and the deals are starting to roll in.

Will be recoup our investment in the film and make a profit? Absolutely. Why? Because we chose traditional storytelling, with a classical "retro" Saturday morning visual style, and have seven great songs in the film. It's going to have a long life in distribution, with many re-releases after we're all celluloid history. Would we do it all again? Yes. We're now planning our next feature, Dinosaurs of the Wild West. Will it be a great adventure? Absolutely, but this time, with the experience of Marco Polo under our belts.

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. Recently, 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.