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A Booming MIFA, But For Whom?

AWM's report from the mother of all animation festivals by Buzz Potamkin

The Imperial Palace in Annecy, home to the MIFA.

It appears that after all these years MIFA is growing up; there is no doubt that the just completed market in Annecy was the best yet -- at least, in European terms. For the Americans, it was just another party-filled festival, and not one of the better ones. And therein lies a tale.

Over the past decade, the growth of MIFA, and the Annecy Festival, have been the meters to measure two trends in the world of animation: 1) the dilution of talent; and 2) the decline of the American television animation production industry. The former is a result of the law of unintentioned consequences, while the latter was the basic raison d'être of MIFA. Perhaps I should explain.

Where's the Talent Gone?

The dilution of talent was very apparent at the festival. While the overall level of production quality was high, there was a substantial lack of those personal films which always marked the festival in previous years. Why? Two factors are most important; Both are unintentional, one macrocosmic and the other microcosmic.

Macrocosmic - The disappearance of the Communist states caused the demise of the Eastern European versions of the National Film Board of Canada. While they may not have been the most efficient studios, they were most certainly the home of a great many individualistic animators, the auteurs of much that was good in the '70's and '80's. For many of these folks, the fall of the wall has lead to a much better life -- but not to working on their own films. Instead, they're in the Valley, or Phoenix, or Orlando, or someplace working for a very nice wage, but working on a film not of their own. Good for them financially, but bad for the festival.

An elaborately decorated booth for the post-Communist Czech studio Jiriho Trnky (Jiri Trnka) and distributor Kratky Film which exhibited several animated series produced for European countries.

Microscosmic - The original purpose of MIFA was the furtherance of the European animation industry. In conjunction with its animation unit CARTOON, Plan MEDIA, the entity of the European Union that funds production, was, and is, a very substantial sponsor of MIFA, and MEDIA does not throw around money for no reason. Its primary goal is the creation of Euro-jobs, lots of Euro-jobs. The same may be said for the CNC, the film financing entity of the French government; except, of course, its interest is Franco-jobs. Reading the introductions to the official MIFA guide is illustrative; on two pages, there are six mentions of government funding. Some of this funding supports premiere personal films, and the festival had a special showing of the CARTOON 14. But the overwhelming majority of the funding is for commercial projects. Once again, while this financing supports many jobs, the artists employed are not working on personal films.

The explosive growth of American feature animation production has only furthered the dilution of talent. Talent scouts for the major studios prowled the corridors of the Imperial, and the festival venues, pouncing on talent with golden handcuffs and visions of artistic riches beyond belief. The story of a starving animator, toiling away in a freezing garret for years to create a personal vision, has moved from reality to myth. There are far too many jobs around, and this is probably better for everyone involved - except for those who go to the festival to see the stunning product of artistic individuality.

The Make-Believe U.S. Boom

Okay, but what has all this got to do with the decline of American television animation? Aren't we in the midst of the greatest growth spurt of animation ever, with new and varied venues clamoring for more and more cartoons? Well, yes and no. Moreover, what does this have to do with MIFA?

Eight years ago, MIFA was filled with European producers vying to make deals with American distributor/producers. The Europeans offered government financing coupled with access to content-controlled national television networks and merchandising financing. As a result, these deals were done with regularity and with only one caveat: government financing meant local production. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, television production began to flow out of the U.S. With the exception of two major distributor/producers (Warners and Disney), who categorically refused to give up any control, no U.S. studio was immune to the siren's song. Much as the Far East took over the mass-production of animation, Europe began to replace America as the top location for pre- and post-production. At this year's MIFA it was widely predicted that before the next MIFA, Europe will be producing 1,000 episodes per year of television animation - for the first time, a total greater than U.S. production. (Questions such as, but not limited to, where these programs will be shown, or what, if any, commercial profit will be reached, are far too complex for a market survey to address briefly.)

It is no longer news that the growth the U.S. has seen over the past few years has been in exhibition, not in production, and it has been fueled by the growth in alternative delivery systems: mainly cable/satellite and home video. The previously preponderant network and syndication exhibition flows have declined. There is now less original production than there was a decade ago. In fact, the largest growth spurt in American television animation was the mid-'80's, when, in the span of three years, the domestic market skyrocketed from around 300 to over 1,000 episodes per year. While we all applaud Nick's $430 million commitment to production over several years, it should be noted that a sum greater than that was spent (in today's dollars) on U.S. syndicated shows in 1985 alone.

The all new

Europe's Success

Finally MIFA has reached its goal: the creation of an independent European production community. This year, aside from talent recruitment, American producer participation was down from previous markets. American exhibitors were well represented though, having recognized that the glut of European shows means that cheap acquisition deals can be done. The news that one Euro-producer had actually given (yes, for free) a U.S. exhibitor a first-run show came as a shock to many other Europeans. However, far from being shocking, it is a sign of the maturity of the European industry, a parallel to what happened domestically a few years back in first-run syndication.

Where will this all lead? Fair question but no answers are apparent yet, except for more questions. Will the European studios produce hits on the level of Disney, Warners or Nick? Will the current high Euro-ratings for Euro-shows hold up as alternative delivery systems spread throughout the continent? Will hold-out American producers finally bow to Euro-pressure and produce in Europe to spread the risk and quiet content concerns? What, exactly, do the children of the world want to watch, and will they ever be allowed to watch it?

Buzz Potamkin is an award-winning independent producer, best known for The Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss. Before he escaped L.A. for New York, he had been President of Southern Star Prods and then Executive Vice President of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.