Annecy 2017 plans a special focus on China - will the nation’s burgeoning animation industry seize the opportunity?
Each year, organizers of the Annecy International Animation Film Festival place particular focus on the animation industry from one country, with special film programs, presentations and conference sessions across the festival and marketplace (Mifa). Next June, their attention turns to China.
Mickael Marin, Mifa head since 2008, explains, “We will try to put Chinese content where we can across the whole event, with lots of Chinese programs at the festival and maybe Chinese in the juries and the conferences. We have a lot of press, promotion and visibility, so this will be a real opportunity to show that China is a big country for animation. It’s a huge opportunity for the Chinese animation industry.”
Choosing China’s vast, expanding and increasingly internationally focused animation industry for 2017 is understandable. But whether China’s industry is ready to be dolled up and presented to the world, and whether Annecy is equipped to take on the challenge, are legitimate questions still needing answers.
The first task for organizers will be to spread awareness throughout a huge, fragmented and in many respects, parochial, Chinese animation industry. More importantly, they must convince Chinese studios that there is genuine value in participating.
When it launched in 1985, Annecy’s Mifa marketplace was initially a smaller side note to the main film festival. It kicked up a gear when Annecy became an annual event in 1997, and since then has gradually grown in importance, attracting a record 9,000 delegates in 2016. For studios looking to do business, Marin believes it is indispensable, claiming, “If Chinese studios really want to develop their co-productions and presence in the international market, if they really want to work on properties that travel around the world, they need to be here for sure.”
Since 2010, the annual Chinese delegation to Annecy has grown consistently and generally represents one of the largest from Asia. Yet in 2016, there were just 98 Chinese delegates in total, with 80 of those accredited for Mifa, a tiny number in proportion to the size of the industry, with most of the key players absent from the list. A significant increase will be needed to justify a “Year of China” label.
Mifa’s biggest problem may be perception. For the studios, artists and professors we surveyed in China, Annecy’s reputation as a festival of animated shorts appears to overshadow awareness of the value in attending its less famous marketplace sibling. The opinion of Trevor Lai, founder and director of UP Studios, is common: “Annecy is a great, prestigious conference…but in terms of where we physically go…I usually just go to the ones where we actually have a chance of meeting buyers and potential partners, whereas Annecy feels like more of a celebration of the craft, a place that I would go as a fan rather than a business owner.”
Chinese studios still regard MIPCOM/MIPJunior, held each October in Cannes, and the Kidscreen Summit held each February in Miami, as more important business trips.
Patience and Communication
In fairness, Mifa experiences the same difficulties as many other global events in building relationships with Chinese studios. Marin observes impatience and desire for quick results characterized by sporadic and inconsistent participation. He notes, “It’s a long or mid-term business and [Chinese studios] are not patient. Like every industry, it’s a question of trust between people. It takes time to find partners, understand the market, the trends and the needs of the buyers and distributors. You need to follow-up with the contacts you made throughout the year otherwise you’ll get no feedback. You need to be organized, have meetings, then come again and again.” He concludes, “If you just come one year then only return three or four years later, it’s like you did nothing in the first place.”
After interviewing Chinese delegates at Annecy in 2015, AWN.com wondered if Chinese animation might be turning the corner with regards to participation on the international stage. Illustrating Marin’s point, none of the companies mentioned in the article exhibited at Mifa again this year.
Though studios are growing and gaining valuable experience, Marin still notes a tendency for some to disappear after booking a booth, losing touch throughout the year and failing to take advantage of the guidance that his team offers – guidance that is vitally needed by an industry that too often does not have a firm grasp of how work is produced and sold on an international basis.
Walking around Mifa, you often get the sense that some Chinese participants have not clearly defined their aims, or at least presented themselves in a way that makes those objectives clear to an international observer. Despite their best efforts and good intentions, perhaps due to inexperience, there are still those guilty of presenting incoherent marketing materials, leaving their booth unattended or failing to properly coordinate meeting schedules. The fact that many delegates do not speak English and don’t always bring translators only compounds the problem.
To start addressing these issues, studios need to recognize the importance of good PR and properly organized media communications. Marin explains this has been a consistent self-inflicted weakness of Chinese exhibitors, “If you want journalists to talk about you, you need to have content. They are not going to come just because you’re here. You really need to do PR beforehand, working with people that know how to deal with journalists…sometimes it seems Chinese companies don’t want to pay for this service.”
Annecy 2017 will present an opportunity for China to improve its less-than-stellar global reputation. The question is whether some studios are open to and capable of changing the way they approach doing business at international markets.
Planning Chinese content for Annecy’s famous film festival will present a different set of challenges.
Assembling programs of Chinese shorts will be relatively straightforward. More graduation and indie films of quality are produced every year, and communication within the scene is much improved, helped by the emergence of live platforms like the China Independent Animation Film Forum (CIAFF), CUC’s Aniwow! festival and China Animation & Game Network, as well as information portals AVGchannel and San Wen Yu. Organizers can also address China’s animation heritage via strategic collaborations with the clutch of aficionados around the country.
But Annecy must accept that short films are a very niche market in China. Earlier this year at a three-day workshop in Shanghai, a festival marketing initiative invited Chinese submissions for the Mifa Cinema Du Monde pitch session. Participant feedback suggested judges were mostly interested in small indie projects, reflecting western hopes for Chinese animation more than the current reality of what’s actually being produced in China.
To truly represent the Chinese industry in 2017, Annecy’s official selection and special screening events should comprise a significant number of commercial features.
In this effort however, Marin observes a problem, “When we have a Chinese movie in competition, I don’t feel like a film commission is coming here to support the movie. For me, that’s very strange.” He’s right. China lacks anything comparable to the British Film Commission or Film France, an effective body that can advise producers on financial matters, help source talent, offer production support or generally represent filmmaking on a local and international level. Consequently, studios are left alone, both to make their films, and to try and navigate international events.
The good news is there will be a host of new Chinese features available for selection by next summer. Among that list will be Kung Fu Panda 3, a co-production between DreamWorks and Shanghai-based Oriental DreamWorks, and B&T Beijing’s Big Fish & Begonias. Meanwhile, Original Force and Mili Pictures, two of China’s biggest would-be global players, are slated to release films in the coming months.
Of course it is too early to know if the new crop will merit official selection or special screenings in Annecy. To date, few Chinese features have. In 2016, there was just one Chinese production in the official selection - the Monkey King: Hero Returns. Organizers are banking on the fact that this is the year all that changes.
Chris is a writer & producer based in Shanghai. He’s the founder of the China Animation & Game Network, encouraging communication in the industry via live creative networking events.
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