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MIPCOM 1997: Animation, Animation Everywhere

Adam Snyder shops us around the business floor at one of the year's largest markets, MIPCOM in Cannes, France.

Walking onto the floor of this year's MIPCOM television trade show, held September 26-30 in Cannes, was, as usual, daunting; particularly for a small independent animation producer like myself, devoid of expense account, his own stand, or extensive contacts culled from decades in the business. The first thing one notices are the hundreds - no, the thousands - of animated titles jumping out from seemingly every one of more than 100 booths.

Just from the Japanese company Tokyo Broadcast System, I counted 45 different titles alone! The booth of the German company BetaFilm was wall-papered with glossy color brochures for dozens of animated series like Peter of Placid Forest ("Placid no more, the forest is thrown into an uproar when the hungry buzz of the chainsaw announces trouble"), Perrine ("Join a spunky little girl as she fearlessly makes her way across Europe"), and The Ketchup Vampires ("Meet Dracula's quirky descendants - a new breed of vegetarian vampires"). Even in this catsup category there was intense competition. The Australian company, Southern Star was offering an animated series called Ketchup: Cats Who Cook.

The Australian company, Southern Star's animated series Ketchup: Cats Who Cook. The series is now sold or under negotiation in 30 territories worldwide. © 1997 Southern Star Entertainment Pty and NHK.

Cutting Through the Clutter

Some sellers are trying to cope with the glut by branching out into live-action. Sunbow Entertainment, for example, was busy selling its first two live-action series, Deepwater Black and Student Bodies. Others try to stand out with brand names, like Nickelodeon's Hey Arnold, Saban's array of well known super heroes, and the legendary The Smurfs. In fact, The Smurfs, which is on television in 30 countries, had a booth all to itself.

"Everyone is looking for a way to cut through the clutter, and one way is with an identifiable character," explained Chantal Bazelaire, operations officer for a new French company, European Creative Productions, which has obtained rights to the Marx Brothers characters and is looking for partners to turn them into an animated series.

Another constant is the regurgitation of literary classics. There were at least a dozen versions of A Christmas Carol, including an 85-minute feature from the German company IgelFilm.

Many of these projects are brought to MIPCOM in search of funding; sometimes with a full pilot, sometimes with a sample reel of a minute or so, sometimes with just a storyboard. Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) was offering ten animated pilots, six projects in development and another dozen titles in various stages of production.

A number of producers were offering more serious fare, to contrast with the more antiseptic, Western made-for-television series. For example, newly packaged programs from animation-rich eastern Europe attracted a lot of attention. According to Regina Billings, Director of Sales for Films by Jove, at least a dozen deals were closed for Masters of Russian Animation, a re-packaging of classic Russian animation from the '70s and '80s.

"There's still room for unique product," said Sjoerd Raemakers, business manager at the Dutch company Palm Plus Productions which distributes my own two series which are compilations of classic animation from Zagreb Film and the Sofia Animation Studio.

Producers can take comfort, however, from the explosion of new television channels around the world, many specifically aimed at children. Plus, partly due to European sensibilities, and partly because of increased pressure in the United States for FCC-friendly fare, animated offerings don't seem nearly so dominated by robots from outer space wielding big guns as they did just a few years ago.

The Smurfs booth at MIPCOM `97, on the wall is a unique catch phrase,

Reed Midem is Always a Winner

The one thing all participants readily agreed upon was that we were all in the wrong business - that MIP and MIPCOM's organizer, Reed Midem, was the only company guaranteed to make a huge profit. The smallest booth cost $7,000 for the five days, and many participants could be heard grousing that in order to obtain a prime location it was "suggested" that they place a full page advertisement in the show's daily magazine, MIPCOM News. The owner of one small European company estimates it costs him more than $50,000 to send three executives to staff a modest booth. He has to repeat the entire process, and price, again for MIP, the equivalent Spring show also held in Cannes. But Gary Lico of Cable Ready, a U.S. distributor of non-fiction programs, argued that despite the higher cost, MIP and MIPCOM are "much more democratic" than NATPE, the U.S. television trade show held each January. Smaller companies at NATPE are dwarfed by the giant booths of Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, and the like, which often include lavish buffets and open bars. However in Cannes, the entire convention center, aptly named the Palais, is comparatively tiny, with small ceilings and cramped spaces even for the largest of studios. MIPCOM Junior Some production companies find it economical to forego MIPCOM altogether and participate only in MIPCOM Jr., a two-day children's screening event that precedes the main show. That's what Kratky Film, the Czech Republic's esteemed animation studio decided to do. John Riley, the studio's head of international sales, says it was well worth it. "For $2,000 we were able to offer several projects we have in development to buyers around the world," he explained. "Viewers check out the tapes by scanning their badge's bar code, so we got a list of fifty potential buyers. Hey, Haim Saban himself watched our Studio's presentation cassette."

Maxi Cat, from Rembrandt Films' Maxi Cat and Friends series, created by Adam Snyder, is being distributed through the Dutch company, Palm Plus Productions. © 1997 Zagreb Film/Rembrandt Films.

A record 330 buyers watched 622 titles in more than 9,000 individual screenings at this year's MIPCOM Junior, and more than half were animation. Participation was by no means restricted to the smaller companies. The two most frequently screened programs were Columbia TriStar's Men in Black and Film Roman's The Blues Brothers Animated Series.

So, what's the lesson for the small independent company? You can't compete with Rugrats and don't even try to compete with the raft of second tier animation. Instead, find or create something unique -- then shamelessly bend the ear of everyone you meet, can spill a drink on, or overhear saying the word, "animation." No one has heard of Rembrandt Films, but when I tell buyers that I am the exclusive distributor of all 600 films from the legendary Zagreb Film animation studio, many of them want to sit down and talk. Equally important, of course, is to partner with a distributor who has a presence on the floor of MIPCOM and MIP and who shares your enthusiasm for your product.

These are the only ways I can think of to stand out, even in a small way, in an always competitive, sometimes intimidating, standing room-only crowd.

Adam Snyder is President of Rembrandt Films, producer of Nudnik and Friends, distributed by Sunbow Entertainment, and several other series distributed by Palm Plus Productions, including classic animation from Zagreb Film and the Sofia Animation Studio, which are packaged into two thirteen part series, Maxicat and Friends and Three Fools and Friends respectively. This was his second MIPCOM.