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The Politics of Protectionism: The Cartoon Forum

Jill McGreal discusses the politics of funding for animation via the European Union's CARTOON initiative, which is trying to create the infrastructure for a transnational industry.

64 Zoo Lane, from the pilot film directed by An Vrombaut, a Belgian filmmaker who lives and works in London, produced by Zoo Lane Productions, 1994.

The Seventh Cartoon Forum has just ended. This year it took place in the Connemara Coast Hotel, overlooking Galway Bay, home of wild salmon, oysters and Guinness. The sun shone on the 500 delegates, a mix of producers, broadcasters, international distributors, video companies, merchandisers, investors and VIP observers.

This event has become the single most important annual event both for the producers of children's animation, the sellers, and the program investors and buyers. It's organized by CARTOON, part of MEDIA II (Measures to Encourage the Development of the Industry of Audiovisual Production), the European Union organization which funds and supports all aspects of film and television production in Europe. The Forum is a private event to which every delegate is invited either by virtue of being an investor in European children's programming, or by being a producer with a project which has been selected for presentation.

The event has now become so successful that it engenders an air of privilege amongst the delegates and a feeling of exclusion amongst the rest. The situation is heightened by the discretionary powers that CARTOON exercises over its right to invite or exclude a certain category of investing organization--for instance, the American-owned companies with European satellite offices like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Disney, Fox, Warners, etc. This year Janie Grace, one time invitee in her capacity as Controller of Children's Programmes at Meridian Broadcasting, now Chief Executive of Nickelodeon's UK office, was excluded. She came anyway under the BSkyB umbrella. John Coates, Managing Director of TVC, was excluded because he had no project to present this year, but slipped through in his capacity as Honorary President of the UK International Animation Festival. So the event acts as a powerful magnet within the professional animation community.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Moments

So what's the attraction? If a project is selected for the Forum, then the producer is given the opportunity to present that project at an appointed time and venue during the Forum to an assembled audience of investors from all over Europe. It's the "once-in-a-lifetime" moment for any project. For the buyers, it's an equally unmissable opportunity to compete for the best European projects of the year. The presentations are highly charged events. The big ones attract audiences of 100 or more people. The producers, who are often accompanied by their creative teams, are nervous and excited. The buyers hide their interest behind tight lips and feigned nonchalance. Afterwards, there is a chaotic rush to arrange meetings and do impromptu deals.

Many of the projects that are selected for the Forum have already received pre-production aid from CARTOON. This twice-yearly competition awards funding in three categories: graphics, script and pilots. The top award is 40,000 ECUs (the European currency unit) and the decisions are made by juries comprising makers and buyers. From the seller's point of view the importance of this funding source is that it enables the small producer to stay independent of investors who are hungry for equity. A tiny investment at an early, and therefore risky, stage of development can often secure a disproportionate slice of equity. From the buyer's point of view it means that the risk of investing too early in a project which is unrealizable is minimized if producers can afford to develop their projects to a professional standard.

Le Moine et le Poisson (The Monk and the Fish), winner of the Cartoon D'Or in 1995, directed by Michael Dudok de Wit, a Dutch filmmaker who lives and works in the UK. Produced at Folimages in France, 1995.

CARTOON runs other major programs, including training schemes and the studio grouping scheme. Under this latter scheme, European companies are encouraged to come together in joint ventures for which the successful applicants receive subsidies with which to attend markets, produce promotional material and administer co-productions. Last, but certainly not least, CARTOON runs the Cartoon D'Or (The Golden Cartoon), a prize worth 35,000 ECUs which is awarded yearly at the Forum to the best European animated film, an amount which the filmmaker must commit towards a new project. This year the Cartoon D'Or was awarded to Tyron Montgomery for his outstanding first film, Quest.

Promoting European Animation

CARTOON's mandate is to create a European industrial base for animation. Its policies are openly projectionist and designed to provide a ready supply of indigenous product for European television screens and to promote European animation within the competitive international television market. For "international" read American, although CARTOON's policies are not so much anti-American as pro-European--there is a difference. CARTOON has been very successful. Their Appraisal 1988-1995, published at the close of MEDIA I, reports on the facts and figures: an increase of 50% over 5 years of European series being broadcast on European television, an increase in annual production to 700 hours from 60 in 1986, the beginning of long format series production, something that was inconceivable in 1988, and so on.

Fortunately for CARTOON the business environment has also changed and the amount of available resources has kept pace with the increased number of projects looking for funding, although whether this is a direct effect of CARTOON's actions is moot. It could just be a global recognition of the potential value of children's programming, without which all of CARTOON's most strenuous efforts would not have yielded the same spectacular results. But the counter-argument could run something like this: local broadcasters have a choice of acquiring or commissioning product for their schedules. It's cheaper to acquire, but it's potentially lucrative to invest in product where the back end earns money from several revenue streams. It's unlikely that local broadcasters would have an opportunity to invest in foreign (American) projects where the sale of equity begins and ends in the foreign domestic market. But if a local broadcaster is offered local projects which are of a high enough standard to compete internationally for revenues from sales, video, merchandising, etc., then that local broadcaster is more likely to want to invest in those local projects.

The big money comes from merchandising, a fact which every parent will instantly appreciate. But it's a fact that of any 10 programs being scheduled at any one time in the UK, less than half will be British and only one of them will achieve any merchandise success at all. In the video retail stores 68% of sales are Disney titles and the rest of the shelf space is purchased by the companies with the biggest marketing spends. British titles may find their way into a grubby little space on the bottom shelf behind the pillar.

CARTOON is trying to rectify this imbalance but in the international market, where business rather than program making drives the decisions, supply and demand is either determined by genuine children's preferences, or overdetermined by marketing and promotional hype. Either way, no amount of dumping of unwanted or unsupported product in the marketplace will affect the patterns of purchase.

64 Zoo Lane: A Case Study

CARTOON's projectionist policies, then, only go so far. At some point, the product has to go it alone in the open market. In this tough place there are many other agendas and different kinds of politics. In the UK at the moment the situation is unusually fraught and my own project, 64 Zoo Lane, is caught up in it. 64 Zoo Lane is a series for younger children created by the award-winning director of Little Wolf, An Vrombaut. An brought the project to me back in 1993 and together we set about developing it for television as a 13 x 11 minute series. We made a successful application for CARTOON preproduction aid and received 40,000 ECUs to make a pilot. The project was the smash hit of the 1994 Forum in the Azores and, as a result, we were able to put together a financial partnership quickly and painlessly. So far, thanks to CARTOON's support, so good. But the production go ahead has to wait for a commission in the UK.

The Village, winner of the Cartoon D'Or in 1993, directed by Mark Baker.

First Catch Your Commission ...

The 1992 Broadcasting Act established the ITV Network Centre, the commissioning organization for the whole of the private sector terrestrial broadcast operation in the UK. The new structure was created by the current Tory administration whose agenda was, and always has been, intensely political. No program can be either commissioned or acquired for the network except through the Network Centre. The commission price is a license fee for which ITV acquires the right to broadcast the program a certain number of times over a certain number of years, but the Centre is financed from a levy on the individual ITV companies and is not in itself a profit-making organization. It is simply a scheduler whose job it is to deliver programs destined to rate well on the network. Ironically, its distance from the real business of television, a deliberate Tory ploy, is now hurting the small production companies, a sector which the same Tory administration has always fervently encouraged.

64 Zoo Lane was offered to the Network Centre in November 1995 and to date we have heard no news, except that it is on a shortlist, the same shortlist where many other good projects have been languishing, some of them for up to two years. The Network Centre, untouched by the need to earn money, is indifferent to the business needs of its clients. We are fortunate in our partners--they have all maintained the same passionate confidence in our project as ourselves and we are certain that 64 Zoo Lane will be made. But CARTOON can do no more than they have already done. Their benevolent protection was enough to help us push our project out into the world where, let's face it, it may eventually join a European pilot mountain along with butter, milk and the odd seasonal vegetable. I hope not ...

Jill McGreal owns and runs her own Londonbased animation production company, CODENAME The Animation Agency. She produces television series for children and represents many wellknown international directors for commercial work. She continues to write and teach about animation and film in general.