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Legendary Eastern European Animation
Studios Struggle to Survive

by Adam Snyder

A photo of (left to right) producer Zdenka Deitchova, background artist, Miluse Hluchanicova, and director Gene Deitch in 1976 at Kratky Film.
Courtesy of and © Gene Deitch.

Behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain, the post-World War II years represented a golden era in animation. Between 1950 and 1990 animation studios like Kratky Film in Czechoslovakia, Pannoniafilm in Hungary, SFA in Poland, Zagreb Film in Croatia, and Soyuzmultfilm in Russia churned out thousands of hours of animation, winning dozens of top international prizes in the process. "It was just about the perfect industry for countries under Communist rule," explains Gene Deitch, an American who has been directing animation in Prague since 1959. "It was labor intensive in economies in which 'profit' was not in the vocabulary. As long as the films weren't political, animation provided a rare creative outlet for hundreds of artists."

A Violent Change
But then came Perestroika, revolution, and the painful transformation into capitalism. Suddenly these vast studios were left to fend for themselves in the international marketplace. They were free of government censorship, but also of government subsidy. Where once they could be content on producing art and children's films for government-owned television stations, now these same stations were being privatized and turning to slick Western animated fare for high ratings.

In the 1990s, most of these once legendary studios tottered on the brink of bankruptcy before being rescued either by the government, or by private financing. "It's depressing," says Maciek Albrecht, an expatriate from Poland whose New York Magik Studio subcontracts work to former colleagues in Krakow. Most recently, Albrecht farmed out the art production for a short to be included in Curious Picture's Little Curious series. "Polish television used to give work to all the local animation studios -- there were about six of them. But now these stations have either given up on animation, or they buy from the international market."

"We never had to worry about getting work," explains Zdenka Deitchova, a producer at Prague's Kratky Film for the past half century. "The state gave us money and we could produce what we liked, as long as it didn't get political." Indeed, at Kratky some staff directors were paid their salaries even if they turned out only one film per year.

Kratky Film's The Mole is an example of one of the international series currently being made in the former state run studios of Eastern Europe. Courtesy of Gene Deitch. © Kratky Film.

During this decade, however, almost all of these studios have had to struggle to attract Western clients. Kratky has produced a number of series for the Dutch company, Palm Plus Produkties, and is currently working on more episodes of its international hit, The Mole, which is being 70%-funded by a German broadcaster. Zagreb Film, which hit similar hard times not because of the fall of communism but because of the war that tore Yugoslavia apart, is working on an educational series for Austrian television and two pilots for Tape House Toons in New York. In Hungary, Pannoniafilm is working on a feature length version of The Princess and the Pea with the U.S. company, Feature Films for Families, and Kecskemetfilm Kft. is co-producing with European and Canadian companies.

The Value of a Library
Another way these studios have tried to generate revenue is by licensing their massive archives, much of which have never been exploited outside the Eastern Block. These efforts have met with varying degrees of success. Kratky has been the most sluggish in exploiting its library, which consists of an estimated 1600 animated films, including masterpieces from puppet animation legends like Jiri Trnka and Hermina Tyrlova. One problem has been Kratky's financial instability, which has contributed to a revolving door of sales executives during the past decade. Another snag is the investment it will take to catalog and make quality video transfers of all the films. Rights clearances are also a challenge, since during the Communist era some films were licensed to long term contracts.

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Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.