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Industry Report: Animation

How well can independent European animated features fare at the box office? A French assessment


In Annecy, French industry professionals gathered to discuss strategies to keep attracting audiences for the independent animation industry

How well can independent European animated features fare at the box office? A French assessment

Remí Chayé’s first feature film Long Way North

It’s a harsh time for European cinema, with fierce competition between films. In this context, the animation sector is even more vulnerable due to the financial demands of production. In Annecy, at the International Animated Film Festival, debates on the duration of exploitation rights and strategies to keep attracting audiences were on everyone’s lips. Industry professionals, from producers to exhibitors, are worried about the future of animation. On Thursday 16 June, Henri Magalon (Maybe Movies), Sara Wikler (Studio Canal), Sabine Chemaly (TF1) and Florian Deleporte (Studio des Ursulines) gathered to discuss this issue in more depth. Together, they give a French take on the tensions within the independent animation industry.

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A matter of cinema programming

Animated films are not widely available enough in cinemas; partly because they suffer from the much-discussed issue of limited exposure times for independent films, but predominantly because these films are targeted at kids. Typically, screenings of animated films are almost impossible to find in the evening. Traditionally, they are allocated the afternoon slots, before 6pm; and generally on days when children are not at school (Wednesday - in France -  Saturday and Sunday). This also impacts Disney productions, although these benefit from a “wide audience” label and so enjoy easier access to exhibitors. 

“We were the only ones in Paris to manage to screen The Tale of the Princess Kaguya at convenient times; people were thanking us for that. The film time schedule is very important,” testified Florian Deleporte, who runs the only cinema specialising in animation in Paris. At Le Studio des Ursulines, they “liaise with the distributor” when deciding on schedules. 

A matter of positioning for 2D films

According Sara Wikler, films must look “big” to find an audience. There is a challenge for 2D films to prove that they are not too “arty”. “Whenever a film is in a graphic genre, it will look like an art house film, and it will be more difficult to sell,” Wikler declared. “I am being nasty, I know, but I must admit that, with an independent animated French film, we would ask ourselves more questions on the content than we would with studio productions.”

“As we started work on Rémi Chayé’s second feature film, we first asked ourselves: do we honestly want to go 3D?” responded Henri Magalon. “We worry whenever we look at box office successes from last year -  they’re all 3D movies. Youngsters want to watch 3D,” he sighed. Yet, A Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary will be filmed in 2D, since Chayé’s graphics are intrinsic to his films. But a lesson has been learned from Long Way North [+see also:
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: “I will let the distributor do his job,” said Magalon, implying a partial “mea culpa”.

But, when Sara Wikler added that, “the film has to deserve its marketing,” since not every script leads to deliberations on how to sell a film if there is a lack of “dramatic value”, the tone of the discussions changed. “We are being put in boxes! That’s enough. We are all working to tell stories that matter, with excitement and imagination.”

Composing with the “Disney Grammar”

In animation, cinemagoers are used to Disney productions, and the American studios have “trained” the European audience in certain respects. This poses a challenge for European filmmakers, who feel the need to work with this competitor’s key ingredients: epic stories, identifiable heroes, a humorous tone, etc.  “You have to fulfil the promise that Disney is able to make,” admitted the Head of Artistic Development at Studio Canal. 

“We need to take the best elements from the major productions,” agreed Sabine Chemaly, “but everyone in the creative chain has a role to play.” If the script is one crucial factor, another is marketing. “There needs to be real change and greater cooperation on marketing, and in the end it is our role as sales agents to put out a lively marketing campaign at a European level.”

Sharing his recent experience with Long Way North, Magalon admitted that there was no provision in the production budget for marketing or sales. “It was as if our sales agent had his hands tied behind his back and had to blow on a ping pong ball to try to bowl a strike,” he said, using this metaphor to illustrate the fact that he now understands that he, as producer, needs to provide more support in this matter. Zombillenium, his next production, has a dedicated budget for marketing costs. 

Frederic Monnereau, Head of Distribution and Marketing at Walt Disney Studio France, who followed the whole discussion, gave his perspective: “If it was that simple for us, we wouldn’t work as much as we do…Every day at Disney we try to break the classic codes; to surprise the audience. The distributor has a key role and what makes the difference is the capacity to build anticipation.” Formerly at Studio Canal, Monnereau acknowledged that Disney’s 5-year vision is a real advantage compared to the average 2-year strategy that European distributors can hope for. “At the Disney Distribution department we can ask for specific material years in advance and it is meticulously forecast and slotted into the production planning for each film.” 

Of course, after an hour and a half of discussion between these French film professionals, no miracle solution for making independent animated films fare better at the box office emerged. But the crux of the challenge for reaching audiences was clear: it is a matter of getting people to “see” the film, both physically, in the cinema, and mentally, in public awareness. “European professionals have to coordinate,”  concluded Frederic Monnereau. 

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