About 20 years ago, die-hard animation fans in the U.S. had few places they could go to watch independent, cutting-edge animated shorts on a bigscreen. These days, American audiences finally have a few options. The highest-profile U.S. fest is this week’s World Animation Celebration (see separate section on the WAC), but animation’s current boom and the dedicated efforts of a handful of indie fest organizers have created other offbeat opportunities. Touring events like Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation and its sister event, the Sick and Twisted Festival, have been allowing animation buffs to catch some of the best short toons from around the world in big theaters for several years, and now, others are appearing on the landscape.
The origins of Spike and Mike’s Festival go back about 20 years, when Craig “Spike” Decker and his partner Mike Gribble ran an arthouse theater in Riverside, routinely showing live-action art faves like “Harold and Maude” and “King of Hearts.” Since a “Betty Boop” cartoon normally opened the program each night, they decided one day to devote a complete program to the cartoons of Max Fleischer. To accomplish this, they borrowed $1,000 from a friend who had just received a settlement from a motorcycle accident and put together an all-animation festival that played at Riverside City College in 1977.
“My partner, Mike, started to do a lot of detective work to track down distributors of animated fare,” recalls Decker. “We established a lot of personal contacts with animators, and the whole enterprise became bigger and bigger every year. Although Mike passed away in 1994, his legacy stays with us today.”
Showcasing a wide range of techniques from traditional works in pencil and ink, to stop-motion and the latest in computer animation, the festival tours more than 35 major cities in the U.S. and Canada, touring year-round, for the most part. According to Decker, modern audiences are more sophisticated and willing to sample material that pushes the artistic envelope. “During the first few years, people actually looked at animation as nothing but Saturday morning cartoons,” he says. “It was tough to shake that perception.”
Some of today’s leading animation royalty — including director Tim Burton, Oscar winners John Lasseter and Nick Park, Bill Plympton, Will Vinton and “Beavis and Butt-head” creator Mike Judge, to name a few — have had their works showcased at the Spike and Mike fest over the years.
In 1990, Decker and his company, Mellow Manor Prods., launched the Sick and Twisted Festival as a home for animated pieces that were simply too outrageous or adult in nature for the first showcase. Works like Matt Stone and Trey Park’s cheeky “The Spirit of Christmas” — which features a profanity-laced kung fu fight between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ — routinely are hits at the Sick and Twisted fest.
This year’s Spike and Mike show will feature a wide selection of animated fare from the U.K., Australia, France and Russia. Tim Hittle’s Oscar-nominated film “Canhead” is one of this year’s top draws. Also playing will be Mike Johnson’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Greg Holfeld’s “Barflies,” Anthony Hudgson’s “Hilary,” Iouriy Tcherenkov’s “The Great Migration,” Steve Fonti’s “Political Correction,” Jeff Newitt and Neville Astley’s “Trainspotter” and Thor Freudenthal’s “The Tenor.”
As usual, the fest opens in San Diego and San Francisco this week and then travels to Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., Vancouver, San Jose and close to 40 other cities around the country next month.
Attack of the little fests
This time around, however, Spike and Mike will be facing some new competition from Manga Entertainment, an animation company that is launching its own 90-minute festival in August. Jan Cox, director of Manga’s animated shorts division and a former employee of the Spike and Mike fest, says Manga hopes to make its new festival more ambitious in scope. “I learned a lot from Spike and Mike,” Cox says. “I think Manga will be aiming for a much wider release in comparison to Spike’s more cultish status. We would also like to release a second anthology in January.”
Also aiming for the same audience will be Chris Padilla’s Digital Dreams and Feats of Clay, two animation anthology programs debuting at the 1997 Newport Beach Intl. Film Festival in April and angling for a wider fall release. Art Clokey’s “Mandala,” “Francis Ford Coppola’s presentation of William S. Burroughs’ ‘The Junky’s Christmas’ ” and Jan Svankmajer’s “Darkness Light Darkness” are all part of Padilla’s impressive clay animation fest lineup.
Padilla, who is returning to the animation festival biz after a 20-year hiatus, thinks that the animated fest field has a healthy glow these days. “Back in 1977, my Fantastic Animation Festival earned over $300,000 in its first two weeks in 16 theaters in New York,” he says. “It had its premiere the same day that ‘Star Wars’ opened. I’m looking forward to getting back into the business. And by the way, I remember a couple of guys who did some marketing work for my festival back in the ’70s. I think their names were Spike and Mike.”
Regardless of what Manga or Padilla may pull out of their hats, Decker believes that his event will continue to provide animation fans with major thrills for years to come. He puts things into perspective by attributing his success to the fact the he has stayed in the game for such a long time.
“In ‘Chinatown,’ John Huston’s character turns to Jack Nicholson and says that even ugly buildings, politicians and hookers get respectable if they can last long enough. That’s what happened to us!”
For more information about Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation, call (619) 459-8707. Manga Entertainment can be reached at (619) 531-1696. Digital Dreams and Feats of Clay are at (714) 497-9046.