French animation thrives with eye on exports

Wherever you are in the world, if you’ve got kids, the chances are they watch at least one Gallic toon, perhaps “Code Lyoko,” “Totally Spies” or “Minuscule.”

Unlike drama, French animation has grown up with an eye toward the international market — because it has had to.

Coin from French broadcasters typically covers only around 15% of an animation series’ production costs, so a project simply cannot get off the ground unless it attracts international presales or co-production deals.

That economic reality, coupled with a plentiful talent pool of animators trained at internationally reputed schools such as Paris’ Les Gobelins and La Poudriere, in the South of France, has put French animation up there with the world’s best.

But the French state also had a positive influence, kickstarting the TV animation industry in the early 1980s when it created the production company France Animation so French broadcasters would have something other than U.S. fare to air during the daytime broadcasting hours that had started to open up.

France Animation’s “Spartacus and the Sun Beneath the Sea,” one of the first full-fledged animation shows produced in Gaul, in 1984, was a pioneer in the international marketplace, selling to Nickelodeon.

Today, a sale to the U.S. is nothing unusual. Over the past year, some 19 French toons have aired Stateside.

“Code Lyoko,” named France’s top export last year, is so popular with Cartoon Network’s kid audience that the channel began airing season four back in June this year, four months before it will air in France. The show, whose action takes place in a “Matrix”-like virtual world, achieves the same ratings or better than “Pokemon,” according to Lionel Marty, president of distributor Taffy Entertainment.

“What’s unusual is that its popularity hasn’t flagged since it started airing in 2004. Season four is supposed to be the last, but it may not be,” Marty says.

The show recently sold to Disney in Japan and to Sony’s South Korean channel Animax.

It’s also a source of Gallic pride that “Code Lyoko” merchandizing graces the shelves of Toys R Us alongside Spider-Man fare.

But the competition is stiff among an array of topnotch animation houses, including Marathon, Moonscoop (the production company behind Taffy Entertainment), Alphanim, Millimages, Mediatoon, Xilam and Futuricon.

The way forward for French animation? Expand its range, Marty suggests.

“We’re very good at action adventure in France, but the U.S. and U.K. are the champions in preschool and pure comedy animation. We need to be tackling those areas.”

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