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French TV toons jump to bigscreen

Outfits look to animated shows for feature films

PARIS — No sooner had the first five-minute episode of the Belgian stop-motion TV series “Panique au village” (A Town Called Panic) screened at Annecy eight years ago than a cult phenomenon was born. Now “Panic’s” unlikely trio of characters — rigid plastic figures of Cowboy, Indian and Horse — are back where it all started, only this time as the stars of their own feature film.

The big question now is whether the film version of “A Town Called Panic” can replicate the kind of global success that saw the series dubbed into multiple languages and sold throughout the world. And “Panic” is far from alone in the trend of adapting TV toons from the French-speaking world to the bigscreen.

Also screening at Annecy this year is a feature-length version of another cult TV toon series, “Les Lascars,” a sort of French homeboys-in-the-hood comedy delivered as minute-long bits on France’s leading pay-per-view channel, Canal Plus. And the list goes on, with French companies going the bigscreen route with such animated skeins as “Totally Spies,” “Jasper the Penguin” and “Titeuf.”

The trend may be widespread, but the success rate of past French-language TV toon adaptations does not bode well. Last year’s “Dragon Hunters” failed to spark at the international box office, thwarted in part by lack of familiarity with the TV series abroad. This is an area where film adaptations of well-sold series like “A Town Called Panic” and “Totally Spies” have a head start.

“A TV series has to already be a big success, otherwise there’s no point in adapting it for the cinema,” says “Spies” producer and co-creator David Michel, who hopes the film version — which he describes as a cross between the James Bond movies and “Clueless” — does well in the U.S., where the series was one of Cartoon Network’s top three skeins for four years.

Michel’s business model at Marathon Media, a company he co-founded 10 years ago, is similar to that of Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp in that he develops TV series and films in France that have an international focus and can travel. Although entirely French-made, “Totally Spies” boasts an English title and is set in Los Angeles. In the film version of “Spies,” Michel goes back to the characters and describes how they became spies in the first place, providing a sort of prequel to the series. If the first film is a big success, he’s planning a sequel.

Still, for “Panic’s” Belgian producer Adriana Paisek-Wanski, adapting a TV series for the screen remains a double-edged sword.

“On the one hand, it’s easier because most of the groundwork had already been done in the series,” she says. “But a lot of financiers had a hard time believing that the series could be translated into a film.

“We needed to prove to everyone that we were developing a story over a much longer time period that was going to have a beginning and an end, without losing our authenticity.”

TIP SHEET

What: Intl. Animation Film Festival and Market

When: June 8-13 (fest), June 10-12 (market)

Where: Annecy, France

Web: annecy.org

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