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French animation fest celebrates big and small

'Fantastic Mr. Fox,' 'Suicide Shop' bring buzz at Annecy

Big-budget studio fare and animated auteur titles got equal attention at France’s Annecy Animation Festival, with animators from around the world gathering to discuss the future of toondom.

The festival’s storybook setting next to an alpine lake provides a picturesque backdrop for pondering the biz, with outdoor screenings drawing crowds of young animation students who are awestruck to meet the likes of Matt Groening and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Annecy’s 50th anniversary edition, which wrapped June 12, featured the world preem of “Despicable Me” and a new Pixar short, with the feature prize going to Wes Anderson’s resolutely old-school puppet pic “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

But the biggest queues in Annecy’s Work in Progress strand were for “The Suicide Shop,” presented by French helmer Patrice Leconte.

An animated musical feature, employing 2D cutout animation, “Shop” looked like a moving children’s pop-up book — a quaint effect suited to a comedy set in a city of suicides.

Pixar drew attention for its world preem of 3D short “Day and Night,” featuring two pudgy fellows, Day and Night, who argue their respective virtues. Helmed by Teddy Newton — long overdue for exposure, say toon insiders — it went over gangbusters at a Pixar presentation.

While festgoers flocked to screenings, bizzers at the fest’s market debated issues facing the European toon biz.

Europe produces more animated features than the U.S., but finding appropriate distribution remains a challenge — especially since the number of U.S. toons opening theatrically has doubled in the past year, according to Screen Digest.

“Many of the successful European films of recent years have been very distinctive auteur films like ‘Persepolis’ and ‘Waltz With Bashir,’ which become commercially successful because of their quality, not their targeting the same market as the big Hollywood blockbusters,” said Screen Digest’s Tim Westcott.

But Illuminated Film Co.’s Iain Harvey, producer of “Not the End of the World,” a realist take on Noah’s Ark, said the filmmaker’s challenge is a daunting one: “The question now is whether all European films really have a market,” he said.

For films budgeted at more than $7 million, it’s crucial to team with big groups like EuropaCorp or Studiocanal, said Didier Brunner, founder of France’s Les Armateurs, which is jointly developing “French Riviera” with EuropaCorp and co-producing “Ernest and Celestine” with StudioCanal. “They can help close financing faster, make multiple rights deals and ensure films’ visibility.”

Exposure at Annecy can help boost a company’s profile. Just ask Argentina’s Juan Pablo Zaramella, Norway’s Anita Killi and London-based Passion Pictures. A Zaramella retro showcased his impressive “Journey to Mars,” a rural sci-fi stop-motion about a boy who flies to Mars in his grandpa’s pickup truck — and the basis of Zaramella’s in-development feature debut.

Killi’s “The Angry Man” won the short film jury and audience award for a daintily drawn but painful cutout toon tale about a tiny tot terrorized by his father.

Passion scored a double, winning best spot for Pete Candeland’s “The Beatles: Rock Band” and Annecy’s short Crystal for the Dali-esque “The Lost Thing” about a teen loner who discovers a giant crab-like being on a beach.

After slogging away on their own, animators came to Annecy to catch up and recharge.

“I got the idea for ‘Summer Wars’ at the festival in 2007. Now that I’m back, I hope it will give me ideas for the next feature,” said Japan’s Mamoru Hosada, whose “Wars,” a cleverly packaged geek cyber thriller and teen romancer, got upbeat response.

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