Breadth, scope of growing industry takes centerstage at fest

PARIS — The Annecy Festival, the world’s largest animation confab, will afford two breathtaking views: a high stretch of French Alps, and the ever-growing spectrum of Europe’s burgeoning movie animation landscape.

Animation on display at the fest ranges from the 3D “The Rabbi’s Cat” from France’s Joann Sfar, to hyper-stylized CGI “The Prodigies” from Gallic producers Onyx and Fidelite, to EuropaCorp’s period tale, “The Boy With the Cuckoo Heart.” There are also the features like the daintily drawn 2D “Ernest and Celestine,” about a big bear and small mouse, that plays in Annecy’s Work in Progress section, and out-of-competition player “Goodbye Mister Christie,” from Brit Phil Mulloy, with this synopsis: “When caught on TV having sex with a French sailor, Mr. Christie’s life is changed forever.”

There’s good reason that Europe’s animators are taking their own paths to the bigscreen.

“All animated films, wherever they come from, will be judged against the standards of DreamWorks and Pixar movies — particularly if they go for the same comedy, all-age-group formula — and they normally pale by comparison,” says Tim Westcott, at London’s HIS Screen Digest.

The history of modern European animation is littered with the corpses of movies that have taken on the Hollywood studios at their own game.

Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp is disappointed that the sequels to its “Arthur” franchise had failed to meet international sales targets. “Planet 51,” produced by Spain’s Ilion Animation Studios and costing $50 million, ran up $20 million in international sales but took a huge hit paying P&A on “Planet’s” 3,000-plus print release by Sony in the U.S.

If you can’t beat them, do something else.

So Euro toons are now targeting different demos, addressing distinctive subjects, and moving at contrasting price-point ranges to Hollywood.

“French and European animation filmmakers have positioned themselves on a different market, with auteurish animated features often less conventional, more modestly budgeted and innovative in some way,” says Remi Burah, Arte France Cinema deputy CEO.

At March’s Cartoon Movie forum in Lyon, 24 of the 56 films were essentially art films. Half of Annecy’s Euro features target adult auds.

Few animated features exemplify high-end Euro toons — their ambitions and originality, advantages and challenges — better than 3D action thriller “Soul Man,” from France’s Guillaume Ivernel.

Produced by Paris-based Blacklight Movies, the pic is set in a dystopian futuristic Philadelphia where the rich live literally above the tenement-dwelling poor in glittering glass-and-metal tower blocks set on stilts.

Scripted by Ivernel and French crime novelist Caryl Ferey (“Zulu”), “Soul Man,” says Ivernel, is “a cross between blaxploitation and ‘Blade Runner,’ ” which, he adds was itself inspired in part, according to Ridley Scott, by legendary French comicbook artist Moebius, with whom Ivernel worked on the never-made 3D “Starwatcher.”

“We work with a breed of talented filmmakers who are proud of their European heritage and able to blend American and British pop references with cyber culture,” says Aton Soumache, producer of the $31.6 million action-thriller “Prodigies,” $64 million Antoine de Saint-Exupery adaptation “The Little Prince” and $25.8 million “Mune,” an eco-adventure toon.

In “Prodigies,” helmer Antoine Charreyron mixes elements of John Carpenter with Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and Zach Snyder’s “300” but still shows a singular European graphic style, Soumache says.

France is on a toon production roll. Nine Gallic animated pics were produced last year, vs. five in 2009. French-origin movie investment leapt 143% to $132.4 million.

Blacklight is exploring funding for artistic development and pre-production, says production head Thierry Grizard.

Adds Kandor Graphics’ Ignacio Cajigas, “Topnotch European indie distributors want animation because they can’t access U.S. toon projects, which are distributed by their studio owners.” Kandor, which counts Antonio Banderas among its shareholders, is in production on the $30.5 million “Goleor, the Scale and the Sword,” a neo-medieval fantasy epic.

But high-end Euro animation is not cheap. With CGI animation, says Martin Moszkowicz at Germany’s Constantin Film, “you basically buy quality with budget, far more than on any other movie type. The more detailed the CGI animation gets, the richer it looks.”

Also, in animation, Moszkowicz says, Hollywood has corporate brands that draw the audience: Disney/Pixar and, to a lesser extent, DreamWorks Animation. Nothing in Europe comes close.

So on Reinhard Klooss’ $50 million-plus “Tarzan 3D,” Constantin bought a recognizable brand: Tarzan.

“(In) developing big projects, big talents are meeting entrepreneurs,” says Olivier-Rene Veillon at the Ile de France Film Commission. He points to Denis Auboyer’s CMC-Digimage technical services group, which co-produced the “Soul Man” promo and looks set to co-produce the feature.

Chris O’Reilly, at London-based Nexus Prods. (whose “Cog” was a Cartoon Movie standout), maintains that the biggest change in animation is the talent pool. “Ten years ago, full CGI animated movies were the preserve of very high-tech studios, mostly on the U.S. West Coast. (Now), across the world, there’s a broader range of animation studios with capability to produce creatively interesting and different work, and the technical ability to pull it off.”

At Blacklight, Ivernel says he want to forge his company into one “owned by technicians, who are at the heart of films’ creation.” France has very good animation schools, he says.

A decade ago, that could have sounded like nationalist hubris. Now it looks more like an exciting reality.

— Anson Woodring contributed to this report.

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