Global aims mean bilingual production amid dual-tier system

Raunchy toon “El Santos vs. La Tetona Mendoza” and 3D animated film “Champions of Oz” point up the dual-track strategy of Mexico’s top animation shingle, Anima Estudios: The much-anticipated “El Santos” marks the bow of Atomo Films, an adult-oriented division of Anima that caters to domestic auds; “Oz,” the company’s first 3D film, is an international co-production that puts its accent on English to speak to global buyers.

Anima prexy Fernando de Fuentes says the company develops its global projects in English because that’s what media shoppers around the world are used to. “U.S. and European buyers pay close attention to the lip sync. Latin American buyers are more used to buying dubbed products. It’s right to go with English to attack those markets first.”

The company’s biggest success using that approach has been “Top Cat” — Anima’s reboot of the 1960s Hanna-Barbera toon, released as “Don Gato” in Mexico. With a domestic take of $8.4 million and a worldwide B.O. approaching $18 million, the film became the top-grossing Mexican pic last year. At $4.5 million in the U.K., it was the highest grossing Mexican film ever in Blighty.

“Top Cat” has unspooled theatrically in 26 countries, with DVDs of the film in 64 territories (although no sales figures are available). Anima veep Jose Carlos Garcia adds that the company is close to a deal for limited theatrical release and DVD sales in the U.S., and a sequel is in the works.

But Anima knows its domestic market is just as valuable. “El Santos” and last year’s kidpic “La leyenda de la Llorona” — which grossed $4 million domestically on a roughly $2 million budget — were the first- and fourth-highest grossing Mexican films in 2011, and comprised 32% of the total box office take for domestic films.

“We understand (that a film) like ‘Llorona’ or ‘Santos’ might be difficult to sell elsewhere, but the local market is strong enough for them to be successful,” De Fuentes says, adding that bigger-budget productions such as “Top Cat” or “Champions of Oz,” which have foreign co-producers, guarantee exposure in other countries. Anima’s first foray into 3D, “Oz,” which is ramping up, is a co-production with Indian shingle Laughing Lion.

Anima also is using the dual-track approach on the smallscreen. Since its launch in 2002, the company has grown to include a bustling TV division, having produced more than 100 episodes of the Spanish-language “El Chavo” — built on the long-running Televisa live-action property about an orphan boy — that airs in Latin America, the U.S., Canada, Spain and Portugal.

Next up for the smallscreen is “Teenage Fairytale Dropouts,” which will be synched in English, and run first on Australia’s Channel 7 in January, with a dubbed release for Mexico likely in March or April. “Dropouts” also has a deal pending in the U.K.

De Fuentes says work is complete on about 30 11-minute episodes, with plans to wrap the first season at 52 episodes. The project is an Australia-U.S.-Mexico-Ireland co-production with Anima, SLR Prods., Home Plate Entertainment and Telegael, with a storyline developed from Anima’s first feature toon, the 2003 “Magos y Gigantes” (Wizards and Giants).

Most of the animation for Anima’s projects is done by homegrown artists, many of whom have been with the studio since its inception, and get training from key players in the business, including Asifa director Frank Gladstone, animator Raul Garcia (“Lion King”), animation-acting trainer Ed Hooks and visual effects director and supervisor Colin Brady (“The Hunger Games,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”).

Buzz has been at a low roar in Mexico over “Santos.” The pic, co-produced with local shingle Peyote Films, cost $2.3 million to produce, and was released Nov. 30 on 250 prints via Televisa’s distribution unit Videocine — a long-time Anima business partner.

Pantelion Films, the distrib owned by Televisa and Lionsgate, has first option for U.S. distribution.

The story draws on still-popular comicbook characters created in the 1990s by underground comic artists Jose Ignacio Solorzano, aka Jis, and Trino Camacho. The film attracted topline voice talents including Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Demian Bichir, Jose Maria Yazpik, Joaquin Cosio, Cheech Marin and Guillermo del Toro.

The pic’s launch was boosted by a month of sneak previews, including a raucous midnight screening at the Morelia Film Festival, and a packed nine-screen event in Mexico City. Filmmakers also sold out a sneak preview at the 2,000-seat Teatro Diana in Guadalajara, the hometown of Jis y Trino (as the comic duo is known).

The success of the film could light the way for sequels and spinoffs, as well as expansion for Atomo into live-action genre films, says De Fuentes, adding, “Three out of three successes (“Santos,” “Top Cat” and Llorona”) would be great news for us.”

For Anima, it’s all about getting that success to translate.

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