Making waves with 3D toons

Variety's Achievement in Int'l Film Award: Olivier Courson

Studiocanal has shown that a Euro-centric company can successfully compete with the U.S. majors in family fare.

And it has done so with high-quality 3D animated, live-action features and mainstream and upscale director-driven pics.

Studiocanal’s biggest advance in this arena came in 2010 with its purchase of 3D pioneer Ben Stassen’s nWave Pictures, which at a stroke established the Euro film group as a key purveyor of indie 3D family movies.

“Very few large companies in Europe focus on family entertainment,” says Studiocanal topper Olivier Courson. “It’s a highly competitive market heavily dominated by U.S. majors. Upscale family features are seldom available for pickups”

Studiocanal and “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman are teaming on “Paddington Bear,” a CGI and live-action, bigscreen makeover of the books about the little toy bear.

NWave has been a critical part of Studiocanal’s strategy to become a major player in the arena. Through that partnership “we were able to secure inhouse, high-profile 3D family movies for our three (distribution) territories — France, U.K. and Germany — and sell international rights,” Courson says.

“A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures,” the first 3D tyke toon released under the Studiocanal/nWave banner, was a B.O. hit and international sales success in 2010. Produced on a $26.4 million budget, “Adventures” grossed $75 million worldwide.

Per Courson, most distributors have already signed up for the sequel, “Sammy’s Adventures 2,” set for an Aug. 15 French roll-out.

In line with Studiocanal’s policy of managing risk and producing films for the right cost, nWave has been making studio-style 3D films with budgets “anywhere from 20% to 30% of what the average international American animated film costs,” Stassen says.

He adds that nWave and Studiocanal collaborate on finding and developing properties.

As nWave is located in Belgium, which has one of Europe’s most aggressive tax-rebate programs, Studiocanal raised nearly half of the budgets for “Sammy’s Adventures” and “Sammy’s Adventures 2” via tax shelters, Stassen says.

Besides nWave, Studiocanal is producing commercial arthouse toons from French helmers such as comicbook artist-turned-filmmaker Joann Sfar (“The Rabbi’s Cat”), who is directing and co-producing with Studiocanal an English-language adaptation of one of his popular books, “Little Vampire”; Michel Ocelot, the auteur behind the “Kirikou” franchise; as well as up-and-comers Benjamin Renner, Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar, whose “Ernest and Celestine” world-preems in Directors’ Fortnight.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Studiocanal to up the ante on family entertainment.

Indeed, Sfar points out, “Thanks to ‘Despicable Me’ and ‘The Lorax,’ Hollywood now realizes that we’re capable of creating animated films that match the artistic quality and production values of Pixar and DreamWorks titles — and that’s what we aim at doing with ‘Little Vampire.’ ”

On “Little Vampire,” Sfar is collaborating with “Rango” producer John Carls and toon/vfx vet Mike Defeo, who most recently worked on 3D character development for “The Lorax.”

Studiocanal is also venturing into live-action family films with an ambitious slate: Stassen’s $17.2 million “African Safari 3D,” an expedition from “the sand dunes of Namibia to the top of Kilimanjaro,” in Stassen’s words; and LGM-produced, comicbook-based “Billy and Buddy,” a $26.4 million ’70s-set comedy turning on a 7-year-old boy and his newly adopted cocker spaniel. Pic will be directed by “Welcome to the Sticks” scribe-duo Alexandre Charlot and Franck Magnier.

Looking ahead, Courson says he’s particularly interested in British family comedies in the vein of “Nanny McPhee” that can be based on original ideas, British characters or franchises and have a universal appeal.

As Sfar puts it, “What sets Studiocanal apart and makes it a strong ally is that it’s highly grounded within the French film industry and very well positioned in the U.S./U.K. film business.”

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