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Illumination’s 'Despicable Me' movies have helped reinvigorate the French toon biz

In light of the smashing B.O. triumph of “Despicable Me” and its sequel, “Despicable Me 2,” France’s toon industry has never been so appealing to U.S. studios and TV networks, which are looking to feed their pipelines and tap into Gaul’s talent pool and funding incentives.

Into this market dynamic steps the Biarritz-set TV France Intl. Rendez-Vous, organized by Mathieu Bejot. The annual event will showcase a wide range of original or franchise-based animated series projects developed by some of France’s most powerful producers, in collaboration with U.S. partners.

Some major initiatives:

  • Gaumont Animation bought TV rights to British author Enid Blyton’s 1949 “Noddy” (“Oui-Oui” in French) franchise from DreamWorks Classics and is developing a series about the little wooden boy for pubcaster France Televisions.
  • Kidvid production company Genao, owned by Lagardere, is producing two skeins, “The Chipmunks and Chipettes,” based on “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” and “Xiaolin Chronicles,” based on “Xiaolin Showdown,” in co-production with their respective American rightsholders: Ross and Janice Bagdasarian at Bagdasarian Prods. and “Xiaolin Showdown” creator Christy Hui at ActionFliks.
  • Zodiak-owned Marathon Media, the outfit behind “Totally Spies” and “Gormiti,” is producing “Blake and the Aliens,” a comedy about a 12-year-old boy chased by alien squirrels from the future, with Nickelodeon in the U.S. and Gulli in France.

France has always been considered a toon hotspot, thanks in part to such animation schools as Les Gobelins. The fact that “Despicable Me” and its sequel were entirely made at Paris-based Illumination
Mac Gu with budgets in the $70 million range and grossing $543 million and $720 million (and counting) worldwide, respectively, has only bolstered the reputation of local talent and facilities.

“ The family and kids market is very competitive, so when there’s a huge hit on the playing field everyone tends to take notice,” says Rich Magallanes, senior VP at Nickelodeon Animation.

As Marathon Media general manager David Michel points out, “ There are very few solid animation companies that are still thriving. Most are in France and Canada, and people in the industry are aware of this.”

“With the development of their international channels, U.S. companies like Turner, Disney and Nickelodeon are increasingly looking to work with local producers to build content for their pipelines,” says Gaumont animation topper Pierre Belaisch, an industry vet who launched Gulli, the first French youth-skewed channel, in 2005.

Concurs Magallanes, “We’re casting our net wide in order to stay ahead of the competition .”

That’s not to say that Nick and other U.S. networks aren’t picky about the local producers they want to partner with. “The challenges in any co-production, especially when dealing internationally, are time and communication (as well as) language barriers and sensibilities,” Magallanes says. “The benefits of working with an establishment like Marathon ultimately lie in the fact that they’re a proven entertainment company that has a history of making hits for kids.”

For Nickelodeon it’s a win-win scenario, argues Michel. “They’re able to fashion a program for their audiences with half the budget of an inhouse-produced Nickelodeon series.”

But there’s more than animation talent behind the success of France’s toon biz. There are also a slew of rules and regulations that, in effect, subsidize it. For one thing, Gallic broadcasters are required to back local film and animation in multiple ways. For instance, as a youth channel, Gulli must dedicate 42% of its entire morning programing to French animated programs. Also, statebacked
subsidies and tax breaks cover 10%-80% of series budgets.

But when all is said and done, the giant U.S. market is a major lure, and collaborating with a American network or producer from the get-go also offers many upsides to French animation producers.

“When you’re making a program hoping to sell it to the U.S. once it’s completed, you’re sort of shooting in the dark. On ‘Blake and the Aliens,’ the fact that we’re working with high-level American creatives from the start to craft a series that will perfectly fit Nickelodeon’s positioning helps us move in the right direction,” says Michel, adding that “Blake” marks Marathon’s first full-on collaboration with a U.S. network on a toon skein from the development stage.

U.S. studios are also increasingly trusting French animation companies to reboot prized franchises with a modern and international flavor.

DreamWorks Classics chose Gaumont Animation over various European contenders, per Belaisch. “We’re a full-service animation studio backed by a 118-year-old fi lm company that has a track record in France and abroad, so that undeniably gives us a lot of credit,” says the exec, adding that DreamWorks is actively involved in the development of “Noddy” to make sure the series retains the franchise’s DNA.

Belaisch added Gaumont Animation wants to work more closely with U.S. majors on the development of shows for the U.S. market and overseas and will tap into the contacts of Gaumont Intl. Television, the shingle’s Los Angeles-based arm, to gain access.

“Ultimately, trans-Atlantic link-ups between France and American talent are all about combining the best of both worlds,” says Sandrine Nguyen, who runs Genao with Boris Hertzog and is producing “Chipmunks” and “Xiaolin.” “In France, we have great animation schools, as well as talented directors and character designers but we still have a lot to learn from American storyboard artists and scriptwriters .”

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