International Animation Pumps Up Awards Season Toon Race

The international toon business is alive and well, and once again in the Oscar race. Even though Academy rules have changed in a way that could favor more mainstream studio fare, 2017 was an especially strong year for foreign-made animated features, with a number of overseas projects creating awards season buzz, including Cartoon Saloon’s “The Breadwinner,” which attracted Angelina Jolie as an executive producer, and the hand-painted “Loving Vincent,” in a year that’s not been especially strong so far for U.S. fare.

But foreign animated films don’t face the same kind of pressure at the box office as homegrown projects do, and while making a profit is still a priority for overseas toons, the bar for B.O. is lower.

“If you look at European production, it’s just a different environment,” says Eric Beckman, CEO of distributor GKids, which has plugged into a successful formula of bringing some of the best of international animation to U.S. audiences. GKids has had at least one of its films in contention for an animated feature Oscar every year since its 2009 launch, including the 2016 film “My Life as a Zucchini.” “First of all, the budgets are smaller, the markets are smaller and success can be at a very different dollar amount. So you don’t need to reach, necessarily, the same level of mass audience you need to when you release your typical animated project in the United States. If there’s $10 million at risk versus $150 million at risk, that’s a substantially different animal.”

If B.O. is any indication, this has been a lackluster year for U.S. animated films. So far, the highest-grossing animated film is Illumination’s “Despicable Me 3,” which is still on a couple hundred screens across the U.S. To date, it’s made about $263 million domestically, not even close to last year’s animated champion “Finding Dory,” which topped out at $486 million.

And with two months left in 2017, it still has a long way to go to catch up to “The Secret Life of Pets,” which clocked in at $365 million, or the Oscar-winning “Zootopia,” which made $341 million domestically. There are still a couple of studio releases to come, however, including Pixar’s highly anticipated “Coco.”

But the independent model has been kind to the likes of “The Breadwinner,” according to its director Nora Twomey, one of the partners behind Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon. “The independent model has been something that’s been very important to us. All of our films are funded from independent sources. It does, absolutely, give us a different type of freedom because the type of financiers that are attracted to a project like ‘The Breadwinner’ are the ones that trust in the director and the screenwriter and know that the whole team are coming together to tell as truthful a story as they possibly can.”

While Cartoon Saloon relied on a number of international sources, including the Luxembourg Film Fund, the Irish Film Board, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, Telefilm Canada and the Shaw Rocket Fund in Canada, the filmmakers behind “Loving Vincent” had some trouble getting investors to sign on to the unique project.

“We had good initial backing from within Poland where we are based, but finding international partners took a lot longer,” says Hugh Welchman, who co-directed the film with Polish artist Dorota Kobiela.

“We found that sales agents and distributors were quite receptive to the subject matter, and those that read the script liked it. However, I think they were put off by the fact no one has ever attempted hand-painting an entire feature film in oil paints, so they were worried about the final look, whether audiences would respond to it, and also whether it was possible to be delivered on our low budget.”

Eventually, Welchman and Kobiela found a devoted number of investors who supported the unique idea of bringing the story of Vincent van Gogh and paintings to life, but still struggled until a fan posted a teaser trailer on social media in 2015.

“We were struggling to find enough painters in Poland to complete the film,” he says. “To try and encourage artists to apply, we put up a teaser trailer made of the shots we had animated to that point. A fan reposted on Facebook and within 24 hours, there had been 2 million views.”

That grew to more than 200 million views after three months.

“This powerful response to the trailer from the public the world over gave more financiers and distributors the confidence to commit to the project. That was the catalyst that took us from struggling every month to keep the project moving forward to closing the finance and being able to plan all the way through to the finish line.”

It helps that foreign animation has such boosters in the U.S. as Beckman and GKids, which just launched the Animation Is Film Festival in Los Angeles, which ran Oct. 20-22.

“The festival isn’t targeting, really, animation people, who are sort of already diving into animation and may go to international animation festivals or seek out independent animation, but is really targeting the general film audience who may not know there’s a larger world of animation out there or just don’t have access to it,” Beckman says.

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