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France grows its toon industry

Companies produce U.S. properties, sell own series

PARIS — In Nicktoons’ “Iron Man: Armored Adventures,” produced by Marvel Animation and Paris’ Method Animation, only some fleet footwork from teen Tony Stark allows him to dodge the fire-beams of the evil Mandarin.

The fact that a French company’s producing “Iron Man” — or that France’s Moonscoop is making toon skein “The Fantastic Four” with Marvel — is a mark of the growth of Gallic toons.

“French companies producing U.S. properties, which are then screened Stateside — this wasn’t even imaginable five years ago,” says Clement Calvet, managing director at Gaumont’s Alphanim.

In the past five years, French TV powerhouse Marathon Media has sold all its animated series, comprising some 500 episodes, to the U.S., says Marathon prexy Vincent Chalvon Demersay.

France boasts the biggest TV toon industry in Europe by a wide margin, according to international showbiz industry analysts Screen Digest and Gallic promo org the Centre National du Cinema.

Pulling in E41.7 million ($59.76 million) in 2007, toons are Gaul’s biggest TV export, repping 35% of total overseas  sales, according to a CNC/TV France Intl. study.

The business has boomed this decade thanks to domestic backing including compulsory broadcaster investment plus CNC subsidies and tax breaks that cover between 10%-80% of series’ budgets.

This has eased international co-production and provided a spring board for expansion at internationally ambitions companies such as Marathon, which is now a lynchpin in Zodiak, a burgeoning Euro conglom, and Moonscoop, which bought L.A.-based Mike Young Prods. in 2005.

But Gallic toons now face global recession and TV market fragmentation, both withering networks’ budgets.

By CNC estimates, French TV toon output has tumbled 34% from 2006 to 259 hours last year.

“Even for French animation, which enjoys significant domestic funding, the contribution from international sales is highly significant,” says Screen Digest’s Tim Westcott.

He adds that during the downturn, animation is highly vulnerable to budget cutbacks. Due to toons’ long shelf life, broadcasters can program more library shows or extend existing licenses rather than invest in new shows.

“European pubcasters — France Televisions, ZDF, BBC — have maintained investments,” Chalvon Demersay says. But he says the situation in North American is very different where commercial broadcasters have lost millions in advertising revenues.

But French animation is battling back.

“Content remains king, and strong programs are still fighting their way onscreen abroad,” says Philippe Soutter, founder of year-old sales and distribution company PGS Entertainment.

Chalvon Demersay says Marathon’s riding out the storm thanks to worldwide brands like “Gormiti” that generate most revs from merchandising.

Soutter say PGS also will focus on selling strong worldwide brands, including “Iron Man” and “The Adventures of the Little Prince,” and shows involving strong international broadcasters, such as “I.N.K.,” which is a co-production with pubcaster web France 3 and has pre-sold to Germany’s Super RTL and ABC in Australia.

At Paris-based Xilam, topper Marc du Pontavice says the company’s catalogue of international product, such as “Oggy and the Cockroaches,” has generated crucial recurring revenues.

“Our catalogue brings in E2 million ($2.8 million) annually,” says Du Pontavice. “That’s enough to cover gap financing.”

Xilam’s producing a third “Oggy” season and developing another slapstick cartoon, the Canal Plus/TF1-co-produced “Goony Lagoon.”

Alphanim will continue its core production of three to four half-hour series a year. But it’s diversifying into toon features — “Eleanor’s Secret” bows in December — as well as tyke/teen live action series for France’s burgeoning digital terrestrial TV market, Calvet says. Its first series, “Viking Values,” is a France-Germany-Benelux-U.K. co-production.

Marathon’s also diversifying. It brought hit series “Totally Spies” to the bigscreen in July and is developing an animated sitcom.

While networks are nagged by falling revenues, producers are looking to digital terrestrial TV as a possible white knight to animate the toon market.

Media conglom Lagardere Active’s DTT tyke channel Gulli has to dedicate 42% of kids’ programming to French animation. That’s difficult when many high-quality series are unavailable for pickup, says Pierre Belaisch, programming director at Lagardere Active’s TV division.

So it’s increasing co-production. This fall, its kids/family channels — Gulli, Canal J and TiJi — are launching various co-productions, including comicbook based “Raymond” and action-comedy “Linus and Boon,” about a charismatic red alien.

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