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Foreign toonmakers eye U.S. market

Language, marketing costs make America a tough nut to crack

When Hollywood studios make animated features, they make them for a world audience. For example, Fox’s “Rio” premiered in Rio de Janeiro, rather than the U.S., and bowed in numerous international territories before opening on its home turf. Likewise, Disney-Pixar cooked up a globe-trotting plot for “Cars 2,” with the slogan, “Cars Take on the World.”

But the love seems to flow mostly one-way. Few foreign toons travel to the U.S., and hits are scarce.

Brazil-born “Rio” director Carlos Saldanha, who grew up watching Disney, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera cartoons from America, says animation technology and talent are everywhere, but opportunities are not. “They’re behind in terms of what it takes to build production lines to make successful animated movies.”

Foreign films that get modest American attention are often unconventional efforts that “happen to be animated” — such as Oscar nominees “Persepolis,” “The Illusionist” and “The Triplets of Belleville,” distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, and “The Secret of Kells” from GKids.

“But films for young people have a different measure of success,” says Eric Beckman, who heads distributor GKids. “Look at Aardman Animations’ experience with DreamWorks a few years ago. When $150 million in U.S. box office for ‘Flushed Away’ is not considered successful, that’s (asking films to perform at) a very high level.”

Aardman, the Bristol, U.K.-based shop behind the “Wallace & Gromit” franchise, is readying two releases for Sony, “Arthur Christmas” and “Pirates.” Bob Osher, who heads Sony’s Digital Production division, describes them as U.S.-styled releases in terms of scope and complexity, but adds Sony doesn’t want to “Americanize” Aardman’s sensibility.

“We’re just looking for the broadest possible audience for what they do,” he says.

The support is technical and financial. The computer-animated “Arthur Christmas” used Sony’s toon pipeline, and new funding for Aardman’s stop-motion facilities in Britain is enabling it to shoot “Pirates” stereoscopically.

“Our collective ambition is quite large,” Osher says. “So we’ve put money towards technologies that give Aardman the wherewithal to do new things.”

Australian animation shop Animal Logic certainly parlayed Warner Bros. support into its “Happy Feet” success, but some think that such backing cost the film its local personality, resulting in an essentially American franchise. Belgian Ben Stassen of NWave Pictures says, “?’Despicable Me’ (released by Universal) was made in France, but it’s far more American than French.” Stassen has seen the challenges of cracking the U.S. market firsthand. His stereo CG feature “Sammy’s Adventures” has earned $80 million internationally, but is only now being readied for U.S. release.

“It was acquired two years ago by Universal Music Group and then it got stuck in limbo,” says Stassen, who has managed to make large-scale 3D features for $25 milllion-$30 million. The challenge, he says, is marketing: “Family films are the most expensive to market. You can’t get away with $10 million-$15 million in P&A. You need to be in the $25 million-$30 million range to have a chance.”

That’s a view shared by Martin Moszkowicz of Germany’s Constantin Films, whose $30 million “Animals United” is coming to America after grossing more than $80 million abroad. “Many distributors are afraid of those P&A costs. U.S. audiences are used to heavy tie-ins and merchandising on films aiming at young kids,” he says. Constantin will next produce a 3D “Tarzan” with American auds in mind.

In France, this approach is the exception rather than the rule, with the industry designed to support personal, auteur visions over broad-appeal commercial fare. As one industry pro confided at Cannes, “The French are crazy. They want to do a children’s film with a little girl naked drinking wine,” describing a specific director-driven project sure to be a tough sell to foreign buyers.

One major exception to that travel-averse philosophy is French “Dragon Hunters” co-director Guillaume Ivernel, who is courting the U.S. market in a major way with his upcoming “Soul Man 3D” project. With a projected budget of $50 million — unusually high for a French toon — the pic can’t afford to be narrow in its appeal. Instead, Ivernel has crafted a “Shaft”-meets-“Blade Runner” sci-fi thriller with a father-daughter relationship at its core that he thinks will appeal widely enough to make good on that investment.

“If you make a combination between Moebius-style French animation, Japanese anime and American blaxploitation movies, then you have something for an international audience,” he says.

“Soul Man” is being produced in English, but language can be a barrier. Typically, distribs must spend to dub the films into English — easier with animation than live-action, but an extra expense all the same.

That explains the long delay between the European and American release dates of the acclaimed 2008 French toon “Mia and the Migoo,” which GKids dubbed with an American cast that includes Whoopi Goldberg and James Woods.

GKids keeps marketing costs low by creating promo materials inhouse, targeting parents online, and garnering critical acclaim. “We’ve been profitable on every film we’ve distributed. We think there’s a fairly substantial niche market for animated films, but you need to define success as being south of $150 million!”

Annecy Intl. Animation Festival:
Foreign toonmakers eye U.S. market | Web model clicks with next gen | Regional spotlights | Up and coming toon talents

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