Czech and Eastern European animation was once a hit across Europe, providing a more soulful — and vastly more affordable — alternative to U.S.-made fare.

The picture is far less clear these days, say acquisitions folk from Western European networks, mainly because EU nations have stepped up to the plate with smart, appealing and quirky characters and stories.

Cartoon Forum, in its 21st edition this year, is the place to witness the rise of independent European animation production. The co-production session brings more than 700 producers and buyers together each fall, meeting this year in Sopot, Poland.

Sponsored by the European Commission’s Media program, the nonprofit event, part of the larger Cartoon Support Network, is credited with getting over 400 projects produced, mainly TV series. It’s also pushed the growth of homegrown product in Europe, which has largely broken down the once-sacred assumption that Hollywood animation is all the content that continental viewers ever need.

Cartoon Forum general director Marc Vandeweyer, who says animation is still considered too often the “poor relation” of the European audio-visual sector, adds this area has also shown the most impressive growth of any genre since the Media org was founded. Continued EU support, especially for creating distrib networks, will be essential, he argues, because European animators now face tough competition from the likes of Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar and Warners.

Still, it’s encouraging, says Vandeweyer, that in the past year Polish auds reached some 600,000 for regionally produced toons such as “The True Story of Puss ‘n Boots” and “Sunshine Barry and the Disco Worms.”

Cartoon Forum participants such as Jean-Loeck van Kollenburg, a buyer for Dutch channels Z@pp/ Z@ppelin, are currently favoring the work of shingles such as the Dutch Telescreen and U.K./French Millimages, who have sold him on series such as “Conni” and “64 Zoo Lane.”

Czech toons have a “rich traditional style,” van Kollenburg fondly recollects, but most of the distribs supplying his viewers these days are Western European, Canadian or Australian — and sometimes still American.

Some international co-productions we acquire might have Czech production partners,” he says. “I don’t always know exactly, to be honest.”

Laurence Blaevoet, who scouts new animation for Canal Plus France, says five-to-20-minute adventures and comedy are the hot tickets these days — an area where traditional Eastern European producers have fallen behind.

“Most toon material from the former East bloc is “not adapted to the international audience,” she says. “It’s too edgy.”

Better bets for the French major are recent buys such as “Masha & Michka” from Est Ouest Production/Animaccord of France. Then again, “Log Jam” from Studio Baestart of Hungary, was a good investment too, says Blaevoet.

Czechs, meanwhile, continue to focus on animation, which now forms an increasingly significant part of feature film output — the Czech/Slovak/German graphic novel adaptation “Alois Nebel,” a dark story of a haunted train station agent shot in arty black-and-white rotoscope, turned heads at this year’s Venice fest.

And celebrated surrealist Jan Svankmajer continues to turn out his unique hand-wrought animation as well, preeming “Insects” this year, a pic that interweaves Karel Capek characters and winged crawlies.

Neither, for better or worse, is likely to hit French or British TV screens on any Saturday morning soon.

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