Toons growing up

Europe explores adult territory in animation

The trend that emerged at France’s recent Cartoon Movie co-production mart has nothing to do with kidpics.

Rather, the features that proved to be highlights of the meet — “Ronal the Barbarian,” “Soul Man” and “Adama” — underscored how Euro animators are exploring different genres through animation.

And although producers wrestle with tough markets and muscular Hollywood offerings, they see opportunity in funding and offering pics aimed at arthouse and adult auds.

Five years ago at Cartoon Movie, higher-art titles like “Kirikou and the Wild Beasts” proved an exception. But the mart that ran March 2-4 was packed with art films and non-kid pics, which repped 26 of the 56 projects on show. The two-most attended pitches — Tim Ollive’s “1884: Yesterday’s Future” and Patrice Leconte’s “Suicide Shop” — joined such fare as “Adama,” a period immigration tale from France’s Simon Rouby; Spaniard Ignacio Ferreras’ “Wrinkles,” a senior citizen buddy movie; Remi Chaye’s Arctic-set “Long Way North”; and the young-adult skewing “Mutafukaz,” a 2D urban sci-fi spoof.

There is a certain logic to the arthouse/adult animation boom.

“If you’re trying to do an animated family or kids film in Europe, rightly or wrongly you always get compared with the best of Disney and DreamWorks,” says Screen Digest senior analyst Tim Westcott. “Persepolis” and “Waltz With Bashir,” by contrast, were distinctive, found an audience and received good critical reception, he adds.

Some 75% of Cartoon Movie’s art pics are from France, and can mix strong local TV funding and co-production coin, often sourcing Euro tax rebates; one Cartoon Movie hit, “Phantom Boy,” is co-produced by French studio Folimage and Belgium’s Lunanime.

“Animation allows easier international co-production work-splits than live-action fiction,” says David Matamoros of Zentropa Intl. Spain.

But the larger question, says Westcott, is whether Euro animated features can find distribution. Releases have declined from 2008’s 15 to eight last year.

Animators are reacting to market realities via lower budgets.

Cartoon Movie director general Marc Vandeweyer says he was surprised by the mart’s large number of modestly budgeted films, ranging between $3.25 million and $9.7 million.

“Animators know distribution markets are more difficult and there’s more competition, so many are making lower-budgeted films, while maintaining a high quality,” he says.

Danish “Ronal the Barbarian,” a “Conan”-spoof targeted at 15-25 year olds, cost only $3.5 million, despite multicharacter CG animation. Producer Einstein Film budgeted “Ronal” using potential returns from Denmark, says director Philip Einstein Lipski, and any international upside is “icing on the cake.”

Cartoon Movie did, however, boast higher-end fare, most notably thriller “French Riviera,” from Les Armateurs/EuropaCorp; Nexus Prods.’ comedy-with-music “Cog”; and Blacklight Movies’ “Soul Man,” a striking sci-fi blaxploitation thriller.

After the success of Pathe-Disney’s “Gnomeo and Juliet” and Universal’s “Despicable Me,” opportunities may be opening up for producers to create financing, animation and distribution deals between the U.S. and Europe.

“There are growing possibilities of making films that sit between traditionally low-budget European animation films and $100 million-plus studio movies,” says Charlotte Bavasso at Nexus Prods.”

For the $48.5 million “Soul Man,” says producer Francois Belot: “We could either structure it as a broad international co-production with partners from Europe, America and Asia; or team with a French minimajor who takes all rights outside U.S. and Asia; or even sign with a U.S. major that will help us secure U.S. distribution.”