While the number of new 3D pics seems to be leveling off Stateside, European filmmakers continue to expand with low-budget and arty 3D toons. At Euro animation pitching forum Cartoon Movie, the number of 3D titles in the lineup has doubled since last year, as 3D pics now represent 40% of all the mart’s projects and completed films.

Rather than imitate what Hollywood already does well, Euro filmmakers often use 3D in novel ways, as evidenced by such helmers as France’s Patrice Leconte with “The Suicide Shop,” U.K.’s Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt on “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” and Estonia’s Kaspar Jancis with “Morten on the Ship of Fools.”

“Shop,” Leconte’s first animated movie, produced by Diabolo Films, mixes 2D and 3D to emulate the quaint look of a children’s pop-up book. “Pirates,” from Brit studio Aardman, and “Morten on the Ship of Fools” apply 3D to stop-motion animation.

“There is a real sense of creativity and innovation in European 3D animation,” says Cartoon Movie general director Marc Vandeweyer. “There’s more cultural difference in the graphic styles and in the narratives than there is in the U.S.”

The B.O. potential of Europe’s 3D auteur-driven toons, however, has yet to be proven. “The Rabbi’s Cat,” helmed by French comicbook artist Joann Sfar, and Michel Ocelot’s “Tales of the Night,” both released in 2D and 3D, failed to conquer French audiences.

Per Vandeweyer, “European audiences are still too accustomed to watching Hollywood-made animated movies, and that makes it harder for films that have a different graphic style to target the same market. It will take time.”

Since they cater to a smaller audience segment than Hollywood, Euro producers have learned to produce 3D toons on micro budgets to limit risks.

The $3.8 million “Beyond Beyond” is one of the small-budget Scandinavian projects pitched at the mart. Directed by Esben Toft Jacobsen and produced by Copenhagen Bombay, the team behind $2.2 million “The Great Bear,” the pic has already sold to 25 territories.

Petter Lindblad, producer of “Beyond Beyond,” says his company will be able to deliver the film on such a shoestring budget by spending a long time in preparation and pre-production.

“We don’t produce anything that won’t be used, and we try to not have too many co-producers involved because that would dilute the project,” says Lindblad, adding that the company works with off-the-shelf tools such as Maya.

The budget drop doesn’t concern only 3D films either. In fact, the average cost of all Cartoon Movie titles has dropped to €5.7 million ($7.3 million), down from $9 million last year.

“Independent producers are adapting themselves to the shrinking market,” Vandeweyer says. “For the past two years, they’ve been facing fierce competition from U.S. majors and big European studios which are producing more actively and have bigger marketing muscle.”

But in spite of the hurdles, European producers are still willing to dive into 3D, motivated in part by the added potential for international sales and theatrical distribution. Even though 3D is proving too expensive for some European moviegoers, especially in Spain and Italy, 3D offerings still account for a big chunk of ticket sales in France, Germany and the U.K.

Per Camille Neel, international sales topper at France’s Le Pacte, “In most cases, having an animated film available in 3D facilitates its chances of being acquired for theatrical distribution, rather than going straight to video.”

And the 3D format still has significant traction in Asia and Russia, according to industry insiders.

“That’s the first thing some Asian distributors ask for: If your film is not in 3D, they might not want to take it for theatrical distribution.”

According to French helmer-producer Pascal Herold, who will present “Cinderella 3D” at Cartoon Movie, “An animated film sells twice as much if it’s in stereo.”

Toronto-based sales shingle Cinemavault has already closed more than 30 territories on “Cinderella 3D.” Herold says he hopes to recoup 50% of the toon’s budget from international sales.

And while it wasn’t a local hit, Studiocanal-repped “Tales of the Night,” sold to major territories, including Japan, U.S., U.K. and Canada, for all rights.

Another major argument in favor of 3D filmmaking, as Herold points out, is the fact “it remains a good weapon against piracy.”

Didier Brunner, a producer at French arthouse animation shingle Les Armateurs, is preparing Ocelot’s “Kirikou and Men and Women,” the third installment of the popular Kirikou franchise, in 2D and 3D. But Brunner says he’s not planning on making every film in 3D.

“It’s still a marketing argument, but the question is, ‘For how long?’?” he says.

Cartoon Movie 2012
Euro cel bloc sold on stereo 3D | ‘Cat’ on region’s hot toon groove | On the horizon