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Euros Make Room for Youth-Skewing Cartoons

After years of excelling with grown-up offerings, producers target family and pre-school market

Among the diverse range of animated projects on display at Lyon’s 15th Cartoon Movie will be fresh answers to Europe’s perennial challenge: How to face off against Hollywood?

In recent years, Euro toon talents have competed by skewing older, developing adult-targeted titles on smaller budgets (among this year’s offerings are Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville” prequel,
Swing Popa Swing” and Patrice Leconte’s “Music”). However, the new trend suggests a rise in highly artistic family-targeted toons, up 20% to 35 of the total 56 movies pitched to potential co-producers in Lyon. The lineup even features four pre-school pics — an unusually high number for a film type usually confined to TV, says Cartoon Movie director Annick Maes.

“This could be a year of more family and commercial projects, different films with highly interesting designs and graphics,” says Cartoon director general Marc Vandeweyer.

“There are very few super projects just reeking of commercialism at Cartoon Movie,” says Philip Einstein

Lipski of Denmark’s Einstein Film (“Ronal the Barbarian”). “In general, arthouse for adults isn’t really flying.”

As Cartoon Movie begins, a select group of family-oriented Euro toons are clicking at the box office.

By mid February, 3D turtle toon “Sammy’s Adventures 2” had made $42.1 million worldwide, while Scandi sequel “Niko 2: Little Brother, Big Trouble” (screening at Cartoon Movie) earned $19.3 million. Also in Lyon, “Tad, the Lost Explorer” has made $24.6 million in native Spain, topping $40 million worldwide.

Of artier family fare, Benjamin Renner’s 2D water-colored 2012 Cannes hit “Ernest and Celestine” debuted
Dec. 12 in France to a $6.9 million mid-February score. Another Les Armateurs production, Michel Ocelot’s “Kirikou and the Men and the Women,” grossed $9.1 million.

As the many examples in Lyon show, Europe’s family-toon surge reps a broad range of subjects, settings and techniques. For example, “Mermere” is an underwater sci-fi fantasy produced by France’s Les Productions du Lagon; Marius Zwolinski’s “Fennec,” from Poland’s Animoon, a noirish crime thriller featuring a desert rat detective; and Einstein Film’s comedy “SS Martha” turns on a rusty old coaster of sailor slackers.

Of potential artistic standouts, Latvian’s Reinis Kalnaellis’ “Red Button,” a coming-of-age tale set in gentle green hills, offers hand-drawn 2D animation and watercolor backgrounds.

Beyond Beyond,” about a young rabbit searching for his mother, will be Sweden’s first stereoscopic 3D toon. For Copenhagen Bombay’s “Get Santa,” helmer Jacob Ley will photograph his hard material characters, then use cut-out animation.

Another trend: 34% of Cartoon Movie productions are literary adaptations. “Europe’s children’s books have richly diverse graphic styles,” says Les ArmateursDidier Brunner. “Its animated movies are going in the same direction.”

Continental Europe’s two animation powerhouses, France and Scandinavia, have also developed business models that favor creativity.

Denmark’s Copenhagen Bombay and Einstein Film keep budgets low, finance films with Scandinavian TV presales or subsidies, then look for profit from international sales. “Beyond Beyond” costs $3.6 million to deliver (3D and all).

“Lower budgets and very simple financing structures allow directors to be more experimental in the style,” says Malene Iversen of Copenhagen Bombay.

The major challenge to succeeding with family fare remains swelling distribution costs. It’s no coincidence “Sammy 2,” “Ernest” and “Kirikou” were all sold and released internationally by Studiocanal, a European major. “Ernest” bowed in France on 489 prints, crucially reaching crossover audiences in multiplexes.

“Most new European animated features’ ambitions are to reach large family audiences,” says Les Armateurs’ Jean-Paul Commin. “But you can’t expect to achieve that with a limited number of prints. As life cycles in theaters get shorter, you need to invest more on marketing and take more risks. Sleepers are no longer possible.”

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