PARIS – These are halcyon days for Paris-based ON Entertainment, already one of the top two-or-three animation companies in Europe.
On Jan. 15, a moved Aton Soumache, ON president, took to the stage with partner Dimitri Rassam to accept UniFrance’s French Cinema Award, reminding audiences the award has been 19 years in the making, in a reference to his founding Method Animation, now part of ON, in September 1997.
ON’s first big animated movie, “The Little Prince,” helmed by “Kung Fu Panda” director Mark Osborne, has just punched $100 million mark worldwide, and counting, ranking as the highest-grossing French animated movie in international markets in the last 20 years. On Dec. 6, Nickelodeon bowed Stateside “Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir,” where it rubs shoulders with “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.” “Ladybug” is already a No. 1 animation show for broadcaster TF1 in France.
France hosts Europe’s biggest animation industry, producing 260 hours of TV toons and nine features in 2014. But ON Entertainment wants more.
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The Holy Grail of animation, which no European animation producer has really ever cracked, is distribution in the United States. The highest-grossing European animation movie in the U.S. remains Aardman’s “Chicken Run,” ($106.8 million), released back in 2000.
“Performing well in North America and specifically the U.S. is key. Our animation is now entering that space,” said Rassam.
It’s essential for ON “to reinforce its position as a key independent player among animation studios, and for sure optimize our relationships and tie down a great long-term distribution deal in the U.S.,” said Soumache.
To do that, ON must produce at a large enough scale, in budget, studio level competitive quality and lineup volume, Soumache added.
“Unlike arthouse films, for which originality and auteur talent can be enough to make a good film, in animation of course you need both originality and talent but you also definitely need to put their quality at the highest level possible, which is a factor that has to be bought,” Soumache argued.
“When you shoot an independent animation movie, 90% is locked at the storyboard and animatics stage. You cannot change it. The secret of animation is to have more money, so you have the capacity to change a movie until the end of a movie, sequence by sequence, shot by shot,” he added.
“Of course the storytelling stays at the very heart of the process until the end of it. But with money, you can buy flexibility so as to be able to redo and make modifications until the end,” he said.
He added: “An animator at Pixar produces on average 1.5 seconds of animation a week, at DreamWorks two seconds-2.3 seconds; “Little Prince” came in at around 2-3 seconds a week, whereas for independent animated movies the average is between 6 and 7 seconds a week.”
“We want to make big movies for families and kids. Outside the studios, there’s not that much of an offer,” Soumache said.
To achieve that, and maximize revenues, ON is looking to strengthen partnerships, both in production and merchandising, and fire up its TV slate.
Just after September’s Toronto Fest, ON Animation Studios announced its first franchise movie, rolling off a partnership with toys brand Playmobil: “Playmobil: Robbers, Thieves & Rebels,” budgeted at €63 million ($69.3 million), and co-developed with Pathe and Wild Bunch, which also handles international sales.
In Europe, beyond Aardman, no other animation studio may be making an animation film at this budgetary level.
It is no coincidence that ON is teaming with a game world giant. Playmobil will launch a big toy line, creating its own toys for the film. ON aims to produce a minimum three-movie franchise, Soumache said.
Cross Creek (“Everest,” “Black Mass”) has acquired U.S. distribution rights. Fundamental is partnering for Chinese distribution. “This is one of many examples of partnerships that are a testament to the fact that it’s a truly international IP,” Rassam said.
ON is also firing up a full TV slate, where it already produces over 50 hours of animation a year, making it the No. 1 producer in France, Soumache said. In another game-changing moves, Bandai is partnering on “Ladybug,” a co-production between Jeremy Zag’s Zagtoon, Method Animation, Toei Animation, SAMG Animation, and PGS Ent., which handles international rights. Series will debut on the U.K,’s Disney Channel.
“For our TV shows, in co-production with the company Zagtoon we are now partnering with big toy masters very upstream in the process of production. For instance, Bandai is our toy master partner on two strong properties: ‘Miraculous,’ which is currently being broadcast and is a great success all over the world, and an upcoming show entitled ‘Zak Storm’!” Soumache added.
Soumache and Rassam are also awaiting delivery on “Seven and Me,” a contempo English-language live-action/CG sitcom reworking the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. AB Group, India’s DQ, Belgium’s Nexis, Italy’s RAI, Germany’s ZDF and Al Jazeera co-produce.
“I think hybrid is a good new way to go for making shows for kids,” Soumache enthused.
In itself, “The Little Prince” has already proved a “gamechanger,” taking ON to a new level. “For our next film, Playmobil, it’s different now with a track record, very different for buyers to commit to a movie at significant levels three years ahead,” Rassam said.
On “The Little Prince,” Wild Bunch, one of Europe’s most powerful sales agents, struck pre-sales, sales during production and sales upon delivery. “The Little Prince” releases span summer 2015- summer 2016. For “Playmobil,” ON “should have the benefit of having all our distribution partners on board before we get to production. That will allow it to coordinate far more its release, Rassam said.
“The Little Prince” looks to still have considerable gas in the tank. Paramount has yet to release in the U.S (March 18), bows are pending in Canada, the U.K., Spain and Australia/New Zealand. Final worldwide gross will be $125 million-$150 million, said Rassam.
“Now we have access to money and technology. But it’s not France against the U.S. or U.K. It’s taking the best from all the world,” Soumache argued.