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Oscar’s French Animation Connection Draws on Deep Talent Pool

France appears to have firmed up its reputation as home to the world’s second biggest animation industry behind the U.S. — for proof, look no further than this year’s Oscar animated feature race.

In the mix are Mark Osborne’s “The Little Prince,” Franck Ekinci and Christian Desmares’ “April and the Extraordinary World,” Claude Barras’ “My Life as a Zucchini,” Remi Chaye’s “Long Way North,” Michael Dudok de Wit’s “The Red Turtle,” Alexandre Heboyan and Benoît Philippon’s “Mune, Guardian of the Moon,” and Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli’s “Phantom Boy.” Two more animation entries, “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Sing” from Illumination MacGuff, were entirely created in France.

Although these films have different animation styles, tones, approach, and scopes, they all have a Gallic element in common: a French director and/or producer, or they were made in France with local creatives.

“France has a very strong auteur filmmaking tradition, of course, so that’s a big piece of it. But it also has some of the best animation schools and talent, government support, a vibrant co-production environment, and a domestic market that supports independent animation,” says Eric Beckman, co-founder and president of GKids, the U.S.’ biggest supporter of European toons. This year, it’s got “My Life as a Zucchini,” “Mune,” “Phantom Boy,” and “April and the Extraordinary World,” among others, on its slate.

Indeed, Paris’ prestigious Gobelins School of the Image has become so popular among U.S. studios — from Disney to Illumination and DreamWorks Animation — as a source of fresh talent that this year it launched an English-language master of arts in character animation and animated filmmaking.

France’s track record in animation features also stems from its large pool of top-notch producers such as Les Armateurs, Sacrebleu Prods., as well as distribution house Gebeka Films, and its leadership in TV animation — a heavily subsidized industry that requires TV channels to pre-buy and program homegrown toon shows.

And animation in France is considered a crown jewel of local culture and as such is nurtured not only by schools but also by film festivals, such as Annecy Animation Film Festival or even Cannes Film Festival, including Directors’ Fortnight.

Indeed, auteur-driven prestige toons have been gaining ground at international festivals. For instance, “The Red Turtle” premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and won the special jury prize (Sony Pictures Classics distributes in the U.S.), while “My Life as a Zucchini,” a GKids pickup, premiered in Directors’ Fortnight and was chosen by Switzerland to rep the country in the Oscar’s competitive foreign-language race.

French animators also benefit from a vibrant short film culture, says Gilles Renouard, co-managing director of Unifrance. He points to the record 14 French animated shorts (out of 70) in the running for this year’s Oscars and the previous wins of 2009’s “Logorama” and 2013’s “Mr. Hublot.”

The wide-ranging selection of films with French directors, partners or makers also underscores how global the animation business has become on every level.

Case in point: A wordless tale of a lone castaway surviving on a desert island, “The Red Turtle” was directed by Dudok de Wit, a Dutch-born, London-based animator (whose 2000 short “Father and Daughter” won an Oscar), co-written by French director Pascale Ferran (“Bird People”), and co-produced by France’s Why Not Prods. (“I, Daniel Blake”) and Japan’s iconic Studio Ghibli.

On a bigger scale, “The Little Prince,” a reimagining of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 children’s classic, was directed by “Kung Fu Panda” director Mark Osborne and produced by French outfit ON Entertainment with a budget of $75 million-plus. The movie pioneered a breed of big-budget French toon pics showcasing a U.S. creative input; next up is Quad Films with “Ballerina.”

Assembling international teams has also proven the right recipe for Illumination MacGuff, whose Paris studio is mainly staffed with Gallic creatives.

“I think our international crew component helps us in a huge way to appeal globally. We rely on the good ideas of the artists at every step of the way as part of our process, and we benefit always from the expansive talents and unique perspectives that our diversity provides,” says Illumination MacGuff’s Paris-based producer Janet Healy. She also acknowledged the major role played by French production designer Eric Guillon, on both “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Sing.”

In terms of international sales and foreign box office prospects, French animation is a huge driving force.

As much as 90% of all French animated features travel abroad and most, if not all, of French animated films find U.S. distributors, says Renouard. He notes that a trio of French toons — “The Little Prince,” “Asterix and the Domain of the Gods,” and “Mune” — repped 20% of Gallic films’ ticket sales outside the country in 2015.

With nearly $100 million in worldwide box office, “The Little Prince,” produced by Aton Soumache and Dimitri Rassam, is France’s most successful animated film to date, with nearly 12.5 million admissions.

“Smart family content is indeed in high demand internationally,” says Anna Marsh, head of international sales at Studiocanal, which reps “April and the Extraordinary World.” “Both arthouse theatrical circuits and SVOD platforms have a real appetite for quality animation, not to mention physical DVD sales which, for this genre, are still very much alive.”

Marsh says arthouse animated pics have also proven a viable economic bet for distributors looking for an alternative to studio movies.
The role played by digital players such as Netflix and multi-platform distribs like Shout! Factory have also optimized the commercial potential and exposure of non-Hollywood animated films beyond the Los Angeles and New York theatrical audiences.

“With their millions of subscribers around the world, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are allowing our films to reach mass audiences in U.S. for the first time and without necessitating gigantic P&A spends, and as a result, they’re enabling audiences to discover the eclecticism of animation production,” says Soumache.

Netflix mounted a limited day-and-date theatrical release for “The Little Prince” in the U.S. to qualify for awards consideration.

Cross-platform Shout! Factory has also been active on the arthouse animated film front and is pushing for “Long Way North” to clinch an Oscar nomination.
“Since digital distribution creates a wealth of opportunities and an accessible playing field for independents, we work diligently to maximize sales in that channel,” says Melissa Boag, senior VP of family entertainment at Shout! Factory and Shout! Factory Kids.

The combined work of traditional arthouse distributors like Sony Pictures Classics, which previously handled animated films “Persepolis” and “Waltz With Bashir,” as well as dedicated animation distributor GKids, has played a key part in getting Academy voters as well as world cinema lovers and adult audiences to embrace these director-driven features.

Beckman calls the increased appeal of arthouse animation the “Kirikou” effect, referring to Michel Ocelot’s cult hit.

“We are still reaping the benefits of the ‘Kirikou’ effect, where a highly original, auteur-driven film was also a big financial success,” he says. “This led directly to ‘Triplets of Belleville,’ ‘Secret of Kells,’ and ‘Ernest and Celestine’ from ‘Kirikou’ producer Didier Brunner, and tons of other French producers piled into animation as well, bringing us ‘Persepolis,’ ‘A Cat in Paris’ as well as ‘My Life as a Zucchini,’ ‘Mune,’ ‘Phantom Boy,’ and ‘April and the Extraordinary World.’”

Because they’re working with more contained budgets than U.S. films, French animators often have more freedom to experiment with new visual styles or place more emphasis on the story and characters.

Making his directorial debut with “Long Way North,” Chaye, a former first assistant director on such films as the Oscar-nommed “The Secret of Kells,” acknowledged that he took a gamble with the film’s minimalist graphic style to focus on narration and characters’ emotions rather than the animation’s details.

“Our idea was to find a graphic style that would ignite the imagination and let it fill the blanks, because when too many details are given, it tends to dampen the imagination,” says Chaye. His film follows the epic journey of a strong-headed young Russian aristocrat in the 19th century who sets off the find her grandfather, an explorer, in the North Pole.

“My Life as a Zucchini,” the debut feature from Swiss director Barras, based on a script from Céline Sciamma (“Girlhood”), also dares to tackle drama, a genre that U.S. studios shy away from in animation. The film, adapted from a children’s novel, turns on a boy dealing with his mother’s sudden death and who is placed in a foster home.

While Pixar/Illumination-style films are bound to dominate the box office for the foreseeable future, Beckman predicts “more and more films will break that mold … as there are more and more ways to get a film distributed without a $30 million P&A budget.

“There is a growing appetite for different kinds of animated filmmaking, from families looking for alternatives to mainstream fare, to adult audiences looking for new cinematic experiences, to a wide and passionate audience of people who grew up with Japanese animation,” Beckman says.

Tooned Up
Animated films from France or with a Gallic provenance in the Oscar race

The Little Prince
Director: Mark Osborne

April and the Extraordinary World
Directors: Franck Ekinci, Christian Desmares

My Life as a Zucchini
Director: Claude Barras

Long Way North
Director: Remi Chaye

The Red Turtle
Director: Michael Dudok de Wit

Mune, Guardian of the Moon
Directors: Alexandre Heboyan, Benoît Philippon

Phantom Boy
Directors: Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli

The Secret Life of Pets
Directors: Yarrow Cheney, Chris Renaud

Director: Garth Jennings

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