Could the toon boom at this year’s Cannes Market eventually lead to a toon bust?
As the dust settles on the lineup of new movie projects unveiled in the French seaside resort, no trend is more apparent than the surge in animation – ambitious independent features being introduced to buyers in hotel suites and rented apartments around town.
Two of this year’s biggest new titles are animated features: Laika’s $100 million comedy-adventure “Missing Link” and the $40 million “Fireheart,” a female-empowerment tale from the makers of “Ballerina.” They’re among the several dozen high-profile projects which are looking for distributors. Not a day goes by at Cannes without the announcement of some new international toon tale, it seems. But as more companies and countries pile into the family entertainment space, there’s a risk of over-saturation.
Right now, family fare is seen as a safe, commercial bet for studios looking for products that can traverse borders and resonate with myriad cultures. At some point, however, there are going to be costly missteps in the battle to create the next big breakthrough hit. Animated films, even those produced outside the studio system, can cost tens of millions and traditionally take at least three to four years to conceive of and create.
And it’s not like they have the playing field to themselves. With Warner Bros. and Sony firing up animation as a major priority, six of Hollywood’s seven major studios are now investing heavily in animation, releasing two or even three toon features a year. These companies don’t just have the deepest pockets. They also boast a formidable arsenal of globally known franchises — from the Incredibles to Shrek to any other cuddly creature that can be counted on to adorn lunch boxes and T-shirts, as well as inspire toy lines.
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Buyers are exceedingly cautious about indie titles as a result. Unless they are “on a par in quality, highly original and entertaining,” independent animated features suffer “fierce competition” from Illumination, Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney titles, said Ivan Boeing, at Brazil-based distributor Imagem.
“Brand creation for independent [animation] movies is hard – period,” said Martin Moszkowicz, at Germany’s Constantin Film. One reason: the difficulty of creating a worldwide-coordinated marketing campaign with many independent distributors in many countries.
Another challenge, Moszkowicz said, is that to a certain extent, quality comes with a steep price tag. That can be harder to justify because a film’s profitability depends increasingly on its box-office haul. Rich television broadcasting deals are harder to come by. DVD sales have largely evaporated and can’t be relied on to cushion the blow from disappointing theatrical revenues.
So far the appetite for toons is undiminished. It’s no coincidence that Cannes’ most significant new sales forces, Stuart Ford’s AGC Intl. and Sebastien Raybaud’s Anton, include animated features: “Missing Link” and “Fireheart,” respectively.
Notably, Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, best known for edgier live-action movies from the likes of Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Thomas Anderson, has moved into family fare, backing “Missing Link,” which it will open in the U.S., after Laika’s first four movies were released by Universal’s Focus Features.
Constantin, creators of one of Europe’s biggest live-action movie franchises, the “Resident Evil” film series, is also backing one of its biggest animated movies, “Dragon Rider.”
As the theatrical space overseas for independent films is squeezed ever more tightly by Hollywood blockbusters and local breakouts, the business is homing in on movie genres that can deliver bountiful sales or seven-figure box office returns in major territories. One of those film types is family entertainment.
“What independent distributors have always wanted is films with nailed-on box-office potential,” said Ford.
Mainstream animated features are “by definition family entertainment; the cinema is still really the only place where a family as a unit can enjoy a shared experience,” said Ralph Kamp at London-based Timeless Films, which has sold “Dragon Rider” nearly worldwide outside the U.S.
Numbers also talk. The highest-grossing French movie outside France in 2015 and 2016 was the animated “The Little Prince.” “Ballerina” proved France’s second-biggest overseas earner in 2017, racking up $110 million. But with a glut of independent animation hitting the market, titles need to tick multiple boxes to engage the market.
“The animation sector is certainly crowded with international product,” said Ford. But, he added, only a tiny number of movies offer the halo effect of a significant U.S. release, major promotional partnerships and the marketing heft needed to build awareness with Stateside crowds.
Right now animation has never been hotter at Cannes. Whether it stays that way in future festivals depends on how the “Missing Links” and “Firehearts” of this year’s market perform at the box office.