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Adult Audience Animation: Cannes Panel Talks Big-Screen Strategy

CANNES–A panel of leading animation industry executives gathered during the Cannes Film Market on Sunday to shed light on their strategies for the theatrical release of adult-oriented animated features.

Part of a first Animation Day organized by the Cannes Film Market and Annecy Festival, it was a timely conversation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Five of the 28 animated projects in the Marché du Film are adult audience-focused, including two in the official selection, noted Annemie Degryse, CEO and producer of Belgium’s Lunanime, while moderating “The A-Z Game Plan to Releasing Animated Films for Adults for the Big Screen.” Yet even as adult-oriented animation is enjoying greater critical acclaim than ever before, its commercial prospects are often limited.

“Finding the audience is always difficult for adult [targeting] movies,” said Carole Baraton, co-founder of Paris-based sales agent Charades. While family animation – despite its ups and downs – has had an established model for box-office success since the early days of Disney, adult-oriented animated features are still largely seen as niche-oriented.

“When these movies are released in our theaters, they’re seen more as curiosities, because we have two or three animated movies for adults a year,” said Jan-Willem van Eemeren, manager of Belgian exhibitor Cinema Cartoon’s. “They have to compete with the best arthouse movies there are during the year…[and] people have to choose between them.”

He continued: “For an audience, [animation] is something abstract. It’s not a unique selling point.” Cinema Cartoon’s most successful adult animation titles in recent years, such as Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” and Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa,” “used animation as a medium,” rather than as the main attraction luring audiences to the theater, said van Eemeren.

In the case of French director and animator Jeremy Clapin’s “J’ai perdu mon corps” (I Lost My Body), which is playing in Critics’ Week this year, Baraton said the film stands out as an “auteur’s statement, something really fresh and different, and very sophisticated, which can really stand out among all the arthouse crowd.”

Edward Noeltner, president of L.A and Pari-based Cinema Management Group, said that the breakout success of Academy Award nominee “Loving Vincent” was due to a combination of its lavish, hand-painted animation style, an IP that was “universally known and loved,” and the tragic story at its heart, about the tortured life of Vincent van Gogh. “All of these things were wonderful marketing tools,” he said.

A splashy festival launch was instrumental to the successful release of Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-nominated feature “The Red Turtle,” according to Baraton, whose Charades sold the film. “It was key to be in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. It allowed the movie to step out of what I call the animation ghetto. It was considered more as a great director, auteur breakout,” she said.“The fact that it started here…allowed us to secure a real strong network of distributors, with a mixture of animation distributors, and a mix of distributors who are not specialized at all.”

That mix is vital to turning an adult-focused animated feature into a breakout hit, said Dave Jesteadt, president of U.S. indie distributor Gkids, whose pick-ups for North America have scored 11 best animated feature Oscar nominations since 2009.

“Marketing the films as narratives, as independent films, as foreign films, is really as important or more important than marketing them as animation,” he said. “The actual audience who self-identify as adult animation fans in America is fairly limited…but the potential audience for adult stories, for these kinds of extremely creative narratives, is very large.”

The challenge for Gkids is to target potential movie-goers who “don’t normally think of animation as a medium that can tell these kinds of stories, but regularly go see other subtitled cinema, and get them into the theaters for animation.”

If there’s an upside for distributors and sales agents – who producer Manuel Cristobal, of Spain’s Sygnatia, described as the “key in this business” – it’s that the rash of adult animated films and series showing on TV and streaming services are making them more familiar, and more appealing. “The digital platforms, they do have that audience,” said Baraton. “They have a real appetite for these movies. They find the audience for you, and you provide the movies.”

Jesteadt noted that “more and more younger generations are being raised without strict boundaries between animation and live action, and if we’re really being honest, between digital and film.”

He added: “Those lines are going to blur, and I think the audience will become increasingly diversified with each passing year.”

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