When Russian toon house Wizart Animation began enlisting collaborators for its upcoming series “Snow Queen: Keepers of Wonders,” a small-screen spinoff of the blockbuster animated film franchise, it wasted no time in recruiting talent from abroad. Brad Breeck, the composer from Disney XD’s “Gravity Falls,” came on board to assist with the soundtrack, while TV and comic-book writer Matthew Wayne was tapped as a script doctor. “We’re aiming it at the international market as much as possible,” says Wizart’s Vladimir Nikolaev.
Wizart is responsible for some of the most successful Russian releases of all time, including the “Snow Queen” and “Sheep and Wolves” franchises, which have combined sold to more than 150 territories. Production on the “Snow Queen” series began last year, and Nikolaev says interest from foreign buyers is already high. “We know there is a big demand, a big appetite, from TV channels, from VOD platforms, for this TV format,” he says. “We can see it, we can feel it.”
Animation has traditionally been a strength of the Russian creative industries, dating back to the Soviet era, but a growing number of breakout international hits are helping to boost the biz’s global profile. “The past two years is a game-changing time,” says Anton Smetankin, of leading animation house Parovoz Studio, whose recent releases include the series “Leo & Tig” and “Be-Be-Bears,” both acquired by Netflix. “[Russian animators] have successful projects worldwide.”
Yuliana Slashcheva, chairperson of the board at Soyuzmultfilm, Russia’s oldest animation studio, agrees. “We see huge interest from foreign companies, who acknowledge the enormous creative potential of our animation industry and the power of its rich traditions,” she says. “The Russian animation industry is growing fast. On average the market annually grows by 20%. I think with major investors on board the process will speed up.”
State support is the single largest source of funding for the industry, amounting to roughly $14.5 million per year, according to Valeria Korotina of the Riki Group. “That’s not much,” she acknowledges. “However, that allows us to allocate some money for development of projects and producing pilots, and then search for investment elsewhere.”
That search led Riki Group to a partnership with China’s Alibaba, which is co-producing the second season of Riki’s hit toon “Tina & Tony,” after the first season wracked up more than 2.2 billion views on Alibaba’s Youku Kids VOD platform. Wizart also turned to a Chinese partner for “Snow Queen 3: Fire and Ice,” collaborating with Beijing’s Flame Node Entertainment for the third instalment of a franchise that’s broken box-office records for Russian films worldwide. Meanwhile, Soyuzmultfilm paired up with France’s Cyber Group Studios for its animated series “Orange Moo-Cow,” and is already looking to collaborate with the French outfit on more shows.
Such partnerships go beyond the bottom line. “We’re not looking for money only,” says Smetankin. “We’re looking for co-producing partners…who know what the market wants, what the distribution chains are worldwide. We’re looking for partners to bring onboard story editors with the appropriate vision for the foreign market. We want to bring onboard a different type of expertise.”
That opens the door to projects of even greater scope and ambition, with Parovoz now producing its first animated feature film. During the Key Buyers Event: Digital Edition organized by Russian film promotion body Roskino, which takes places June 8-15, the studio will be looking for co-production partners on a host of titles including the futuristic series “Spaceport”; “Tweetville,” a series set in a city inhabited by birds; and the rhymed musical series “Boo the Cat and the Good Boy.” Wizart is presenting “Tin’s Firebots,” a series about an unusual firefighting team of four robots led by a human, Tin, who teaches them about values such as justice, friendship, decency and bravery.
Soyuzmultfilm, meanwhile, will showcase its new animated series “Squared Zebra” and present several projects to potential co-production partners, including the musical series “RaccoonTunes,” the 3D series “Frosh,” and the new season of adventure comedy series “Pirate School,” which competed in Annecy in 2018. The studio is also searching for international partners to co-produce “Umka,” its adaptation of the classic Soviet animated film from the 1960s.
Riki Group will be premiering new episodes of “Tina & Tony” and the hit series “BabyRiki,” which has racked up more than 3 billion views on Chinese streaming platforms, and will debut the pre-school series “Panda and Krash” (pictured), a co-production with China’s CCTV Animation. The studio will also be pitching a host of projects as part of the Key Buyers Event’s co-production market, including the animated series “Weatherville,” “Christmas Academy,” “Beardy Bodo,” and “Crabots,” as well as the feature film “Fairytale Flurry,” which is in early development.
Industry players credit robust government support for boosting the toon biz’s profile abroad. Federal bodies such as the Ministry of Culture and Roskino, as well as local entities like the Moscow Export Center, have helped to give Russian animation studios and producers exposure at top-tier festivals and markets like the Cannes Film Market and Annecy’s MIFA. The Key Buyers Event, meanwhile, which was first held in Moscow last fall, has quickly become the leading showcase to promote the latest Russian productions to international buyers.
For many, though, this is just the beginning. “In order for the industry to develop, more investment needs to be done,” says Korotina. “If we get more financing, we would be able to create more ideas, create more brands, which could potentially have more international success.”
She continues: “I’m not just saying investment only in production; there’s also investment in education of animators and talents. We don’t have that many schools. We’re always hungry for people to come work for us. For the industry, I believe there should be a comprehensive approach for all sides.”
For Smetankin, the biggest challenge might be shifting perceptions of Russian animation abroad. “We need trust from the outside world. We need them to trust in our professional skills, in our ability to be a good reliable partner, in our desire to be part of the worldwide animation business, and not just in terms of business but in terms of creativity,” he says. “We can offer a lot. We’re looking for partners who want fresh blood and a fresh vision to share.”