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The worldwide disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic is creating both massive challenges and unprecedented opportunities for the animation industry, according to a panel presented Tuesday as part of a weekly discussion series hosted by UniFrance.

The session, “Successful Strategies to Promote French Animation Worldwide,” included Benoit Berthe Siward, of the curated screening event The Animation Showcase (U.K.); Charlotte Boucon, of sales agent SND Films (France); Annemie Degryse, of production company Lunanime & Lumière (Belgium); Kristina Frajtic, of distribution company Blitz (Croatia); Chance Huskey, of distributor GKids and the Animation is Film Festival (U.S.); and Eugene Kim, of the Bucheon Intl. Animation Festival (South Korea). The panel was moderated by consultant and journalist Michael Gubbins.

Degryse was quick to note that the animation industry has proved remarkably resilient at a time when live-action production has completely shut down. “In terms of COVID-19, we’ve been less affected, and that’s the most important thing,” she said, noting that after the initial shock of the pandemic, many animated projects were able to resume production.

That, in turn, has “opened some eyes” about the sector’s potential, she added, citing the example of a broadcaster that contacted Lunanime & Lumière about filling the content gap that suddenly existed with the suspension of live-action production. “Maybe we could do things in animation to overcome the period where there was nothing to do,” she said. “Suddenly, animation [became] a way of…continuing the audiovisual market.”

For feature-length films—a staple of the French animation industry—the pandemic has forced many distributors to look beyond the traditional theatrical release model. “There’s been a lot of independent theaters and independent distributors embracing a virtual cinema model…which basically allows theaters to sell digital tickets, so it’s a way to keep the theatrical community engaged and theater-goers engaged from home,” said Huskey.

Though Gkids has traditionally tried to stick to the standard 88-day theatrical window in the U.S., the company is also “trying to be mindful of what makes sense for each particular film,” experimenting with event-style releases, such as one-night-only screenings, before releasing films on streaming platforms. “It’s a matter of identifying where most of the audience is, and trying to get them access to the film as quickly as possible, or in a way that allows you to strike while the iron is hot,” said Huskey.

“Luckily our distributors have been able to exploit the releases on different platforms, and TV, because there’s been huge demand [during the pandemic],” said Boucon. “All around the world, parents have been stuck with their kids, and I think animated movies and TV series [are] a good baby-sitter.”

The sales agent echoed Degryse’s comments about the animation industry’s fast restart, noting that the pipeline of animated content shouldn’t be too deeply impacted by the pandemic. “For me, it’s a real upside for animation, and especially the French ecosystem,” she said. “Buyers know what they’re getting into. It’s a very specialized market. They know what they’re looking for, and we’ll be able to deliver it.”

In certain foreign markets, though, the pipeline could look more like a logjam. “When we work with animation…if we want to have a success in distributing the animated title that we have, we need to dub it,” said Frajtic, whose company works with eight languages in eight territories. “During the pandemic, it was not possible to dub anything….You are backended with a pipeline of animation that you already have.” For new titles, meanwhile, “you have to see what you’re going to do with the release schedules that are coming up as well.”

On the eve of the first virtual edition of Cannes’ Marché du Film, the panel speculated on what place physical festivals and markets will continue to have as a platform for launching, promoting, and distributing animated content.

“I wish I would have a crystal ball that I could see how the future will be, in terms of markets,” said Degryse. “We had a lot of discussions about features, about whether you need that big-screen platform to launch a title, or whether you can do that…online. I think it’s really depending on the title, whether you can do it online or not.”

As the industry adapts to the new reality, however, she added that “this situation in which we’re in now will open up minds towards markets to see whether we really need to have a physical launch for something or not.”

“We are observing and waiting to see how things go,” said Huskey. “I do think that festivals are a crucial part of the ecosystem in terms of forming a story around the filmmaker….Where you’re likely to see a lot of change is how the film is ultimately delivered to the audiences, experience-wise, whether that happens digitally or in theaters or in special presentations of some sort.”

The upside for animation producers and distributors, however, is that growing global demand for both family-friendly and adult-oriented animated content doesn’t appear likely to slow down. “What is always needed, and what always travels across borders, is original concept and great storytelling,” said Frajtic. “When you have that, and when you can put that in characters that are appealing to a wide audience, you get great product.”