2021 Annecy Animation Festival: Key Takes, from the Festival’s Massive U.S. Support, to the YA Boom & Buzz Titles

The Crossing
Courtesy of Annecy Festival

The 2021 Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival officially opens this Monday evening to a sense of palpable excitement. On-site attendance will not reach the 5,000 delegate cap. “But our goal this year was not to break records, simply to welcome people,” says Mickael Marin, CEO of Annecy organizer Citia. “Our duty is to celebrate animation creators on the big screen when we can.” Thousands of delegates, largely from  Europe, will gather at Annecy.

For many French and European professionals, Annecy will be the first on-site market they attend in over 15 months, so hugely awaited, notes UniFrance’s Deputy Director Axel Scoffier.

Animation Booms

This year’s Annecy Festival, the world’s most important animation event, catches the industry in dramatic sea change. One pivot: New studio streamers are driving a massive increased demand for animation. The business is booming like never before. From the past year, Nickelodeon has hired nearly 700 people to work on its shows as it scales up, says Nickelodeon Animation’s Ramsey Naito. “There’s a volume of work being produced that we’ve never had before,” adds Eléanor Coleman, at Blue Spirit, a major French studio which announced early June that it will open a new creative studio, Paris Blue Spirit Creation, described as a premium animation pre-preproduction boutique.

The Business is Going Truly Global 

The pandemic, it’s almost a cliche, has accelerated change. Only about 30% of the crew on one new Nickelodeon show which started production during the pandemic have met in person, Naito notes. Animation has “gone completely global,” Coleman adds. There was a time when people used to work for hire in Indonesia or China.  Now, says Coleman, all the top talent in all of the world can live and work anywhere. Competition is global, our reach is global. Animation has really woken up to that.” The consequences of these two factors – the boom, going global – play out throughout this year’s Annecy.

Annecy’s Massive (if Virtual) U.S. Presence 

One of the most obvious: There’s an intense run on talent, Coleman notes: “Now that that talent can work anywhere, you really have to have the strong editorial line and a strong culture within your company to keep the talent.” So most every company in the world, from the biggest studio streamers, are using Annecy to talk up the creativity they allow to their talent. Of studio streamers, Netflix alone sneak peeks 13 shows, nine via studio focuses, four via extended works in progress sessions, one on “Maya and the Three” and another on “Tales of Arcadia.” It also hosts a look back (“Love Death and Robots”) and screens three further titles in theaters, one “America: The Motion Picture.” Disney-Pixar hosts one sneak peek (“Andiamo”), stages a masterclass and three studio sessions, screens “Luca” and has one look-back. The big new kid on the block, however, will be Warner Media, with four exec interviews. Meanwhile, even small independent features need to use festival markets – pix-in-post strands, for example – to gain profile and buzz, says Unifrance Deputy Director Axel Scoffier. So the range of titles on display at Annecy runs a huge gamut.

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Luca Disney/Pixar

First the U.S., Now the Whole World, Is Piling Into YA

It is no coincidence that for the first time ever, a U.S. company, Titmouse, gets to create the festival sponsor roll video clip preceding every festival screening. “It is one of the most creative studios in the world,” says Annecy artistic director Marcel Jean.

Few production companies embody, moreover, the build in U.S. YA animation better than the “Big Mouth” animator. Outside the U.S., animation for adults used to be a more niche affair. The studio streaming revolution allows producers the hope that there is now a global market. “10 years ago, it just wouldn’t have been possible to make ‘Unicorn Wars,’ and our productions are quite niche, but now the market’s changed,” said Ivan Mimambres at Bilbao-based UniKo, producer of one of the most anticipated Works in Progress at Annecy. Netflix itself looks set to build even more and evolve its adult animation. “We’re excited to show everyone at Annecy what’s next for adultanimation here at Netflix and believe these shows demonstrate how we’re looking to evolve our slate – from a stop-motion darkcomedy, to giving first time showrunners the space to create new comedies to our first spin-off,” said Mike Moon, Netflix head of adult animation, told Variety.

The Biggest Question at Annecy 2021?

So one of the biggest questions at Annecy 2021 may be answered at a virtual panel for WarnerMedia’s Adult Animation, held on Thursday June 17, and led by Suzanna Makkos executive VP of original comedy and adult animation for HBO Max and Adult Swim. In Adult Swim, HBO Max already has the biggest destination brand for adult animation in the business. But “the adult animation boom is just starting,” Sarah Aubrey, HBO Max’s head of original content, said late April, announcing Makkos’ promotion. HBO Max has already announced new adult animation shows such as the “Scooby-Doo” spinoff “Velma,” Clone High,” rebooting the vintage MTV show and workplace comedy “Fired On Mars.” What’s to come is a hugely enticing question indeed.

Buzz Titles

Some of the most-awaited shows at Annecy also sit squarely in adult animation, led by “My Sunny Maad,” the feature debut of Oscar-nominated director Michaela Pavlátová (“Reci, Reci, Reci,” “Tram”), and “Unicorn Wars,” in Work in Progress. There’s large anticipation for a late addition to competition, Florence Miailhe’s “The Crossing,” the first animated feature oil painted entirely join glass. Of other WIP entries, Jorge Gutiérrez’s “Maya and the Three” looks like the most popular title in the whole section while Alê Abreu’s “Perlimps” has visuals to die for.

China Is Coming

Annecy’s MIFA market hosts a China Focus on Thursday June In the run-up to Annecy, Federation Kids & Family, the kids content distribution arm of Paris-based Federation Ent., announced it will distribute “Kung Fu Wa!” produced by China’s Tencent Video and UYoung Media. It’s hard to imagine that kind of deal going down with a premium distributor like Federation even just a few years ago. “China started out with Chinese studios subcontracting to European companies or American companies. Now you see really very interesting original productions coming out of China, edgy productions sometimes. There’s some very interesting growth in terms of creativity,” said David Michel, at Federation Kids & Family and Cottonwood Media.

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Kung Fu Wa! Courtesy of Federation Kids & Family

New Animation Hubs & Training

French animation titles punch above their weight, compared to French films in general, on SVOD platforms worldwide, representing 4.2% of total national titles, says UniFrance’s Scoffier. This February, Belgian auteur Ben Stassen’s “Bigfoot Family,” a French co-production, topped Netflix U.S. charts for six days in a row, according to FlixPatrol.

With 22 animated features or series in advanced development or production, one producer calculates, it’s getting very hard to crew up productions in Spain.

So little wonder that one of the leitmotifs of Annecy 2021 will be new training initiatives and hubs as companies battle to bring on a new generation of talent and governments prioritizing animation as a strategic growth sector. In this spirit, Argentina will open three state animation schools in its provinces, in Mar del Plata, Rosario and Patagonia. France’s Les Femmes s’Animent (LFA) presented a new mentorship  this Monday.

Race, Gender, Diversity: A New Animation Mantra

The biggest event at Annecy is a Women in Animation World Summit. One of the world’s first festivals to sign the 2018 50/50 charter for gender parity, Annecy has quickly approached the desired ratio with just under 45% of the films in the 2021 official selection coming from female filmmakers. Additionally, over 40% of the key speakers, 42% of the Works in Progress participants and 50% of masterclass hosts are women this year, each new records for the festival. The fest’s territorial focus this year is on Africa. In 2019, Netflix and famed French animation school Gobelins teamed on a scholarship program for African animation students, which has grown from two to six candidates in over the past two years, three undergrad and three graduate students.

Diversity is a Principle But It Also Has a Business Logic

That was the central theme of this year’s Women In Animation World Summit. “The business case for diversity understands that the whole world wants to hear the truest parts of their own story – and someone else’s story,” Dr. Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin said in her keynote speech at the Summit on Monday. “And just by sheer numbers alone it would be good financial business to reach more people in the world with their stories,” she added.

Many would agree. “At House of Cool diversity is a key part of our success. We need storytellers that are extremely talented but also have unique points of view,” House of Cool President Ricardo Curtis told Variety explaining its partnership with France’s TeamTO on a new storyboarding program. “This means that reaching beyond our North American talent pool is an absolute necessity to keep our stories fresh and authentic,” he added. As studio streamers look ever broader abroad to maintain growth, diversity will become a name of the game and help drive SVOD subscription in far-flung lands.

The Apocalypse – at a Bargain Price 

Argentina’s MIFA lineup is packed out by sci-fi, including visions of post-Apocalyptical dystopia or currently haunted present. The shorts could be branded as social realist, given the hell that economic crisis and COVID-19 have wrought on the country. Animation, however, also allows creators to recreate massive scenes for a song. Over the last few years, sci-fi has dislodged drama and comedy to becoming the preeminent show-type of platform genres. According to Ampere Analysis study presented at Sweden’s Göteborg Fest, sci fi & fantasy alone represented 20% of platform commissions.

What Future Is There for Independent Production in a Platform-Dominated Animation World?

“I would reframe that as: “What is the future for public broadcasters in the face of streamers, and I think they have a very good future indeed,” says Coleman. “Local public broadcasters, especially in this now extended pandemic, have really gained a very strong local audience, because they can talk so closely to their audience, they are there for them,” she adds.

“It’s a global trend: Linear broadcaster and kids’ channel animation license fees are going down,” says David Michel, citing France’s TF1 and M6 and the closure of Disney channels. So pubcasters may prove an exception. The biggest on-site press conference at Annecy this year will be given by French national state TV France Televisions. It is more than a footnote to proceedings.

Expect a Hell of an Annecy 2022

“But for the pandemic, everyone would want to come to Annecy,” says Marin. He’s no doubt right. No major film-TV event in the world is embraced as passionately by Hollywood, studio streamers, Europe, Asia and world cinema and TV as France’s Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival. Annecy is more than a festival, a yearly pilgrimage made to catch up on creativity of the sometimes wildly inventive animation. U.S. execs whom Variety chatted with seemed unanimously gutted at not attending in person this year. “People are still really excited about Annecy. We’re very lucky to have it, it’s a formidable animation festival, an opportunity for all of us to come together as professionals and get a peek of what we’redoing and it happens to take place in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” says Ramsey Naito.

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Perlimps Credit: Buriti Filmes