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How ‘Summit of the Gods,’ ‘Flee’ and More French Animations Reaped Benefits From Global Toon Boom

The Summit of the Gods
LE SOMMET DES DIEUX

When “Summit of the Gods” director Patrick Imbert graduated from France’s Les Gobelins school of animation in the late 1990s, he entered an industry still looking for its right footing.

“The market and industry was not as developed as it is today,” Imbert tells Variety. “There were much fewer projects because there were much fewer screens. We did pre-production in Paris and sent most of the production work overseas. You couldn’t imagine becoming a film director or a character designer or anything so prestigious. You were happy enough to simply make your living by drawing, hoping to work on cool projects. That was our vision of animation.”

Suffice it to say, France’s animation ecosystem has grown by leaps and bounds over the following decades. Buoyed by advances in digital software that cut down production costs, staffed by a workforce from a growing number of training programs and backed by generous incentives from both national and regional public funds, the Gallic industry has surged in the intervening years. In 2020, the country’s 133 independent studios produced 295 hours of content while employing nearly 8,000 salaried professionals.

Though the industry output remains above all TV-driven — with much of its content consisting of family programming for the international market — the sector’s robust health has spurred a modest but growing trend in auteurist filmmaking as well.

“The rise in production means a rise in opportunity,” says Imbert, who readily grants that his 2D mountaineering epic would never have left the ground without the security provided by his producers’ TV commitments. “A strong and vibrant industry, with people working on a variety of projects that aren’t all auterist in nature, creates the grounds and opportunities for [those other] projects to flourish. There wouldn’t have been a New Hollywood without Hollywood [itself].”

If too many grand pronouncements are a touch premature — the French industry only produces about 10 features a year — that Imbert’s film joins the recent wave of 2D festival breakouts including Jérémy Clapin’s “I Lost My Body,” Aurel’s “Josep” and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec & Zabou Breitman’s “The Swallows of Kabul” in marrying thematic sophistication with a hand-drawn aesthetic would at least indicate a trend.

“Without the same budgets as American productions, we are forced to make do within our means,” Imbert says. “In France, we start out trained in classic graphic arts, so we’re illustrators at heart. We like to draw. Plus, 2D stands up very, very well next to 3D. We do it well, and, thanks to digital innovations, it’s less expensive. You could say that it’s a French specialty, but it stems from a simple desire to work that way.”

Meanwhile, a number of public initiatives, such as a 2016 administrative campaign to reduce and consolidate the number of the regions in the country, have both strengthened the industry’s decentralized ecosystem and increased its output.

“Following the [consolidation] we saw the emergence of stronger regions with more substantial support funds to invest,” says Jean-François Le Corre, director of the Rennes-based production outfit Vivement Lundi. “The more they grew in political and economic prominence, the more they understood that cinema was a powerful tool of soft power, particularly in terms of image and attractiveness.”

Among its other benefits, the administrative restructure pooled and merged disparate support programs, thus increasing their overall impact while widening their reach.

“These support funds, which up until then had mostly gone toward live-action features and docs, started to open up to animation,” Le Corre says. “As a result, we see films that were never going to [get television pre-buys] filling those budget gaps.”

As cities including Lille, Rennes and Angouleme — where the local house 3.0 Studio handled the animated interludes for Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” — have grown into production hubs thanks in no small part to these public initiatives, international partners have taken note. Vivement Lundi, for example, teamed with Denmark’s Final Cut for Real and ARTE France to co-produce Jonas Poher Rasmussen multiple-award-winner “Flee,” which is also repping Denmark in the international film Oscar race, and has three other co-productions coming down the pike.

“We’re able to divide up the workload while keeping a very coherent pipeline for the director and their team,” Le Corre says. “For ‘Flee,’ the animation was done in Denmark, while we did the décor and the compositing, and split up coloring duties with [Lille’s Studio Train-Train] in the north of France.”

Such a division allowed the animated documentary to benefit from two additional financial supports — better helping it see the light of day.

But for all the recent success stories, certain structural impediments relative to the French financing model have left producers feeling constrained.
“For every one ARTE commission there are 15 projects that apply,” says Le Corre, echoing a concern shared by many in the industry. “We could produce more. We have the human capacity, we have public funding, and I think we could find distribution partners. But we have a problem finding private investment and [pre-buys] from broadcasters.

“It’s not so easy to find the €5 [million]-€6 million [$5.77 million-$6.9 million] you need for a feature. I often hear about this or that project that’s missing [€]1 million, and that million is the money from the broadcasters that never arrives. For French producers, finding TV engagement for animated features is the single most complicated task.”

Thanks in part to the European Commission’s recently implemented Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMS), international streamers will presumably fill some of those gaps, thus alleviating a degree of strain. And while local producers do look forward to that aspect, they don’t always see such partnerships as a viable long-term solution.

“If we just become production facilitators, with all the rights belonging to partners like Netflix, we’ll no longer have a role — we will be subcontractors,” says Didier Brunner, who produced “Summit of the Gods” through his Folivari production outfit. “Streamers can provide greater financing than we could have previously imagined, but with occasional constraints on content and an editorial control that could end up feeling like auteur cinema under guardianship.”

If Brunner is protective of the local industry, it’s because he practically built it. Beginning with 1998’s “Kirikou and the Sorceress,” through to 2003’s “The Triplets of Belleville,” 2009’s “The Secret of Kells” and 2012’s “Ernest & Celestine,” the producer has played a greater role than most in carving out a niche for upscale French animation. Though he’s certainly not averse to partnering with Netflix — the streamer did pick up global rights to “Summit” outside of a handful of key European and Asian territories — he believes that doing so “downstream,” rather than earlier on, will be key.

“If we can generate the equivalent of our budgets in returns, we’d have a more stable industry,” he says. “It’s not so complicated. The arrival of international partners that can pay high prices for our work means that we’ll be able to mix critical and commercial success. And that’s what
we need.”

Brunner adds: “We make films that have a real French touch, that are appreciated by festival audiences and by the international public, and I believe that we producers must work to build closer and more balanced collaborations — to export this French touch and make known the stories we want to tell.”