Despite the unwelcome shutdown of France 4 by the government, TV and feature studios continue to thrive in France as animation becomes the country’s top content export.
When it comes to animation on the world stage, in terms of eclecticism and experimentation as well as profitability, France — which is often cited as the third largest exporter of animated film — is a prime case study.
While French feature films may have smaller budgets than American movies, the country has done its legwork to tie animation to its national cultural identity. In recent memory, films such as The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales, Ernest & Celestine, The Red Turtle, My Life as a Zucchini, Zombillenium and Funan continue to put the county on the map for animated movie lovers all around the world. Upcoming big-budget features such as The Grinch and Playmobil: The Movie would not be possible without the work of CG French studios such as Mac Guff and ON Animation.
On the small screen, studios such as Cyber Group, TeamTO, Zag Toons, Millimages, Gaumont and Xilam continue to produce state-of-the-art 2D and CG-animated series that have propelled animation to be the country’s number one export. Animated programs accounted for 37% of French sales with a total revenue of nearly €76 million or U.S. $88.4 million, according to a recent report by TV France and the National Center for TV and Cinema and the Moving Image. Compare that to €64 million for fiction and €36 million in documentaries, total, and you’ll get a clear idea of the boom in TV animation in the region.
I feel that today’s world market gives you more opportunities than ever before. All of this is thanks to the evolution of technology, the talent of animators and storytellers around the world and the schools which have popped up everywhere and to whom we contribute to in Europe and the U.S.”
Pierre Sissmann, founder and CEO of Cyber Group Studios
Education is a key element in how this was achieved. France has the most respected collection of animation schools in the world, such as Gobelins and MoPA (Supinfocom Arles), and views the production of the student shorts as a means to train animators to work collaboratively, preparing them to transfer their skills right into the industry. French students also shirk the idea of mastering one particular style or tradition, mixing up everything from Disney principles to sakuga anime experimentation, constantly refreshing the community’s stylistic sense of identity.
Constant Flow of Young Talent
As Ivan Rouveure of Les Armateurs, the studio behind Kirikou and the Sorceress and Ernest & Celestine points out, “One of the main difficulties now is to find enough artists due to a full employment period, and fortunately, we have a great network of schools that feed the studios with new talents.” Circulation of fresh workers and perspectives is key in a healthy industry.
But the environment which enabled this is rooted in something deeper than an available workforce. According to the BFI, “state intervention is all but essential — especially in the case of feature films, which take the lion’s share of state underwriting … During the tortured world trade negotiations of 1993, the Mitterrand administration vexed its Anglo-Saxon partners … by insisting on what it termed the ‘cultural exception.’”
France is a country that values the concept of the “auteur,” and the government generously donates money to artists and studios to create work with less influence from large corporations for the simple sake of art. French studios may never see the massive budgets of Hollywood features, but this approach has given birth to a cavalcade of lauded animation.
If it seems like the reliance on public rather than private money should stifle the sector’s competitiveness, you’ll want to think twice. According to Toon Boom, “Investment in local TV animation in Gaul increased by 68.8%in 2016…” on the heels of a tax rebate increase from 20% to 30%. France is doing so well that they’ve actually shifted from outsourcing back to producing animation at home, unheard of in most of the world.
Support from the Government
As Corinne Kouper, senior VP of development and production of French studio TeamTO tells us, “All of TeamTO’s shows are 100% produced in house. We have not actually outsourced any of our work since 2008.” A healthy arts industry requires circulation composed of trained animators, stimulation from the national government, and compelling resulting products that invite more interest from around the world. If ever you needed an example to prove these principles, France is the prime showcase.
It would be detrimental to leave children at the mercy of the internet, without having a clear plan to create a safe, well-curated, public-service platform just for kids.”
Corinne Kouper, SVP of development and production, TeamTO
As of 2018, the French industry is still chugging along and delivering great work. Kouper notes, “Mighty Mike is our big production this year, a 78 x 7’ dialogue-free slapstick comedy. This is the first series produced with our pioneering software Rumba, developed in house with Mercenaries Engineering and the Inria cluster, which has allowed us to create the most expressive and photorealistic animal characters ever seen on TV.”
For Pierre Sissmann, CEO of Cyber Group Studios and a former Disney veteran who has numerous new animated projects in the works (including shows as varied as Taffy, Gigantosaurus and Sadie Sparks at MIPCOM this year), it’s both a challenging time and a period marked by a variety of opportunities. In recent months, the studio has expanded its development team both in Paris and the U.S., and has increased its focus on gaming and new media.
“For the past four years, growing Cyber Group Studios from a small French company to a global player has been my passion,” Sissmann told Animation Magazine recently. “I feel that today’s world market gives you more opportunities than ever before. All of this is thanks to the evolution of technology, the talent of animators and storytellers around the world and the schools which have popped up everywhere and to whom we contribute in Europe and the U.S. Another huge factor is, of course, the explosion of new players such as the SVOD platforms or the VR companies which are offering us many ways of telling more ambitious, comprehensive and immersive stories.”
Trends and Touchstones
Xilam Animation is another one of the France’s popular TV animation houses, which was founded by Marc Du Pontavice in 1999. “We have a lot of projects in the pipeline,” says Morgann Favennec, exec VP of global sales development at the studio. “We have received great feedback for a new preschool show called Tiny Bad Wolf, which was pitched at Cartoon Forum. Preschool was not in our DNA before, but we had great success with our show Paprika, which was commissioned by Disney Junior EMEA and France TV. In addition, we are launching the third season of Zig & Sharko and getting ready to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Oggy and the Cockroaches with a traveling exhibit in France and other special events.”
Xilam is also introducing Coach Me If You Can, an older-skewing comedy which centers on the world’s greatest soccer player who has been turned into a ball by a mad sorcerer. “We are seeing a return to more gender-neutral lead characters in the global market,” adds Favennec. “Thanks to the growth of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, there is more interest in serialized series. At Cartoon Forum, I personally saw several projects that focused on how to make ordinary life a big adventure for children.”
The team at Les Armateurs is also moving along with several ambitious new projects.
As Rouveure tells us: “The first project is our feature film in production The Swallows of Kabul, adapted from Yasmina Khadra’s best seller. The film will be finished by the end of 2018 and we expect a release in France for the second quarter of 2019. It’s a 2D animation film for adults. We animate with Animate (Adobe), but it is a traditional hand-drawn movie.”
Armateurs’ second project is also a feature that will start in production in the beginning of 2019. Lulu and Nelson is a family film which, Rouveure says, will look 2D even if the studio uses CGI to support animation. “In our various TV developments we have a great TV show for Canal+ (France) called Runes,” he adds. “It’s a serial adventure story of 26 x 22′ about the youth of the future William the Conqueror in Normandy and the Viking legends. It is animated in CGI with a 2D rendering.”
What is noteworthy about these projects is that they’re working in both “modern” and “traditional” styles of animation, “stylized” and “realistic.” With this lack of segmentation, France has proven uniquely equipped to supplement technological leaps in recent years with traditional principles, and incorporate the two to complement one another.
The Inexplicable Demise of France 4
Of course, past and present are never just 100% at peace with each other, and the rise of digital distribution has created a controversy over where the industry’s future lies. Channel France 4, long a reliable and accessible industry showcase for young audiences, may soon be on the chopping block for the Macron administration and culture minister Françoise Nyssen, who intend to move its adult programming to France 5, and its children’s programming to the internet for streaming. Supposedly, this is meant to improve French broadcasting quality, but it conveniently also cuts between €250 million and €500 million from the national budget, according to Variety. It’s a troubling possibility for an industry built on stimulation from government grants.
Responses are mixed and complicated. Jean-Baptiste Babin, managing director of animation studio Millimages, recently told Variety: “While we embrace digital platforms as a revenue diversification, we are concerned, as parents, by the disappearance of a free and ad-free channels, and, as producers, by the loss of a reliable financing partner.”
While we embrace digital platforms as a revenue diversification, we are concerned, as parents, by the disappearance of a free and ad-free channel, and, as producers, by the loss of a reliable financing partner.”
Jean-Baptiste Babin, managing director, Millimages
Rouveure also sees it as detrimental. “The shutdown of France 4 is strictly a political decision … France Télévisions will mechanically have less space to broadcast animation programs … we can imagine they will reduce their acquisitions. This decision is incomprehensible when we look at what has been done in the other countries in Europe.”
While Les Armateurs is not a studio that relies on TV production, they also see the effect a reduced TV industry will have on everyone. “The slowed decision process, the budgetary rigor and the uncertainty have never been the keys for a peaceful industrial development,” says Rouveure.
He adds, however, that digital distribution itself carries more advantages than disadvantages. “These new partners allow us to work again on TV shows format that have almost disappeared, like the serial, and I think it’s a fantastic opportunity … I can’t say it is positive or not … it’s up to each of us to decide how we want to work and what we want to produce.”
The Need for Kid-Friendly Platforms
Kouper considers the transition necessary, but has concerns as far as the platform’s viability as a format for children. She notes, “It would be detrimental to leave children at the mercy of the internet, without having a clear plan to create a safe, well-curated, public-service platform just for kids.”
She adds, however, that the effect of France 4’s absence won’t be too fraught. “We also work with many other channels in France and abroad, with whom we have strong, long-standing relationships.”
Considering it was the generous donations from the French government that made the animation industry so lucrative in the first place, it will be interesting to see how this affects those returns and whether more austerity legislation will follow.
Digital distribution in many ways will help France reach new audiences, but the chaos of the internet itself might make it more difficult to continue reaching child audiences — not to mention, those with no computer or smartphone on which to watch this content are out of luck. It’ll take time to see how this shakes up France’s animation world.
To be sure, France’s animation industry isn’t foolproof. Like every industry, it was hit hard by the 2008 recession. According to the BFI: “Finding sources to fund a film is much harder nowadays,” says Marc Jousset of Paris-based production company Je Suis Bien Content. “This is especially true of television networks, who used to contribute a lot to the budgets for [animated] features.”
France has to deal with the eccentricities of government bureaucracy, unpredictable investors, and the fluctuations of the world market like all of us. But for now, it remains a country whose animation industry has an artistically substantial past and present, and that every industry in the world would do well to study in seeking to achieve their own artistic and commercial success in this business of cartoons.