Independent (Animated) Movies?

Given the huge box office success of Shrek, it's almost a foregone conclusion that the trend towards digital animation will continue to accelerate. Even before it was released, Steve Hulett, Business Representative for the Screen Cartoonists, waxed enthusiastic in The Peg-Board newsletter about CG animation “exploding in a hundred new directions.” While the success of Shrek and (hopefully) other forthcoming digital movies would certainly do wonders for the status of animated movies, the industry cannot just rely on technology to insure future growth. It has to go beyond the stereotypical Hollywood feature — be it a Final Fantasy or a direct-to-video movie — to the development of a true market for independent animated films.

Over the past 20 years, animation has steadily moved from a marginal activity into the entertainment industry mainstream. Though the marketplace for animation continues to grow, many American filmmakers are frustrated in their efforts to produce low budget movies aimed at more adult audiences. Compared to the problems these filmmakers face, making a live action film is relatively easy, even if its chances of getting distribution are low; one only has to look at the fact there were 854 feature films submitted to this year's Sundance Film Festival competition (up from 250 in 1995), plus 515 for the World Cinema competition. I think it is safe to say the amount of animated movies made annually throughout the world does not come anywhere near these figures, independent or otherwise.

The reasons for this flood of independent films are many, including the ready availability of low-cost digital cameras; however, the most significant factor is not so much cost as that there is a viable market for independent live-action movies. Every major Hollywood studio has a specialty distribution arm (Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Disney's Miramax, etc.) which has a very visible presence at events like Sundance. After all, they don't want to miss a chance to pick up the next Pulp Fiction or Boys Don't Cry.

In contrast, the Hollywood establishment still has problems seeing animation as part of the independent scene. As a result, funding for theatrical features still remains largely in the $50 - $150 million range, with lower budget largely consigned to spinoffs of television series and the home video market. Although more than one executive has indicated an interest in broadening the market the usual mix of comedies and musicals, progress has been slow.

There are some hopeful signs. The Motion Picture Academy's new Oscar for Best Animated Feature goes into effect this year. The nominees will be picked by the same committee which selects the films for the Best Animated Short Film category, which will give films like Bill Plympton's Mutant Aliens a good shot at getting nominated. Jean “Moebius” Giraud is finally involved in making a CGI film of his own devising in Thru the Moebius Strip, now in production in Hong Kong. Also, if the forthcoming Warner Bros. film, Osmosis Jones is a hit, look for the studio to give consideration to backing animation co-director Piet Kroon's efforts to make a feature version of T.R.A.N.S.I.T. (illustrated above) his stylish award-winning short. But must we must we always wait on hope?

Part of the problem is there is little institutional support for the production of independent animated features. One has only to look at the Feature Film Program of the Sundance Institute, which was created

to support next-generation filmmakers, and has at its core the Screenwriting and Filmmaking Laboratories, held each year at Sundance, Utah. Designed to offer emerging screenwriters and directors the opportunity to develop new work, the Labs offer a uniquely creative environment under the concentrated guidance of veteran filmmakers. Following the Labs, Sundance staff members offer ongoing creative and business assistance to Lab alumni. In many cases, the Institute has helped Lab fellows attach producers, casting and financing, helping to move their projects forward into production. Sundance selects 15-20 projects each year for one or more areas of support. Through open submissions as well as an on-going staff outreach, submitted screenplays go through a rigorous selection process conducted by staff and by an advisory committee of filmmakers, writers, and independent producers. The search is for original, compelling, human stories that reflect the independent vision of the writer or writer/director.

Add to this the programs of major film and business schools like UCLA and USC to train (live-action) producers, and you can see how much of a disadvantage animation filmmakers are.

The closest thing to this type of institutional support for animated movies is found in the European Union's Cartoon Movie program. Cartoon (European Association of Animation Film) has for over a decade been trying to jump start the European animation industry to make it more competitive with North America and Japan. Until recently, it concentrated its efforts on television, but has now turned its attention to feature animation through Cartoon Movie forum.

One of the guests at the recent Cartoon Movie in March was Catherine Winder, Vice President of Production at Fox Animation and the co-author with Zahra Dowlatabadi of Producing Animation (Focal Press). When I recently interviewed her about the book for Animatoon, she waxed enthusiastic about the event, where she saw about 30 different pitches.

She feels Cartoon is “a fantastic organization. They were instrumental in developing the television animation business by bringing producers, executives, distributors together from different countries [and allowing them to get] to know each other. And they have the same philosophy behind the movie making. And much of what I saw were the low budget pictures.

The budgets of most European animated features she saw, in fact, were, “less than our home video budgets.” This is so not necessarily because of government subsidies, “but more importantly it's very auteur-driven. There the director has the story control versus how we do things over here, which is much more collaborative and commercially driven than they are. And, in my opinion, that's how they can keep their costs down.” She thinks this sort of model can be adapted in Hollywood; however, “a studio has to be willing to be very hands off on a property and trust whoever they put in place to run with it.” In other words, they have to be more willing to act like Fox Searchlight than 20th Century Fox. Let's hope that the Catherine Winders of Hollywood are able to put these thoughts and observations into practice. Perhaps only then will we see a real flowering of independent animated movies.

—Harvey Deneroff
June 8, 2001

© 2001 by Harvey Deneroff

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