Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cartoon Movie 2012 - view from the small-screen guy

Back from Lyon after attending Cartoon Movie where European animated film-makers gather to pitch their concepts, projects in development or production and finished films to European animated feature film financiers and distributors.

I was there to nose around and look for talent and ideas and money and opportunities and also to present Aardman’s latest feature film ‘Pirates! in An Adventure with Scientists’  to the delegates. I had nothing to do with the making of the film but I was at the conference so I got to pitch the film. Lovely.

Aardman operates in a very different market for films than the ones celebrated at Cartoon Movie. We make big budget, mainstream, family-entertainment movies that get worldwide distribution and which are expected to achieve global box office success. The films cannot be too ‘kiddy’ or too adult, they must be universal and international in appeal.

By contrast, most of the films presented at Cartoon Movie were art-house or niche or kids movies and were in the lower budget ranges of €1m to €10m Euros for the most part. Many of the films presented will not get made and many of the films made will get only a limited theatrical release and probably no release at all in the UK whose screens are all but monopolised by blockbuster, largely US-made films.

A fine example of one of the really good films at the Conference was ‘Wrinkles’ (‘Arrugas la Pelicula’ in the original Spanish)  It tells a moving story of an elderly man with Alzheimer's going into a care home and his experience there and of his illness. It was a story that was perfect for animation which can sometimes deal with difficult subjects in a revealing and sensitive way. It’s a film that would never have got made if the commercial market had been asked to finance it, it needed the patchwork of Euro subsidies, grants and tax breaks to meet its budget and this was the financing model that many of the films at the conference were pursuing.

Aardman is in the very fortunate position of being held up as a great example of what can be achieved by a European animation house. As I basked in the entirely reflected glory of Pete Lord’s magnificent Pirates! film many people came up to me at the conference and asked me a question along the lines of ‘What does it take to get to where Aardman is?’

I thought about it and and I came up with three things that I thought that the film-makers that I saw there would need to think about if they wanted their films to become more mainstream and popular. By that I don’t mean necessarily better just more mainstream and popular. And I also don't mean that these are the only three things, they're just the ones I thought of based on what I saw in Lyon:

(1) Focus on Comedy. While intellectuals like you and me love to watch ‘Waltz With Bashir’ and ‘Persopolis’, regular folk want comedy from their animated films. There is of course a market for anything really really good but to address a mass audience an animated film has, by and large, to be funny. Proper funny. Written, directed, voiced and animated by people with funny bones

(2) Beware of child protagonists. Animation is very often perceived as being for kids. It is, if you like, the default setting for most people when they think about animation or, as they might call it, cartoons. Being perceived as being for kids can easily shift into being perceived as being childish and one of the best ways to compound that perception problem is to have a child protagonist. Even kids find that naff if you are not careful. They would much rather see an aspirational character and their parents would much rather see some layered adult humour with their pratfalls and fart gags.

(3) Don’t pitch the plot, pitch the story. It’s a mistake to describe a film in terms of what happens, it’s much more interesting to describe the characters and what makes them funny or like-able or interesting or aspirational - how are they changed by the events that unfold during the film, not just what the events are.

I probably use up more valuable baby-sitter time to see art-house movies than I do multiplex movies. But I guess it's fair to say that the multiplex films pay the bills.  So I’m glad Cartoon Movie is there, I recommend going to see ‘Wrinkles’ if you can find it on anywhere and, of course, I really recommend going to see Pirates! which opens pretty much everywhere at the end of March and is a comedy with interesting, funny characters that aren’t children and who make bad choices but get it right in the end.