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Let’s get animated!

4 juni 2009
These are heady times for animation in Belgium. At the recent CARTOON MOVIE event in Lyon, which brings together creators and financiers in the animated world, the Belgians had more projects presented than in almost any other country.
There were four productions in which Flemish producers were involved - nWave’s 3D Fly Me To The Moon, Skyline’s Luke and Lucy and The Texas Rangers were both majority Flemish projects while the Cannes selected A Town Called Panic and The Secret Of Kells had minority Flemish stakes. Partly thanks to the Belgian tax shelter system, budgets for animation are rising. All kinds of different animated features are being made. Nonetheless, there may be trouble ahead in Belgian toonland. Brussels-based Ben Stassen is one Belgian animation player who operates on the global stage. His 3D feature Fly Me To The Moon, about some pesky flies aboard the American moon mission alongside astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and co., sold all over the world. Its US release was handled by Summit. The film has sold to 43 territories thus far and is expected to gross well over $50 million worldwide. Now, Stassen’s company nWave is close to completing a new 3D feature, Around The World in 50 Years, about a sea turtle that spends half a century roaming the world on an epic journey that begins in 1959 and ends today. Stassen handled international sales on Fly Me To The Moon himself. With Around The World, he is poised to enter into a partnership with a major French distributor who will sell the international rights on his behalf. Fly Me To The Moon was a family film, skewed to the six-to-nine-year-old audience rather than the eight-to-15 audience that Pixar specialises in. Its successor will again be family friendly but is aimed at a slightly older audience. Ben StassenAs Stassen points out, most big animated films are made and controlled by the Hollywood studios. There is, therefore, a huge appetite among international distributors for independent 3D fare like Fly Me To The Moon and Around The World in 50 Years. ‘What’s an advantage worldwide can be a disadvantage in the US,’ Stassen reflects on his experiences with Fly Me To The Moon. Distribution in North America is controlled by the majors. That means it can be very hard for independent pictures to secure the screens they need. Another challenge is securing the right kind of screens. Fly Me To The Moon was a family film shot to be shown only in 3D. For all the rhetoric about Hollywood’s new-found love of 3D, the studios are continuing to hedge their bets. Films ostensibly made for 3D are always also available on 2D versions. Meanwhile, the screening facilities aren’t improving as quickly as might have been envisaged. ‘They (the Americans) are very timid in their use of 3D,’ Stassen notes. They now talk about ‘creating 3D behind the screen, only using the depth behind the screen, not the space in front of the screen.’ This is something the Belgian animator refers to witheringly as ‘two-and-a-half-D’. ‘They’re making the same mistake as we did in the 50s or the late 70s - that is making 2D films with 3D perspectives and effects.’ His fear is that if audiences don’t see a real difference between 3D films and their 2D equivalents, they will not be prepared to spend extra on tickets and wear the 3D specs. ‘3D cinema is a different language - a new language of cinema. You have to treat films very differently. This is not quite happening right now.’ Perhaps surprisingly, it’s home viewing that Stassen believes may rescue the 3D revolution. As video games become ever more sophisticated and immersive, the 3D experience is becoming a part of everyday viewing in people’s homes. The old idea that 3D was a way to get out of their houses and into the cinemas is being reassessed as more and more households become equipped with 3D equipment. Around The World in 50 YearsStassen operators on a global stage. Nonetheless, he argues that Brussels is an increasingly important hub for animation. One of the main attractions of Belgium is that the tax shelter system has made it far easier than hitherto to raise financing. ‘We probably would have done Fly Me To The Moon even without tax shelter but we would not have started Around The World as early as we did without the tax shelter,’ Stassen reflects. ‘Maybe we’re a bit unique in that we have the best of both worlds. We’re a Belgian company so we have access to tax shelter money. We also make films that are distributed worldwide.’ The tax shelter has an “18 month rule” that requires filmmakers to reimburse the loan part of the investment to the authorities. Stassen acknowledges that given the slow gestation of animated projects, this can pose problems. ‘24 or 30 months might be a bit better but we plan for it. It’s not a big problem.’ At the end of this year, the tax shelter system is due to be renewed. Producers are optimistic that it will carry on as before. However, given the worldwide economic crisis, there must be some doubt as to whether companies will invest in film through the tax shelter as much as they have been. Ben Tesseur of BEAST Animation, the stop-motion studio which recently coproduced the Cannes selected A Town Called Panic, acknowledges the importance of the tax shelter in keeping the Belgian animation revival going. ‘I hear rumours that maybe they want to stop it but it (the shelter) helps the film world in Belgium a lot.’ Ben TesseurA Town Called PanicAs he points out, local talent has always been in evidence. What has changed in the tax shelter era is that the talent is able to find work at home. ‘I hope it’s only the beginning,’ he suggests of the animation renaissance. ‘For years, there has been a lot of animation talent in Belgium but they’ve always had to go abroad to animate because there hasn’t been a real industry in Belgium.’ What Tesseur sees as especially heartening is the wide mix of styles in new Belgian animation. At BEAST, he and his partner Steven De Beul aren’t too worried whether they make long movies or shorts, commercials or films for mobile phones. ‘The aspiration is to great projects...,’ Tesseur pauses, ‘and have a lot of fun!’ A Town Called PanicBelgian producers are also continuing to work with international partners. For example, Viviane Vanfleteren was recently the Flemish co-producer on Irish animator Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells having previously worked on Sylvain Chomet’s twice Oscar nominated The Triplets Of Belleville. (For a lengthy interview with Vanfleteren, see Flanders Image issue 13.)Another production company from Flanders operating on an ambitious scale is Skyline Entertainment’s Eric Wirix, who is producing Luke and Lucy and The Texas Rangers, one of the most expensive animated features ever produced in Benelux at €9.5 million. Wirix credits the tax shelter scheme very helpful in pulling together such a huge budget. (€4.5 million came through the shelter.) He acknowledges that the threat the tax shelter scheme might be revised is alarming. ‘If the tax shelter would go away, that would be a catastrophe - no less!’ he smiles. ‘For Belgian cinema as a whole, it would be a huge blow.’ Skyline is planning to turn Luke and Lucy (adapted from the hugely popular comic strip ‘Suske en Wiske’) into a full blown film franchise. Wirix admits that without tax shelter money, this will be well-nigh impossible. Whatever happens, the level of tax shelter investment is decreasing as potential financiers adjust to the credit crunch. Luke and Lucy and the Texas RangersPutting together the budget for The Texas Rangers has been like assembling a very complicated jigsaw puzzle. There is money from Luxembourg, from Holland (where broadcaster AVRO came on board, enabling the fill to access CoBo Fund cash), from Promimage and Wallimage (in French-speaking Belgium), from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, broadcasters and from minimum guarantees stumped up by distributors. At the time of the interview in mid-March, Wirix and his team are rushing to complete the movie. What are the economics of making a project on this scale? Can it recoup its budget in Benelux alone or will The Texas Rangers have to be sold internationally to have a chance of a profit? ‘Well,’ Wirix ponders the question, ‘we need to sell a lot of tickets!’ However, he points out that the film is being released on 21 July (Belgium’s Independence Day) simultaneously throughout Benelux on over 200 prints - there’s a Dutch version for Holland, a Flemish version for Flanders and a French version for the French-speaking part of Belgium. Skyline’s last film, gritty drama Hell in Tangiers, sold just over 200,000 tickets and grossed over a million Euros in Flanders and Brussels. The trick now is to repeat the feat... in all three territories! Luke and Lucy and the Texas RangersWirix and his team have come up with some novel marketing ideas. It’s to their advantage that almost everybody in Belgium is aware of Luke and Lucy, or whatever other names they go under. The cartoons still sell in excess of 4 million albums a year. Skyline has already been working with merchandisers and media partners to create hoopla around the release. There will be a special song to promote the film. The next challenge will be to position the film outside Benelux, where the cartoon characters aren’t so well known. It’s yet to be decided whether the company will go down the traditional route and use an international sales agent or whether they might look at ways of distributing the film themselves or work with international partners who might create new versions in their own languages. Not lacking in chutzpah, Wirix is already planning a number of sequels that are bound to raise the Hollywood studios’ eyes. One is tentatively called Luke and Lucy and The Ghost Pirates of the Caribbean. Has he run the title past Jerry Bruckheimer? Not yet, it seems, but if Bruckheimer sues, ‘that will bring us massive free publicity.’ However, the producer points out that Luke and Lucy cartoons come in almost every conceivable genre - sci-fi, horror, western and pirate yarns. The cartoons were created by Belgian comics author Willy Vandersteen in the mid-1940s. ‘The comic strip is very lively - it’s action, adventure and lots and lots of humour,’ Wirix enthuses. ‘Vandersteen was ahead of his time with this tongue in cheek humour he put into his albums especially in his best work, which was at the end of the 50s and early in the 60s.’ Eric Wirix Wirix agrees that this is a golden moment for animation in Belgium. After many years in which cartoons were marginalised and struggled to secure financing, the form now seems viable commercial as never before. The question is whether the renaissance will last. ‘I don’t think it’s sudden,’ Wirix muses on the animation revival. ‘We have always had the tradition. Comic books are nowhere else in the world as successful as they are in Belgium.’ He points out that the comic strip and graphic tradition stretches back to Belgian painting by artists like Magritte and Delvaux. Meanwhile, Belgium has plenty of successful contemporary artists and fashion designers. It’s only natural that feature animators should be coming to the fore. ‘There is some excellent schooling. The interest is there from when people are very young. But the reason there are suddenly so many projects has to do with the tax shelter schemes and the fact that public funding is focusing more on animation. People are realising that this is an area in Belgium where we are strong and that we need to support. It (animation) is in our genes. It’s our tradition.’ From: Flanders Image magazine #14, Summer 2009 nWave Pictures Skyline Entertainment Beast Animation A Town Called Panic