Animation Film in Wales

First of all, my credentials.  I have produced three animated features.  “The Princess And The Goblin” which was distributed internationally, including on 800 screens in the States, “Under Milk Wood” (animated) which was very much a festival/tv movie and “Captain Morten And The Spider Queen” which is currently in the final stages of post production.  This last film will be released in cinemas in France in September this year.  Our sales agent, Sola Media, based in Stuttgart, will start selling it to other territories at the Cannes Film Festival.


I am currently developing two other animated features, one with Magda Osinska who directs commercials at Aardman and one with Marc Caro who directed “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children”.  I have also written scripts for “Asterix in Amerika” and “Little Hippo”, both animated films that had an international theatrical release.


It is unusual for an animated film to get any meaningful theatrical release in the United States.  This is partly because animated features are expensive.  It is not unusual for an animated feature made by an American studio to cost $200 million.  Animation producers in Europe cannot raise even a fraction of this budget without getting into bed with an American studio. 


There is however a relatively buoyant market for animated films in Europe.  Every year 20 or 30 animated films are made in Europe.  The better ones get a wide theatrical release.  “Two by Two” a fairly modest film animated in CG, was handled by Global Screen which claims to have sold it to every territory in the world.


European animated films have to do something different from American films.  Some used to be huge successes in their own territories but didn’t travel much – “La Freccia Azzura” in Italy, “Werner Beinhart” in Germany – but more recent films like “Ma Vie De Courgette”, “Ernest et Célestine”  or “Song Of The Sea” have had much more international success even if they have not had massive receipts at the box office.  Most of these films find a small theatrical release in the States, usually distributed by G-Kids.  They get nominated for awards, often including the Oscars.


European animated films like these put their producers on the map as well as the nations they come from.  They create employment.  They contribute to the cultural lives of filmgoers around the world, not just to that of their home states.   They are invariably co-productions and often financed largely with “soft” money.


If, as I do, you regularly attend Cartoon Movie, a coproduction and networking event currently held every year in Bordeaux, you will see a distinct pattern.  Animation films made in Europe will usually have a budget of between €4 million and €10 million.  They will have three or maybe four coproducers in different European countries who will have shared the work.  They will have taken a minimum of 3 years to raise the finance and develop and often many more years.  The average production schedule will be between 18 months and two years.  It’s a long term business.


France is the best market for these films.  In France there are more independent cinemas, more adventurous distributors and filmgoers and there is more of a love of animation.  The Uk is much more difficult.  The theatres take a higher percentage of the box office than in most other countries in Europe; American moves dominate.  The best European and Japanese animated movies find a distribution but not always to hundreds of screens.


The budgets of the vast majority of these films will include a substantial element of “soft” money.  Investment from film funds that do not have to be repaid, at least not in first position.  Tax credits.  Investment of studio facilities.  They do not need to recoup much money for the film to “wash its face”.   The risk to the producer is limited.  Producers are able to build on moderate success.  They can channel funding into the development of new films.  You need a minimum of €100k to develop an animated feature film and usually more.


Most of the available funding in the UK makes coproduction difficult.  European coproducers find the terms of the BFI or Ffilm Cymru onerous.   The Welsh government’s rules about 50% of the budget being spent in Wales is simply impossible in a three or four way coproduction.  EIS based funding is difficult to set up.  The tax credit in the UK is almost half of what is available in Belgium.


Our feature, “Captain Morten And The Spider Queen” is an Estonia/Ireland/Belgium/ Wales coproduction.  My involvement in the film dates from 6 years ago when I met the Estonian producer, fell in love with the idea and promised to help find partners and improve its appeal.  We have a relationship with a stop motion studio in Ireland who committed to invest their studio and find regional and tax funding.  The original fourth partner was Canadian who after a year or more of helping with the film withdrew because they could not raise the funding they needed.


At this point I considered trying to find money in the UK but decided against it.  I looked at approaching the Welsh government and possibly Pinewood given that we could have set up a studio in Cardiff to do the digital effects and compositing.  I soon dismissed this possibility when I realised I could involve a Belgian studio who would invest their facilities and access very generous tax incentives.  UK finance comes with too many strings.  It would have upset the equilibrium of the coproduction.


Apart from the small amount of money we have invested in our movie there is no UK investment.  This means that we own only a small part of the equity of the film.  On the plus side, the first Euro that we receive goes straight to the producers.

None of the work apart from my contribution was done in the UK though several Welsh artists, including the animation director went to work in Ireland.


We are hoping to raise the finance for our film with Magda Osinska in much the same way.  Because Magda is a Polish woman living in the UK we have lined up a Polish coproducer, Ewa Puszczynska, the producer of the Oscar winning “Ida”, who has promised to help us raise funding from the Polish Film Institute.  The Irish and Belgian coproducers of our “Captain Morten…” film have expressed interest in being involved if we can work out an appropriate work split.


Because of Magda’s Aardman connection there is a possibility of getting money from the BFI.  Ffilm Cymru has invested in the development.  At this stage I want to avoid accessing this money for the reasons given above though we may need it in the end.  There is still some way to go before this film will be financed.


The advantage of financing a film in this way means that the film gets made.  Because of its coproducers it usually starts with some form of international distribution.  It is attractive to specialist sales agents who are happy to find buyers around the world.  There is little money to recoup so the producers get an immediate return when they finally finish the film.  They can use this to build their film business.


The disadvantage is that our share of the equity is small.  Virtually no work is done in Wales so we are not building a talent pool, at least not one that is going to be working in Wales.  We are building an animation industry but with little possibility of growth.  We’d love to be doing film animation here on the same terms as our partners.




So what can the Welsh Government do to help?


The UK has very few producers with a track record of making animated features.  Apart from Aardman I can think of only two – myself and Iain Harvey from Illuminated Films.  Ruth and Camilla from Lupus are moving towards features.


A Welsh producer with an idea for an animated feature is not going to get very far.   He or she is unlikely to have the track record or the resources to find the development money needed.  If they do manage to develop a film where are they going to find the €6 million or so they need to make it?  The fact that the film is created in the UK will mean that they will not be able to access many Film Funds in other countries though could still find coproducers who can access tax schemes. 


If the idea is wildly commercial then they could find investment from EIS and other schemes but this will be difficult unless they can show previous success.  If they are terrific talents, like Mike Mort, then they might find an angel.  But that is hardly a model that can be imitated.


Given that the Welsh government is not going to have millions to spend it should look at initially funding Welsh based producers to participate in films created by European talent.  By participating as a minority coproducer in a European coproduction Welsh producers will build experience, reputation, international contacts, technical and creative ‘savvy” and create work for artists in Wales.    They will form their own relationships, gather the nous needed to form their own ideas and ultimately tell their own stories.  They will find their own paths to finance but they need to learn how to walk before they learn to run.


Welsh animation used to have a tremendous international reputation.   The old guard is still here but making little in Wales. Thanks to people like John Rennie we have a new generation of animation artists.  A minority coproduction fund for animated films could establish the building blocks for a successful Welsh animation film industry that would last long into the future.