Kristin Brzoznowski explores the current opportunities and challenges facing the French animation sector.
The history of French animation is among the longest, and most enviable, in the world. France was the birthplace of some of the earliest animated films, dating back to the late 19th century. Throughout the years, the country has cultivated a rich tradition of storytellers and animators that is still alive and thriving today, as it’s home to a number of highly respected and internationally renowned animation schools, the famed Les Gobelins among them.
“There is not only a long tradition of French animation but also a strong foundation,” says Pierre Sissmann, chairman and CEO of Paris-based Cyber Group Studios. “I’m talking about 70 or 80 years of people working in the industry, learning and being nourished by fairytales and then creating original stories. That explains why France, today, is the number one country in Europe for animation, not only with television series but also feature films.”
Indeed, the latest figures from the CNC (National Center for Cinema and the Moving Image) and TV France International illustrate animation as France’s most valuable programming export. In 2017, a year when the country set an all-time TV-programming export record, animated content accounted for 37 percent of French sales, for a total revenue of nearly €76 million—compared to €64 million for fiction and €36 million for documentaries.
“The industry has reached a new high,” affirms Jérôme Alby, managing director of Mediatoon Distribution, which is part of the French conglomerate Media-Participations. “There are lots of good IPs in Europe that travel quite well. The free-to-air channels were commissioning so much animation, plus movies, that France developed an expertise. That is a key asset that we have in terms of having students who are very well taught; we have very strong schools and very good writers.”
The commissioning landscape in France, however, is bracing for some changes, Alby explains. For one, France Télévisions is planning to shut down the free-to-air France 4 channel, which boasts a bevy of kids’ and family programming. Meanwhile, Gulli, the country’s leading free-to-air digital channel for children, and its sister networks, Canal J and TiJi, are transitioning ownership to M6 Group. “So, there are some worries within the French animation sector,” he says.
“The French and European animation market is definitely going through some big changes, which triggers numerous new challenges but also creates many new opportunities,” says Delphine Dumont, senior VP of sales, acquisitions and co-productions at Zodiak Kids. “These opportunities vary, depending on what point of view you are looking at things from (content creators, producers, distributors and platforms, both linear and digital), but we are all in a period of transition.”
The transformation of distribution and the proliferation of platforms are causing the biggest changes in the sector, she says. “Viewing habits are now incredibly varied, but importantly, demand for content has never been so strong, resulting in a healthy commissioning market.”
“One of the greatest challenges is being able to produce enough content to satisfy the demand, which has accelerated as a result of the rapid multiplication of platforms,” says Morgann Favennec, the executive VP of global sales development at Xilam Animation. “With so much competition, it’s also a challenge for the industry to create content that will cut through the noise and keep audiences tuning in. Our strategy is to look for new properties with a distinct, unique concept and engaging characters, to hook kids in immediately and keep them coming back week after week.”
Lionel Marty, the managing director of APC Kids, agrees that competition is as stiff as ever. “More and more titles are produced in Europe every year, and the traditional content-provider markets, such as France, the U.K., Italy, Spain and Germany, are now not only facing competition from the U.S., Canada and Japan, but also from growing rivals, including Russia, Latin America and Asia.”
“Meanwhile, broadcaster demand has not accelerated at the same pace as the content offering,” he continues. “Traditional broadcasters still have limited time slots for kids’ content, and the schedules of kid-dedicated channels rely heavily on multiple runs of the most successful titles, while SVOD platforms tend to focus on properties with built-in audience awareness. Therefore, it takes high creative values, combined with the right marketing approach, for a property to stand out.”
RAISING THE BAR
Cyber Group’s Sissmann says that with regard to creativity, digital platforms have opened up more potential for serialized storytelling. “Another good thing is that some of the platforms have a lot of money, so your ambitions, in terms of special effects and storytelling, can be [greater]. One of the series that we’re currently doing has a budget of about €9 million, another one has a budget that went to €12 million, and these are both for traditional television. We felt that we had to compete—in terms of visuals, special effects and storytelling—with all the other new series on digital platforms.”
Of course, being ambitious is a good thing for the animation business at large, but the issue is finding the financing to remain competitive, says Sissmann. “If you look at the traditional [budget] for a French series, the average price is €7 million to €7.5 million, because that’s what the market allows in terms of financing and how you can recoup your investment. To compete on the world market can be much more expensive, and hence, this creates financing issues.”
Sissmann also notes that many OTT platforms want to own all rights to the IP created for them. “I’m afraid that independent producers are going to struggle,” he says. “They will need to fight to get this new budget and will eventually wind up doing work for hire and not for their IPs anymore.”
Mediatoon’s Alby says that in this changing marketplace, it’s important for distributors to “manage the best possible balance between exposure, exclusivity, holdback and revenue. For the time being, we found a maximized balance by starting with linear broadcast.”
He sees that digital platforms are increasing in importance for the French animation sector. “For Mediatoon, if we add up free VOD, AVOD, SVOD and TVOD, it’s more than a third of our global turnover, in terms of exploitation.”
With the growth in OTT and the impending changes to the country’s free-to-air landscape, the pay-TV channels “are facing new challenges,” says Alby. “They are constantly enriching a combined linear and nonlinear strategy so as to avoid being cornered by the linear free-to-air channels on one side and the SVOD and OTT on the other side. So, most of the key pay-TV networks are developing their SVOD and/or OTT offers. The same goes for the free-to-air channels, making for exciting times ahead!”
“The OTT alternatives created by European networks and telecom companies keep improving,” notes APC Kids’ Marty, highlighting the impact this has had on the creative community in France, and in Europe as a whole.
“We anticipate that the demand for more and more content will continue to grow, with an increasing number of requests for exclusive rights,” says Xilam’s Favennec. “As a result, if you want to produce for a broad range of platforms and broadcasters, you have to be robust and have a solid business strategy, while also remaining attractive to new creative talent.”
“French animation remains one of the most prolific markets, thanks to an abundance of kids’ channels and service providers—producers, studios and distributors—and very strong funding grants such as the CNC model,” adds Zodiak Kids’ Dumont. “The metamorphosis of France TV and the arrival of Disney+ in the territory will definitely change the landscape and the way things have traditionally been done.”
Even with the changes looming in France’s TV market, Cyber Group’s Sissmann maintains an optimistic outlook for the country’s animation sector. “I’m feeling positive about the future,” he says. “But I think the challenges are very big. How do you adapt to the new platforms? How do you manage your SVOD rights? How does that impact storytelling? These are some of the challenges that we’re facing. But, with its strong foundation and tradition of artists, with its world-renowned animation schools and with the French government’s support, France is better positioned than anywhere else to face these challenges.”