Jetpack Distribution’s Dominic Gardiner, Serious Kids’ Genevieve Dexter, Monster Entertainment’s Andrew Fitzpatrick, Sixteen South’s Colin Williams and Magic Light Pictures’ Muriel Thomas took part in an engaging conversation about British and Irish animation as day two of the TV Kids Festival kicked off today.
Watch the session, moderated by TV Kids’ Anna Carugati, in its entirety here.
Commenting on the history and legacy of British animation, Dexter, CEO of Serious Kids and Eye Present, noted that in the early days, everything was funded by the BBC. “Until we got the tax credit recently, there wasn’t an animation industry in the U.K. per se. We were known for writing and preproduction and preschool predominantly, with older animation being the preserve of the U.S.”
Williams, founder and creative director of Sixteen South, noted, “The Irish are known for their storytelling; that’s the one thing that we keep coming back to in terms of what we can do well. We don’t even realize we do it so well. Storytelling is part of our culture; it’s in our blood. It’s always a case of knowing your strengths and playing to them.”
“We have a great history in children’s literature,” added Gardiner, the CEO of Jetpack Distribution, of the U.K. market, alongside “a well-developed television industry. And then you have a translation from comedy to animation. That has brought us closer to the U.S. model.”
Thomas, international distribution director at Magic Light, noted that British and Irish animation “are well known internationally for their originality, the quality; it translates extremely well around the world.”
“Irish and U.K. writers and writing are still so sought after,” Williams said. “It’s a particular way of storytelling which doesn’t exist in other English-speaking countries like the States.”
The panelists all agreed that financing is the biggest challenge they are facing today.
“It’s the biggest challenge, but also what makes us more creative in how we approach productions,” Gardiner said. “How we collaborate and partner and have all these inventive government-sponsored schemes that enable series to be made. What doesn’t destroy us—our lack of financing—in a way, makes us resilient and robust. That’s why the industry is growing, even though we’re always struggling to find money.”
Dexter added, “We seem to have to try harder and harder at the moment. Canada used to be a big source of co-production, and now it’s not so much.”
“We have our self-inflicted pain of Brexit that we have to deal with as well,” Gardiner noted.
In comparison, “We have European funding, and quite a number of Irish-based funding initiatives,” noted Fitzpatrick, chairman and founder of Monster Entertainment. “It’s always a challenge accessing funding because as the industry has continued to expand and production has continued to increase, more and more studios are looking to the same pool of funding. But thankfully, the funding pool has also expanded somewhat. Finance is still a challenge, but probably less than it is in the U.K.”
For Williams, Brexit was “on the road to killing U.K. animation,” and the savior was Covid-19. “Because the whole world was working remotely, it became OK to do that.”
He added, “We used to have the luxury of making all of the shows in-house, from the first word on the page, right to the end delivery; I think those days are gone. Unless you have an SVOD who will write you a big check, and you might be scared to take it because they might cancel the show before you even get to deliver it. But that’s the only way that that luxury scenario is going to happen.”
Thomas referenced the impact of losing access to Creative Europe funding post-Brexit. “It was always the last bit of money that made things easier in terms of production; the cushion towards the end of the production that was helping. Losing that, as Dom said, we need to think creatively and find other ways to cover that.”
Gardiner shifted the conversation back to the strengths of the U.K. market, which include having a “strong broadcaster market. One might argue that maybe some of them should be doing more. But at the end of the day, we will have BBC, ITV, Channel 5 and a little bit from Channel 4. Additionally, we benefit from being the central office for Disney and Netflix in Europe. That gives us access to potential broadcast partners/commissioners.”
Dexter then mentioned the launch of the U.K. Global Screen Fund for co-productions, intended to help fill the gap for producers since they lost access to Creative Europe funding. “If you did a 52×11, you’d get a maximum of 12.5 percent of your budget or €500,000, whichever is greater. Now, with Global Screen Fund, you can get £300,000. You just need to have two broadcasters and don’t have to do much more than 10 percent in the U.K., as long as you tick all the boxes. What we don’t have is the development funds.”
In terms of technological developments, Williams highlighted Unreal Engine. “It’s very impressive, but I think it’s going to make everything look and feel even more similar than what we have now. There’s much stuff that all looks the same. This is only going to add to it.”
Dexter added: “Roblox, Minecraft, all those things [allow] people to generate ideas and content at low cost. People who don’t have access to broadcasters can create their own content. But animation has always had this difficulty because it takes so long to get to the screen—let’s say from the point you pitch at Cartoon Forum to screen, if you’re doing well, it will be five years. If it does well, and someone says, I’d like a second season, at best, it’s 12 to 18 months, to get some of those episodes rolling out.”
Gardiner noted: “A lot of the examples we’ve seen that have utilized some of the available technology to do things faster and cheaper have resulted in content that perhaps five years ago we would have been very critical of. But that show reached an enormous audience across the whole world, using technology and things that weren’t available to us, like algorithms. We’re in this world where we can use technology just to make things cheaper and not necessarily improve them, like AI scripts. You’ve got to maintain quality so that when we look back on it in 20 years, it was quality made with great love and care. These technologies are there, and maybe we can use them better. Maybe Unreal will produce shows in the future that we can all ooh and ah about.”
“Kids are much more demanding in the quality of the stuff they want to see,” added Dexter. “It comes down to us as producers to find the best software to put together with different plug-ins to make it look a little bit different and then to maximize all of those co-production fundings and soft monies and everything to make the whole thing affordable.”
Monster’s Fitzpatrick offered up an anecdote from his experience with Unreal Engine. “An awful lot of this is about the design rather than the animation. If you have designs that stand up and are special, then it’s going to [stand out], and it’s selling well for us, which is the acid test.”
On the outlook ahead, the panelists are optimistic about the sector, but concerns remain. “We are going to need a bit more support,” said Gardiner on the funding situation. “Speaking from the U.K. point of view, we need to be more competitive with our tax credits. We need to increase that so we can at least match the French or the Irish. The external economic headwinds are not great, but we know the audience is there; we know we’ve got the talent to deliver.”
Beyond a tax credit, Gardiner also referenced the crucial need for development funding and initiatives such as the Young Audiences Content Fund.