DISCOP Johannesburg 2019’s The Wide World of Animation session brought together a panel of animation experts to share their takes on the opportunities present in Africa.
Nigeria-based Vortex Corp, which began as a company dedicated to comic books, has been focusing on animation for the last two years. Most recently, it has been presenting at film festivals Orange City, a pop culture satire animation based on life in Lagos and the politics of Nigeria at large. “It’s seen through the main character,” says Janica Barnett, executive director and producer at Vortex Corp. “He’s an up-and-coming Afrobeat artist and we take a look at his dysfunctional crew.”
Vortex also has some new animation series it’s working on and is looking to collaborate on a program titled Time Skippers, which follows a group of kids who skip through history to save the world.
Abel Kouame, CEO of Afrika Toon, is in search of co-production opportunities. “We have some projects in pre-production with other companies based in Africa, a lot of projects around Africa,” explains Kouame. “But we’re looking for other kinds of co-productions in markets like DISCOP.”
As Vortex grows into its new identity as an animation company, it benefits from continued revenues from its comic book sales. It also benefits from a market in Nigeria that’s steeped in talent. “It’s evolving and emerging,” says Barnett, who believes that the market isn’t necessarily ready for all the talent within it. “The content, the need to meet as many animators [as there are] is not there. A lot of animators don’t do it full time. They do it when the opportunity presents itself. We need it to become a more stable business. But the talent is definitely there.”
Nirvana Singh, as head of industry development for SABC, manages a portfolio of TV content for the broadcaster and supports the South African industry by running skills programs and mentorships. “We want to enable the emerging market to produce content for SABC,” says Singh. “We also enable, support and create opportunities for the emerging market to do that.” Further, Singh deals with co-financing and partnerships as the broadcasters looks to engage not just the local industry but international as well.
When it comes to animation, particularly that targeted at kids, SABC is in search of a very specific kind of content. “It is specific because we produce content that must be in line with the South African educational curriculum,” Singh explains, referring to a program called Magic Cellar, an informal education series that talks to different age groups. Yet to be officially released from SABC is an animated drama series that has rolled out on YouTube.
Why doesn’t SABC have more animation projects? “We are the public broadcaster,” Singh explains. “We’re governed by state legislation. We have a procurement policy that we have to follow.” With that being said, the broadcaster does have a commission process that involves putting out briefs to fill any gaps in its schedules. “We then commission content that SABC then owns wholly and then can utilize it.” In its co-financing hybrid pre-sale model, SABC “comes in at the beginning of projects, takes a very specific license but doesn’t take any ownership of intellectual property. “Then, of course, we have the license, which we’ve done a lot of in animated content,” says Singh. “We license it, we dub it.”
Working at a free-to-air channel, it’s often hard to create the slate one wants, as Ariane Suveg, programming director and head of kids’ content for Turner Kids’ channels in Africa, points out. “When you work at a free-to-air channel, the business model is based on ad sales,” says Suveg. “So you need to have very high ratings and your revenues depend on your ratings.”
For a broadcaster like SABC, animation is difficult to afford. “Children’s content doesn’t make as much revenue as a premium drama series,” says Singh. “Because a premium drama series gets ten million people and a children’s program will get one million watching. How do we still look at it and create opportunities in the industry?” Singh proposes starting with short-form programs. But “what’s more important than the actual format is the content,” she says. “We need to get animated programs out. Is the story relevant and compelling? That really is what we’re going to go out in the next year looking for. What we try to do in the interim is to understand the pricing.”
Explaining the idea behind WarnerMedia’s Cartoon Network Creative Lab initiative that saw about 200 short-form projects pitched, Suveg says, “the promise was to produce the three-winning projects, to evaluate them through our broadcaster eyes. If I make them from a global perspective, to see if a very local project could travel internationally.
“At the end of the day, we found three amazing projects, and also many very good projects that we still have at our office,” says Suveg. “The objective for us is to start developing two animated series projects. Maybe we start with short-format and then see if we can develop full series based on long-form episodes.
Suveg adds, “We are now in this dynamic of developing projects. What we want to do is produce locally and to be involved. Because we have our background as animation producers. We have experience but we want to stay very locally. We want to find a good mix between our skills and the local skills. Keep the creators and the center of the creative process. Now, what we’re looking for, for the projects we have, we want to produce in the country that the projects are coming from.”
Supa Strikas, which currently airs on Cartoon Network, is produced in Cape Town, South Africa. As the brand is on the hunt for new content, Suveg says they’re looking for content that’s not purely educational, but that can teach kids something while leading with stories, fiction and entertainment. WarnerMedia also counts the superhero-focused Toonami and the millennial-targeting Adult Swim among its brands in Africa, for which Suveg hopes to commission and acquire more content.
While brands under the WarnerMedia banner can provide opportunities for African producers, challenges are still numerous. Afrika Toon’s Kouame says, “The problem with Africa is there’s not a lot of possibilities to find money to produce. The strategy to have a good production is to find a good artist.” Without the kind of formal animation schools that are present elsewhere, talented artists need to be taught the animation process and need to start off with a small project.
On a more positive note, Kouame is witnessing the benefits of YouTube. “When [the artists] work on the small project, we upload that project on our YouTube channel. It’s a very successful YouTube channel; we have around 7,000 subscribers. There’s very good animation on this channel.” Afrika Toon also continues to develop and produce feature films and TV series and is set to open a new office.
DISCOP Johannesburg is taking place at the Sandton Convention Centre through November 22.