French Animation on Fire But The Devil is in The Details

An article by Elsa Keslassy over at Variety delves into the growing relationship between the major US animation producers and various French producers and studios. It’s one that’s been growing for a while; pushed along by Illumination Entertainment and their two Despicable Me-shaped smash hits. It all sounds good, but as ever, there are a few caveats to the good news.

allposters despicable me

It’s All About the Money

As much as it is about the artistic talents of the French (and boy do they have talent), it’s also about money. With the arrival of the large US networks sweeping into France and Universal setting up shop, there is a temptation to think that the French industry has had an animated fire well and truly lit underneath it.

American dollars may have a lot to do with the recent growth, but the French have long held an upper hand when it came to the artistic side of animated content. The arrival of money to exploit it is merely the latest turn in the history of an industry that has long cast its own shadow over the technique.

We can herald the boom in the industry as a good thing to be sure. More growth means more artists employed and a generally better deal for all players involved. The catch comes with why there is such a boom in growth to begin with.

It’s Also All About the [Ahem] Subsidies

Oooh, there’s that word again. From Keslassy’s article:

For Nickelodeon it’s a win-win scenario, argues Michel. “They’re able to fashion a program for their audiences with half the budget of an inhouse-produced Nickelodeon series.”

Cost is clearly a big factor in the growth, but why?

…there’s more than animation talent behind the success of France’s toon biz. There are also a slew of rules and regulations that, in effect, subsidize it. For one thing, Gallic broadcasters are required to back local film and animation in multiple ways. For instance, as a youth channel, Gulli must dedicate 42% of its entire morning programing to French animated programs. Also, statebacked
subsidies and tax breaks cover 10%-80% of series budgets.

Ah, there’s the answer: governmental support.

Public support for industries is a worldwide practise that isn’t unique to any particular country. It’s been discussed here on the blog before, but when it comes down to subsidies and tax breaks, there’s a right way and a wrong way.

The right way is to use subsidies to stimulate natural growth in the market, and to do so in a way that lets the industry stand on its own. The Irish industry is one that has grown from near-nothing thanks to subsidies, but will shortly have to wean itself off them if it is to continue to compete in the long term. In Japan, the government has subsidised shorts directly as a way of training young animators who lack experience.

The wrong way is to simply subsidise the industry as a way to create/maintain jobs or to artificially keep out foreign competition.

Where does French animation fall then? Their subsidies make their studios cheap to run, and cultural requirements ensure that they will always have work. My hunch is that they fall into the latter category. The subsidies on offer, in effect, make France a cheap place to produce animation, but offer little incentive to players to improve upon their process. American studios and networks are notoriously price-conscious and just because France is a cheap place to produce animation today, does not mean that things will stay that way forever.

This is what is troubling about the entire saga; an entire industry is preparing for growth that may never come to pass. Beyond the networks, Universal is minting money with Despicable Me, but if the music happens to stop for theatrical CGI, they’re quite far up the creek without a paddle.

We haven’t even gotten around to discussing the rise of the internet and the disappearance of the business model propping the entire thing up, but that can come another day.

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